In the interest of full disclosure I’ll admit that I’ve long lost interest in the question, but there’s method to my meddling. Some people make a really big deal out of it – they get angry, insulted, defensive, academic. I used to dive head-first, eyes-open into such conversations and posit with the best of them. I’ve written about it several times in the past 20 or so years (and here I am, at it again). But with each conversation and writing the whole thing gets a little more stale.
I’m not sure when, but some time ago I began avoiding the question all together. It wasn’t a conscience decision, it was more like an instinct to not travel down a road that I know leads nowhere. Someone will inevitably ask the question in polite conversation and I’ll find a reason to excuse myself from the group. Or I’ll see it posted on someone’s social media wall, email group or blog and I’ll instinctively roll my eyes.
Truth be told we’ll never find an answer. And if by some miracle portending the Mayan end of days we do coincide on a definition, it doesn’t ensure anyone else will use it. The U.S. Census is pretty much stuck on Hispanic, and by default all other governmental entities use the term for their purposes. In fact, the Census uses Hispanic in a crazy algebraic population equation, as in white non-Hispanic – as opposed to white Hispanic, or black Hispanic, which would use more columns on a spreadsheet but render the same result (what is it about the order of the factors not altering something or other?).
Many years ago I did a sample survey in the newsroom where I worked. I was preparing for a column I would write and gave my co-workers two choices: Hispanic or Latino? The answers were equally divided among the options and thoughtful in their reasoning. Then one guy stepped outside the set boundaries. “I’m a Mexican genius,” he said.
I think that was when I started taking the question lightly- it’s a lot like ordering tacos: Mexican-Latino; first and multiple generational; left handed; far sighted; biliterate genius con guacamole. I can see why non-Latinos opt for an easy designation. There are too many options.
So the Los Angeles Times has opted for Latino. They said so in recent a blog post.
A memo on usage from Assistant Managing Editor Henry Fuhrmann to Times copy editors:
We have updated our rule on the use of Latino to reflect more accurately what the editors of the 1995 Times stylebook intended: that the term in virtually all cases is the appropriate choice over Hispanic, in keeping with the practices and sensibilities of residents of our region.
Some excerpts from the updated rule:
- Latino is the umbrella term for people in the United States of Latin American descent.
- It is preferable to say that an individual is Mexican American, of Salvadoran descent and so forth, instead of using the umbrella term.
- Keep in mind that Latino is an ethnic group, not a race category.
- Some speak Spanish; some don’t.
- Some are U.S. born; others are immigrants.
The old Hispanic term may be used by LA Times writers, but only
in quotes or in proper names. The U.S. Census Bureau uses terms such as “Hispanic or Latino” and “non-Hispanic or Latino” in its survey questions on ethnicity and race. Stories and graphics based on census information are allowed to use that language when it is essential to explain methodology, but we should otherwise use Latino to describe the people in question.
I like the quotes rule for anything that isn’t Latino. And I suggest we all use it in our conversations or anytime the navel-gazing comes up. You can say Latino straight-forward, but if you say “Hispanic” you are required to use air-quotes. And that goes for hyphenated constructions as well. I can say I’m “Mexican-American,” if I chose, or “Tejano,” but I have to raise my hands and curl my middle and index fingers, twice, when I say it.
I suggest the LA Times do the same. They opened the quote-option idea in their formal rule, so why not expand it? Why limit the quotes to “Hispanic?” They can continue to use Latino as an umbrella designation, but also identify people as they would prefer to be identified, and encase it in quotes.
For the record: Victor Landa, “Tejano genius.”
What quotable kind of Latino are you?
Follow Victor Landa on Twitter: @vlanda
[Photo by Mr. Littlehand]