When a hyphen is not needed

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Esther Cepeda
Thursday, February 3, 2011
— The one type of comment that I can always count on to show up—pipin’ hot—in my e-mail inbox is “Why must you use the term ‘Hispanic’ or ‘Latino’!?”

There’s a little something for everyone to chew on here. There are those who dislike that I use both terms instead of sticking to their favored moniker, and there are non-Hispanics with grave concerns about why I don’t employ hyphens such as with “Irish-Americans” or “Italian-Americans.”

A recent series of smart and thought-provoking blog posts by Stanley Renshon, a fellow at the Center for Immigration Studies, an organization that favors restrictions on both legal and illegal immigration, examined the value of the hyphenated identity.

“Hyphenated American identities have helped many millions of new legal immigrants to the United States, from every continent in the world, find their way eventually to becoming full-fledged members of our national community,” Renshon wrote. “So why do we seem to have discarded that unparalleled record of success when it comes to America’s largest and fastest growing new immigrant group—‘Hispanics’/‘Latinos’?”

Renshon cited a 2006 survey by the Pew Hispanic Center that found that 48 percent of Latino adults generally describe themselves by their country of origin first; 26 percent generally use the terms Latino or Hispanic first; and 24 percent generally call themselves American on first reference.

He didn’t mention that the report specifically noted that “the labels are not universally embraced by the community that has been labeled,” and did not break out, compare or correlate attitudes between immigrants and the U.S.-born—an important distinction.

Reading this, my reaction—one I think many U.S.-born Latinos will recognize—was that I never thought of myself as anything other than an American until some well-meaning person pressed me for further explanation of “Where are you from?” because “Chicago” was never a sufficient answer.

And like many others whose parents come from any of the 20 different Latin American countries, I’ll never call myself exclusively a Mexican-American or Ecuadorean-American because that leaves out too much of the story.

We all pretty much go by the standards set by the U.S. Census Bureau, and today most people know that the bureau uses Hispanic/Latino interchangeably with the note that “persons of Hispanic origin may be of any race.” Some people take these labels very seriously, even though a 2008 Pew Hispanic Center survey found that 36 percent of respondents prefer the term “Hispanic,” 21 percent prefer “Latino” and the rest have no preference.

I get impassioned e-mails from people who prefer “Latino” and about how the term “Hispanic” hearkens to Spanish conquest and denies the proud heritage of the Incas, Aztecs and Mayans because it refers to Latin America as a whole. I simply use the terms interchangeably to be inclusive and to avoid tedium.

In his final post in the series, Renshon suggests that a “Hispanic-American identity” would “help to move members of this group towards thinking of, and characterizing themselves as, Americans over time, and this country should be encouraging that kind of thinking.”

The simple answer is that we don’t need the hyphen, the “American” part is already baked in to the terms “Latino” and “Hispanic.” I learned this very important lesson a few years ago from Jorge A. Girotti, a director at the University of Illinois-Chicago Hispanic Center of Excellence who is an Argentine married to a Venezuelan woman with U.S.-born children.

“You know you’re an American if you call yourself either because those terms don’t exist anywhere but in America,” Girotti once told a crowd of non-Hispanics gathered to learn more about Latinos. “Anywhere else in the world you’re just from your country.”

I love the irony. Non-Hispanics are concerned about the ability of the Latino community to fully integrate into mainstream American culture and yet, on a very basic level, we already shout that integration to the world by the default—and sometimes passionate—adoption of the labels the U.S. Census Bureau assigned us. What could be more American than that?

Esther Cepeda is a columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group. Her e-mail address is estherjcepeda@washpost.com.

Last updated: 4:36 pm Thursday, December 13, 2012

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