Imagine having to wear a shirt for the rest of your life that labels you as someone you’re not.
Now, imagine always having to check a box and identify yourself with people who are completely different from you. You never say your name or your origin, yet others readily assume who you are and where you are from.
This is what nearly 57 million Latinos in the United States have to live with, and if trends continue, by 2050, 106 million of them will have to live while wearing this shirt wherever they go.
I have never identified as a “Latino” until I came to the United States. Growing up in Venezuela and moving directly to Princeton, I have never in my life used, or even considered using, the term “Latino.” I was technically Latino whenever I filled out a box describing my race for a college application, because that is how the United States functions. We all knew we were technically Latino and brothers and sisters in the same continent, but it was more of a term that had been placed in our heads due to globalization, not because we decided to use it. We were all brothers and sisters in the South American continent, but we were not the same. At the end of the day, I was Venezuelan first, and then I was Latino.
It is the individual that should be praised, regardless of race, nationality, or identity. This is how Latin America functions, yet I come across quotidian examples here in the United States that frustrate me every day.
There are immense repercussions of grouping individuals into a single category. That is clear. Stripping away an individual identity for the sake of practicality is not a good way to categorize everyone. Specifically, as a Latino here in the United States, I view the term “Latino” as problematic, as it groups together and generalizes people from a region, all of whom have completely distinct cultures, traditions, and forms of speaking. Although it may be convenient to put nearly 20 percent of the United States’ population into a category for simplification and pragmatism, it leads to a problem where there is the notion that the entire 20 percent is exactly the same. This problem applies to all demographic groups.
Why do I raise this as a conservative issue? I have heavy misgivings about the status quo of labeling us as a form of tradition. Tradition is typically practical, but not always accurate. This should be changed. We should not continue to place individuals in categories, constricting their identities to a simple check in a box with millions of people. This applies to practically all races and cultural groups, not only “Latinos” but also “African-Americans,” “Asians,” “Native Americans,” “Pacific Islanders,” and “Whites.” Belief should lie in the individuals, their merit, and how they push beyond the boundaries, regardless of their race.
Although this argument could be applied to all demographic groups, on a personal level, I have to criticize what directly affects me. Saying someone is Latino is as vague as saying someone is European; yet, Americans are more likely to acknowledge the latter rather than the former. Why? Because there is simply misunderstanding and lack of knowledge on what Latin America truly is.
The problems with generalizations lead to an immense number of stereotypes across the board, applicable to almost everyone. Particularly, just because Latinos speak Spanish, live in countries that were colonized by Spain (or even Portugal, in the case of Brazil), and happen to share some similar music interests doesn’t mean they’re all the same. Just because we all come from the same continent does not mean we all think the same, eat the same things, vote the same way, or elect similar leaders. Someone from Argentina is entirely different from someone from Mexico, both culturally and racially. Saying otherwise is the same as saying someone from Morocco is exactly like someone from Lebanon simply because they share a religion and the Arabic language.
Just like Moroccans and Lebanese do not look the same, Argentinians and Mexicans don’t look the same either. We Latinos clearly don’t even look the same. The problem with generalizing it to “Latino” makes it seem we all look like the stereotypical Mexican, or we happen to be of some sort of mix between indigenous groups and Europeans, and possibly some African as well. Yet, there is no acknowledgement of the diversity of these mixes, and we are all therefore the same: “Latino,” regardless of distinct genetic groups. Although this stereotype holds in some cases, we must take into consideration its limitations as well. There are countless distinct indigenous groups with different races, so there is no one single type of mix between European and Indigenous. In addition, mixture with European backgrounds depends on each Latin American country and its specific European immigrant groups. For example, in some countries, German ancestry is genetically present in most of the population, whereas some other countries don’t have any Germans at all, but rather a blend of Portuguese and Arab. Latin America comprises people of all shapes, sizes, and looks — many are redheads, blondes, of Japanese, Arab, Russian, or direct Native American descent, with Spanish first names and German last names, among others. My first and second names are Spanish, with a last name that was originally Italian but adapted long ago to the Spanish lexicon. My second last name is Italian, and I even have several Jewish last names. There is simply too much diversity to be categorized in one box.
