The Fabrication of the Latino Identity and the Erasure of Race

Race and ethnicity are social constructs. Given current definitions of these terms can you name which one of the categories below is not a race?

Much has been said about the Latino/a vote yet too many of these analyses are all surface hot takes because the mainstream media and political pundits have a long way to go in understanding the history of this manufactured ethnicity.

That’s right the Latino/a and Hispanic ethnicities were created by the US government, media and some nonprofits that wanted a way to group a population that had been until the 1970s categorized as white by the census despite the racism, xenophobia, economic and social inequality they faced. And of course there was an economic incentive as well, they wanted to quantify our buying power.

What we, in the U.S, call Latinos/as/xs, spans people who come from more than 12 different countries, are diverse in terms of race, generation, language, class, gender, sexuality, politics, and the impact that U.S. military and economic policy has had on their lives in their home countries. That’s why you’ll often hear us say, Latinos/as are not a monolith and that is largely because this is not a race. It is a contrived ethnicity.

One thing that does remain consistent for Latinos/as/xs is the racism and racial hierarchy that governs all the diverse populations that come from Latin America, here in the U.S. and in their home countries. This racial hierarchy gives privilege and value to white-European identifying people over Black, Indigenous, and any other people of color.

Since colonization so called Hispanics or Latinos/as/xs have experienced racism, xenophobia and discrimination in the U.S. One doesn’t have to look too far to see the historical remnants of these systemic issues after all Latin Americans — or “Mexicans” as they were referred to before there was a category we could all be thrown into — along with African Americans and Native Americans were subjected to Jim Crow laws and racial discrimination.

Latinos/as, as they are known today, were put in these categories to make it easier for the government, media and nonprofits to classify a group of people they thought had culture and the language of their colonizers in common and to quantify the buying power of this population in the U.S. However, this fabrication didn’t take into account the racism that governs Latin American countries. Although the mixing of races is common in Latin America, racism in Latin America gives value to white-European identity over Indigneous and Afro-descendant identities. It’s been this way since colonization and this racist ideology led to the emergence of blanqueamiento (whitening) as the acceptable form of upward mobility in Latin American societies. Like the United States, Latin American countries promote and privilege white people over people of Indigenous, or African descent.

Put another way, in Latin America and the United States being racially defined as a white person endows you with privilege in these societies. Yet, when people from Latin America are integrated into the United States’ racial and racist hierarchy, they have a hard time figuring out where they fit racially in part because they are grouped in this Latino/a/x category.

There are many examples of the inequitable impact erasure of race has on so-called Latinos/as/xs. A case in point is the fact that self identified white Latinos/as/xs are not defined as white people in the United States because they are identified as Latino/a/x. In addition, someone who is Black/African-descendent from Latin America and speaks Spanish is quickly categorized as Latino/a/x despite the fact that the impact of racism in the U.S. and in their home countries make them the target of anti-Blackness. Indigenous peoples from Latin America also get lumped in with white identifying Latinos when in many cases they don’t even have language or culture in common.

In my home country of Guatemala alone, there are 23 Indigenous languages, that’s why as migration from Guatemala to the U.S. increases Mam, K’iche’ and Q’anjob’al — all indigenous to Guatemala — have each become one of the 25 most common languages spoken in immigration courts in the U.S. Furthermore, the term Latino/a/x typically doesn’t make room for people from Latin America whose countries were not colonized by Spain or Portugal, leaving out Belizeans and Haitians. (There are some people with ties to these countries who do self-identify as Latino.) Even among Spanish speaking countries you’d be hard pressed to find two countries that share the same Spanish dialect. Consequently, it’s not a surprise to people from Latin America living in the U.S. that political differences exist among us. The only ones surprised are the people responsible for fabricating an ethnicity that doesn’t do justice to the cultural, political, economic and racial diversity of our communities.

The lack of recognition of these racial hierarchies and racism has led to a conflation of the term Latino with race or ethnicity by some people from Latin American countries living in the U.S. and Americans at large. It has also led to inaccurate representations of Latinos/as/xs as conservatives in part because mainstream media often highlight segments of the population that are more conservative. For example the Cuban population in Miami has often been held up as the monolithic representation of Latinos/as/xs across the country despite the fact that the Latino/a/x population there represents only 3.1% of the Latino/a/x population in the U.S. It’s true there are variations in the Latino/a/x population’s support for democrats and, yet Biden won the so called national Latino/a vote by 70% according to some analysts. Polls show Latino men are more likely to back Trump than are women, similar to gender gaps among Black voters and white voters. Even so, looking at state by state voting averages among “Latinos/as/xs” you see that we played a key role in putting democrats in power across the nation. In Arizona, Wisconsin, Colorado, California, Georgia, possibly Pennsylvania and Nevada.

The erasure of the racial hierarchy that exists in Latin America and here in the U.S. as it applies to Latinos/as/xs has very real political, economic and social impacts that go beyond how the Latino/a/x vote is characterized in the United States. For example, many nonprofits and for-profits hire Latinos who are white and call that diversifying or somehow identify that with hiring a person of color. In fact, due to this type of discrimination about two-thirds of Latinos/as/xs with darker skin colors (64%) report they have experienced discrimination or been treated unfairly regularly or from time to time, compared with half of those with a lighter skin tone. Latinos who were deemed to have lighter skin tones were also significantly more likely to be seen as intelligent.

For Indigenous people from Latin America the challenges of erasure are a continuation of our existing struggles to fight colonization. We are a growing demographic in the United States. In fact, seventy percent of the 57,000 American Indians living in New York City are of so-called Hispanic origin, according to census figures. That is 40,000 American Indians from Latin America — up 70 percent from a decade ago. The trend is part of a demographic growth taking place nationwide of “Hispanics” using “American Indian” to identify their race. The number of Amerindians — a blanket term for indigenous people of the Americas, North and South — has tripled since 2000, to 1.2 million from 400,000. In fact, this year the census features updated wording for the Native American race category and for the first time will include Aztec and Mayan under the tribes listed. This change will have an impact on how we can continue to assert our identities and fight the erasure that we’ve faced in our home countries and here in the U.S.

While small steps like the one listed above do more to properly represent people from Latin America in their diversity, the complexities of the fabricated Latino/a ethnicity don’t allow for people from Latin America to properly represent themselves given existing racism and racial hierarchies in the United States and in their home countries. The negative impact of making diverse people from Latin America fit into a contrived category created by people that were only interested measuring our buying power is yet to be properly assessed. This erasure continues to cause us undue harm.

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Natalia is originally from Guatemala. She's a diversity, equity and inclusion specialist. Currently she's the Associate Director for Justice & Equity at 350.org