Monday, January 6, 2014
Am I a Hispanic or a Latina? Questions on Identity
Not too long ago I was asked by a research team to go on camera to answer a few questions on what it means to be a Latina. This is a question that I try not to think about too often because it gives me a headache. It forces me to define myself as one thing or another, and it usually makes me uncomfortable. As a second generation "Hispanic" or "Latina", I grew up thinking I was just as American as anyone else. However, life has a funny way to make us look within, and as a young student when it came time to fill out school papers, and other fascinating forms, I was forced to call myself a Hispanic in order to let someone know, the government, school officials, administrators, and whomever asked, that I was indeed from some sort of Spanish or Mexican descent. In that case, I would have preferred to call myself Mexican-American, or American of Mexican descent, but even then, something didn't quite click. I didn't quite understand why I had to label myself somehow to be worthy of something, so I just blew it off as much as I could...if I could.
Forms aside, people are also quite curious. There is always someone who questions my identity at the mall, at a restaurant, whether I'm home in El Paso, in Albuquerque, or Chicago. There are always those curious souls trying to determine my looks, my accent, so they can store away the file in their memories. Yes, I get it. We love labels. It helps the brain to make sense out of people, and life. I am an American, a Mexican, a Texan, an El Pasoan, Mexican American, Latina...it all depends on who is asking. I also speak, write, and read English. I once had a boss who was bewildered by my superb command of English, being that I was "Hispanic". I was shocked.
And how could I forget the time that I had left to France for a student exchange program? As I got off the bus that took us to our families, I couldn't ignore the look of horror in the faces of the family I was staying with. A few days later the father blatantly asked me why my skin was so dark since I was an "American". -Because I am, that's why. That's what I consider myself. -I was born in the US, and live there. The look of bewilderment prompted me to lower my defense mechanism and explain what was obvious to me, but not to him. -My ancestry is mostly Mexican. Whatever that means. Did I have to go into race and ethnicity issues at that point? Not yet. I had just graduated high school so I didn't know how to handle that.
Fast forward a few years later, and the question kept popping up. I tried to handle it as best as I could. Working in business and marketing has allowed me to realize the issue of identity and labels, and how people deal with them. As business managers, marketers, and researchers, we have to look at how people view themselves in order to reach them and create relationships with them. That has forced me to look at myself as well, although it still gives me a headache. The latest research conducted by the Pew Hispanic Center discovers a few interesting facts about these labels. According to the research, most people don't care if they are labeled Hispanic or Latino anymore. Except in Texas. People tend to prefer the term Hispanic more than the Latino term. It would be interesting to find out why Texas is different from the rest of the nation. What perceptions do they have and what beliefs do they have about this label that are different from others? Does history play a role? It doesn't answer the question of how they really view themselves either. Only that they don't mind being called one label over the other.
So am I a Hispanic or a Latina? According to the Census, I am whatever I say I am. The Hispanic term was created in the 1980's to determine which people traced their ancestry to any of the Spanish speaking countries in Latin America, and Spain. Whatever you fill out is what you consider yourself, and that's enough for the Census Bureau. They won't come after you to check if you have the look, the birth certificates of your parents, or if you speak Spanish or not, which is not a requirement by the way. Nowadays it doesn't bother me to welcome the label Hispanic or Latina, but when I'm asked to describe who I am, all I can think of is freedom. Hispanic and Latina, and all the other labels are just that: labels. Labels don't define who I am. There is so much more.