Esther Cepeda: Let the U.S. melting pot work
CHICAGO -- At some point, Hispanics may be listed by the U.S. Census Bureau as black or white, Asian or Alaskan/Native American or Hawaiian/Pacific Islander. The teeth-gnashing over who is “Latino” or “Hispanic”—and whether those designations constitute their own racial classification on census forms—will, hopefully, be far behind us.
No more being incorrectly referred to as “Latin” or “Spanish”—one referencing ancient Rome, the other, either a native of Spain or the language. Neither accurately describes, say, a U.S.-born citizen of Colombian descent.
No more having to explain where your mom and dad are from, no more competition between Cubans and Dominicans or Mexicans and Puerto Ricans. Just any of the current U.S. Census racial classifications.
There are those who fear such a future—one in which Hispanic identity isn’t codified in a census category that can be used to clonk non-Latinos over the head about potential voting power. But the rest of us will be fine with Hispanics being filtered out into the other racial classifications.
Oh, there will be some who rebel, preferring to make a political statement about their personal identities. But globalization and intermarriage rates herald a time of no longer focusing on ethnic labels.
Consider: People magazine just named actress Lupita Nyong’o, who won an Academy Award for her role in “12 Years a Slave,” as this year’s “Most Beautiful Woman.”
I only found out she is Mexican because my mother—the Mexican in our Mexican/Ecuadorean/American family—told me, with more than a hint of national pride.
Nyong’o was born in Mexico City, raised in Kenya and now lives in Brooklyn.
Yes, technically, here in the U.S., she is Hispanic—she even speaks Spanish. But when she’s out being a wonderful role model to young women and talking about self-acceptance of her skin color and hair texture, she’s really speaking about the African-American experience. And that’s great.
Now take stand-up comedian Louis C.K. At the risk of offending the small slice of the population who fanatically prefers the term Caucasian, he’s white. Not widely known (and not that it should make any difference) is that though the comedian obviously gets most of his looks from his Irish mom, his father was born in Mexico and his father’s family still lives there. Louis C.K. himself has dual citizenship with Mexico.
The color brown, so versatile, can go either way and it simply blends in as it gets mixed with the major races.
My two cousins, like me, are U.S.-born, with parents each from Mexico and Ecuador. Look at our three families’ children, though, and you see three distinct races. My husband is white and so are my two sons. One cousin married a Filipina and has three sons who are, for all intents and purposes, Asian. My other cousin has two daughters who are African-American.
We all love each other and aren’t hung up on what percentages are this or that or where we’re “really” from, or what the kids “really” are. In a few more years, as more and more Hispanics intermarry with people of other races, their ancestral distinctions will become like the Irish and Italians—important personally, but not on a census form or for social standing.
Not everyone agrees, of course. In a paper recently making the rounds among Hispanics, Nicholas Vargas, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Texas at Dallas, argues that though some scholars predict Hispanics in the U.S. may soon be classified as white, much like Eastern European immigrant groups in the early 20th century, he doubts it.
Though “some groups may be able to move up or down the white-imposed racial hierarchy,” Vargas believes that Hispanics are not always perceived as white by others and choose inaccurate racial labels depending on personal perception, and that “the recent and impending contentious debates over immigration and legality across the country may solidify even more the racial boundary between whites and Latina/os.”
Or maybe we should just hope the U.S. Census simplifies its labeling system. As for us, we should trust in the melting pot to do its historically excellent job of making such distinctions nothing more than background information.
Esther J. Cepeda is a columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter, @estherjcepeda.