Isn’t diversity something that is valued immensely in the United States? Why do we generalize everyone when we could instead create greater perspectives on what diversity is? We are not all the same. We are not a race. We are a culture. We do not all look the same as your stereotypes may make you believe. Even saying that we are not a race but a culture is problematic because even though it tries to clarify “Latino” as a term, it leads to the idea that all our cultures are the same even though they are vastly distinct. The term “we” is even more problematic in this context as it just feeds into the stereotype of a group that is incredibly diverse to start with.
There have been clear arguments based on examples on the distinctions, yet, if the term is so problematic, how did it come to exist?
“Latin” means originating from a Romance language-speaking country, including Italy, Spain, Portugal, Romania, France, and those in Latin America. This root word later evolved to “Latino.” The term did not exist until quite recently. “Hispanic,” which refers to someone from Latin America of Spanish origin, was the term that was originally used for governmental purposes, yet it later changed to “Latino,” which did not heavily depend on the notion of Spain and which also included Brazil.
However, putting everyone, most of whom are still recent generational immigrants, into one category has immense repercussions on identity issues, stereotyping, and long-term mindsets on a demographic group, as previously explained. The media and politicians found it simply convenient to put all U.S. Spanish-speaking individuals, and those with Spanish last names, under one umbrella.
Under this umbrella, just because we come from the same continent and many may be disadvantaged, does not mean we all vote Democrat. There is an immense socioeconomic diversity in Latin America, and despite popular assumptions, Latinos hold different views and ideologies in politics. We are not all fleeing poverty or escaping war. Not all of us are finding a better future in the United States or elsewhere. Rather, there is a huge diversity in socioeconomic status within the Latin American community. There is a large portion of the population with enormous purchasing power and extraordinary levels of wealth.
Nonetheless, all the distinctions in politics and wealth do not belong to a single country; it is widespread among and differentiated between individual countries and communities within them. No single Latino/Hispanic nationality exists, and grouping countless identities under one umbrella becomes problematic for respecting national identities and sovereignties, and it opens itself to stereotypes and misinterpretation and affects the identity of children of “Latinos” in the United States. A psychological identity crisis arises where the children of immigrants do not know their place in society, as they are continuously labeled as people they never thought they were, being labeled with people who share only their language. You simply do not know where you are from, because although you have been told by your parents that you’re from, for example, Ecuador, everyone else ignores this and labels you as being nothing more than “Latino.” You have to act Latino, be Latino, do Latino things, even though you have no clue what that means and you begin to misinterpret your Ecuadorian culture and believe, after many generations, that Ecuadorian culture is shared with all Latinos, and vice versa. You create a misinformed notion of your identity and what Latin America truly is, falling into the trap.
These notions have been strengthened in the contemporary United States, where Hollywood has continued to reinforce the notion of the stereotypical Latino, as it has become a bankable demographic, transforming stereotypical Latino culture into a commodity. A commodity, like Cinco de Mayo (an event that is not even celebrated in Mexico) or tough, macho, or seductive Latino actors that depend on stereotypes and creates a fictive “Latino-land” country. The diversity of a heterogeneous demographic becomes flattened in order to convey a form of racial authenticity to consumers — a flattening where the mindset says that we are all the same, vote the same, think the same, that we all need help to be part of society.
In essence, Latino” as a term needs to be put in a correct context where it is not used as a stereotyping and generalizing term. There has to be greater acknowledgement of its limitations and the diversity of Latin America. Although it may bring groups together for unity during difficult times, it strips the individual of his or her personal identity and further strengthens stereotypes of an already diverse social group.
I disagree with the usage of the term “Latino/Hispanic” as it is used today, and I stand firm in my belief. I am not, however, against labeling yourself as Latino. You should continue to embrace parts of your heritage and your family; yet, you should not fall in the trap where you think you have to act like a true “Latino” and be influenced to think, vote, and do the same things. I, personally, push forward regardless of what some people may think of me or wherever they may place me in society. Yo me lo tomo con soda y no le paro bola a esas vainas.
Daniel Bracho is a first-year from Caracas, Venezuela. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.