(Editor’s Note: This is one in a series of weekly guest posts from Kahlil Chaar-Pérez — Ben Alpers)
In reflecting on what constitutes a Latina/o intellectual tradition in the U.S., my previous posts have focused for the most part on the idea of the intellectual—loosely defined as a person whose cultural production, textual and embodied, has had a relative impact on overlapping public spheres. But another way to tackle the idea of a Latina/o intellectual history is to also focus on the historical circulation of ideas of Latinidad and analogous concepts like Hispanic, Spanish, and latinoamericano within the United States. These labels continue to circulate in fluid and unabated fashion within the heterogeneous national culture of the U.S., leaving a long trace of conflict-ridden symbolic and social relations along the way. On one hand, people of Latin American descent and Latin American-born immigrants turn to these terms as forms of identification that unite them across national, ethnic, and racial difference. On the other, the government, advertising culture, and the mass media brand and target these communities, particularly as Hispanic and/or Latino, as the former negotiate with the latter’s increasing visibility in the mainstream public eye. Even as it does not raise the issue of ethnicity explicitly, the ongoing debate surrounding immigration policy reform exemplifies the impact the Latino imaginary, as well as actual U.S.-based Latinas and latinoamericanos, has had in the current political and cultural landscape of the United States (without forgetting the oft repeated truism that in a few decades their peoples will exceed a fourth of the national population).
Through the rearview mirror of history, one can notice the swiftness of these transformations just by looking at the development of the national census: the “Hispanic” bracket first appeared just thirty three years ago, in 1980. Meanwhile, a decade earlier the census utilized the categories of “Mexican,” “Puerto Rican,” “Cuban,” “Central or South American,” or “other Spanish,” while in 2010 it used the labels “Hispanic, Latino or Spanish origin,” declaring at the same time that these forms of identity were not equivalent with “race.” As one can witness in current discussions about the next census, the variability of these categories, which in academic parlance are associated with a pan-ethnic identity, also touches on the slippery terrain of another sociocultural construct: race. According to the census bureau, not only were numerous people who identified themselves as of “Hispanic, Latino or Spanish origin” unsatisfied with the race options offered by the census form (around 37% marked “some other race,” while 53% chose “white”) but the possibility of dropping all references to race is also being discussed.1 An ideology that shifts in its representation of blackness, whiteness, and other markers of race according to historical and cultural coordinates, racial discourse operates very differently in the U.S.—where the one-drop rule still holds its hegemonic power—than in Latin America, where one witnesses a wider spectrum of race-based distinctions. Moreover, these distinctions do not cut along even lines across Latin America. In the Dominican Republic, for example, blackness is commonly linked in a negative way to Haitian peoples, while Dominican citizens of African descent tend to identify themselves as indios (in Black behind the Ears: Dominican Racial Identity from Museums to Beauty Shops, Ginetta Candelario has written wonderfully on the history of these distinctions). Such differentiations speak to cultural processes of whitening that can be mapped throughout different regions of Latin America and that have been resignified here in the U.S.: almost half of Latina/os ended up identifying themselves as “white” (an increase of 5% from the 2000 census) while only 6% marked “two or more races” and 2% chose “black or African American”(much more could be said about the last two figures, how biracial and an emerging Afro-Latino identity fit, or rather, how they don’t fit within this map of categories).
To say the least, to think about racial difference in connection to Latino/Latin American communities in the U.S. can become quite a confusing enterprise. Beyond the implications of eliminating race as a category—does this move assume that ethnicity is not a construct? isn’t ethnic identity, like culture, inevitably racialized?—this debate points to how the Latino imaginary is much more complicated than mainstream culture would have us believe, and how a historical framework needs to be adopted to understand the specificity of these ideas, how they have materialized among Latino communities, in relationship to their affective and material relations to their places of origin, and within the overlapping publics that make up the U.S. As Juan Flores reminds us in From Bomba to Hip Hop. Puerto Rican Culture and Latino Identity: “The nomadic, migratory dimension of the Latino imaginary is anchored to the historical reasons for coming here, and in the placement assigned to most Latinos in U.S. society.” (199). This is a heterogeneous “historical imaginary” that can be tracked back to the presence of peoples of Latin American origin/birth in the United States, how they negotiated with life in the U.S., and, ultimately, with their identities in the words of José Martí, as “gente latina.”
1 This data can be found in page 6 of the “Overview of Race and Hispanic Origin” Census Brief.