I should preface this entire argument by noting that, for the most part, I am happy to go by whatever I need to be called in order to advance the interests of a more egalitarian society. Now let’s have some nerdy, wordsmithing fun.
Every once in a while I have an interesting exchange with someone over which name is most appropriate for the political and cultural ethnic identity we share in the U.S.A.
These always interesting, sometimes esoteric debates often pose the question in this fashion: which is the better linguistic position to claim in the U.S.: is it the more recent American adaptation of the term “Latin American” as “Latino” or is it the older American adaptation of the term “Iberian/Spanish” as “Hispanic”?
I argue that the term Latino does taste great, but it’s also less filling. That novelty is not always innovation. The new Coke is not necessarily any better than the old Coca Cola.
This week I had just such an exchange. My colleague had written a public endorsement of the term Latino over Hispanic. I wrote him a private response, half expression of an alternative and the other a personal well-wishing. My colleague responded by linking my position to my nationality. To which I made a more joking response and the positions were finally laid bare.
On one side, “Latino” is better because:
- Hispanic = being Spanish.
- Latino = being not Spanish, is therefore a victory over the Spanish colonizers.
On the other side, I maintain that “Hispanic” is better because:
- Hispanic = speaking Spanish.
- Latino = being Latin American, a claim that is not supported by the politics or even the consumer habits of the sons and daughters of Latin American immigrants to the U.S.
The former asserts we are members of a regional bloc. The latter asserts we have a common past and a few things in common culturally. Simply on the basis of which claim makes the least assumptions, I must choose the latter.
Each side has interesting implications that are not immediately obvious when the label is first read or adopted.
For example, I believe the pro-Latino side concedes the term Hispanic to the Spanish. I don’t think that concession should be made. I think the Spanish should have to work really hard if they want to hold on to their ranking as the metaphorical #1 search result for the term “Hispanic.” Frankly, I think they have lost it already and the fact that it’s not yet obvious to all of their former subjects will require a few more Vargas Llosa, et al.
I take the position that when the “Empire Writes Back” the very definition of the conquest must be assaulted. The language of the oppressor must be claimed, exploded and set adrift.
In this regard, I view the Brazilians as having pulled ahead in the struggle for independence. A few years ago they made the Portuguese cede their language. Checkmate.
Thus, what the pro-”Latino” argument deems a concession to the oppressor is an interception – a reclaiming or reconquista.
Hispanic is not a very ambitious term. But that is also why it is the most just.
I consider the term Latino to be, like many Americanisms, an abbreviation with a twist: an adaptation of a pan-Latin American identity within the context of U.S. identity politics. As much as I root for the people playing this angle, I regard their strategy as fundamentally flawed.
By citing the term “Latin American” in the context of contemporary U.S. politics, the pro-”Latino” argument reduces a region of 20 nations to a single cause and violates the spirit of autonomy at the heart of the dozens of American independence movements. Especially when such identities are constructed out of and belie national needs and contexts.
Let me not be cheap with my words: the first Spanish to settle really were often a despicable lot. They created racial and social hierarchies that last to this day and continue to suffocate millions by depriving them of dignity and autonomy. However, the product of these conquests is not inherently poor. Nor were the sons and daughters of these conquests, no matter their racial or social rank, allergic to the call of liberty and justice for all.
This is my starting point. All people are created equal. They have the right and the responsibility to political self-determination and cultural self-definition.
What then of the culture we share? We really have only one thing in common: a language and a shared colonial past as well as a common history of struggling for the right to define our own fate.
More than that is a concession to internationalism that deprives nation states from asserting their own responses to contemporary political pressures: from how to adjudicate the rights of ethnic minorities to border disputes, from migrations to wars over natural resources, from the best way to organize labor to the varying impact of foreign state firms, from Standard Oil and the United Fruit Company to Telefónica and the Chinese firms of today and tomorrow.
Whatever pan-Latin American responses there are to these issues have to be forged via coalitions and compromise. Such a common position cannot be taken for granted.
Hispanics in the U.S. can and should rally together to claim their language as theirs, their past as theirs and their future as theirs. But they should not lose sight of the most sacred value of every independence movement: self-determination. They must acknowledge that their identity is born of a distinct national context.
The U.S. Constitution may have much to offer but U.S. society has much work to do if it is to achieve the promise of its own charter. U.S. citizens and residents must focus on how to synthesize their ethnic identities and traditional values with the distinctly liberal values of of U.S. civil society. If they are to participate responsibly in Latin American politics, it is as delegates of the U.S.A..
We cannot claim another nation’s political struggle as our own just because we find common cultural cause with their poets and, likewise, if our one legitimate claim is a common cultural struggle, we should not surrender linguistic victories unless we wish to imply those titles are still up for grabs.
I’ll finish with a personal observation: I am Cuban-born citizen of the U.S.A. with a Hispanic name and a Hispanic cultural background. My wife is a Mexican-born citizen of the U.S.A. with a Hispanic name and Hispanic cultural background. We share common cultural traditions because of being Hispanic but we also have many distinct cultural traditions that are specific to our national heritages.
If we are pan-Latin, it is only because of a shared past. That we are citizens of the U.S.A. is what affords us a shared future. That we choose to keep the Spanish language alive in our family as well as many of our shared traditions is not an urge to belong to Latin America. It’s an urge to belong to each other. Ultimately, I wish to learn more about her rich Mexican identity than her meager Latin American identity. I believe she feels the same way about mine.
In diversity there is power.