A transcript of this episode is presented below:
(Soft space-age music plays.)
Radio announcer: (Crackly and dated, as if from an old radio broadcast.) We have made the census much more than a gathering of statistics. [The word statistics echoes.] Wherever we are—whatever we want to become—it can help us all, in Lincoln’s words, “to better judge what to do and how to do it.” [Atari Space Invaders–esque sounds play.] Count yourself in!
Julia Longoria: This week, we start with a tricky question about identity—about how we count what we are, and how we categorize groups of people in this country.
(Soft music fades out.)
Mireya Villarreal: Just like the food coming out of the kitchen at the Tepatitlán Mexican Grill in Houston [Sounds of a sizzling grill.], the presidential election is a hot topic, with Latinos considered a key ingredient.
Longoria: I am Cuban American, and this past election, I had a very strong reaction to the way pundits talked about … my people.
Reporter: In this election, Felipe Duran is a rare and coveted breed: He’s a Republican … (Fades out.)
Longoria: (Sarcastically.) They were like, “Breaking news: Latinos—a group of people of different races, whose families come from all different countries—can have a diversity of [With a rising intonation, as if shocked.] perspectives?”
CNN reporter: (Over plucky string music.) Their experiences as a Mexican American and a Cuban American are different, and that has influenced the way they voted in the presidential election.
Longoria: They were seemingly baffled by this.
Interviewer: You’re a little counterintuitive.
Interviewee: (Laughs.) Yeah, yeah!
Interviewer: How does a woman of, um, ethnic appearance wear a MAGA hat?
(The interview fades out as Mora narrates.)
Cristina Mora: The day after the election, every reporter was Columbus-ing a hot new take on Latinos. [Longoria laughs.] Latinos were being discovered, man.
Longoria: I called up this sociology professor, Cristina Mora, because I wanted to see if she had an answer to why people are so confused.
Mora: (Sighing heavily.) Let me think about this. Um, folks haven’t taken the time to actually read and really get to know and have an in-depth perspective of who Latinos are.
(Lounge-y electro-pop background music plays.)
Longoria: Cristina has done that reading. She’s a professor of sociology at UC Berkeley, she happens to be Mexican American, and her research is all about the category of “Latinos,” or “Hispanics,” in this country.
Mora: How is it that a category that is so varied—with different skin colors, even different languages and certainly different class positionings—how is it that a category that’s so varied still exists? What makes this category hold? What makes it gel? What—like, what’s the egg in it that keeps it together? And how did this even start?
Longoria: Where does the national category of “Hispanic” or “Latino” come from?
Mora: When I started to dig into our origin stories, there was very little I found. There were basically two main hypotheses.
Longoria: She found two different theories. The first is that this category was forced onto Latinos.
Mora: What I grew up thinking and going to college hearing was that “this is just a label imposed on you by the government.” You know, “You’re really Mexican,” right? Or there was this other story that was circulating often in media—in the press—that, somehow, we are naturally all connected.
Longoria: The second, that there’s something innate in Latinos—this cultural je ne sais quoi that the category just describes. So she set out to figure out which theory was true.
Mora: I just completely nerded out on history and just—it was just revelation after revelation, and I couldn’t write fast enough.
(A breath of music.)
Longoria: This week, the origin story of one category box on the census: “Hispanic/Latino/Spanish origin.” How did that term come to describe millions of Americans?
I’m Julia Longoria. This is The Experiment, a show about our unfinished country.
(The music plays out.)
Longoria: The first discovery that Cristina made is that there was a time in the not-too-distant past when the terms Hispanic and Latino were just not a thing.
Mora: If you look in America in the late 1960s, you’d find that Latinos inhabited, really, three different worlds. In the Southwest, you had Mexican Americans organizing their communities. You had Puerto Ricans in the Northeast doing the same thing. And you had Cubans in Miami, really just focused on Castro and the developments of the Cuban revolution.
And you also had three different media worlds. All of these communities were basically separated from each other. There were no sort of national television networks or radio networks or internet networks that could connect them.
At that time, you also had a Census Bureau who, you know, for the most part, categorized Mexican and Puerto Rican data as simply white data. There was no way to distinguish, for example, incredibly high rates of Mexican American poverty in Los Angeles from white data.
Longoria: So if you had lived in that 1960s period, what would you have put on your census?
Mora: So, first [Laughs.], I wouldn’t be able to choose what I would put on the census. Back in the 1960s and ’50s, census told you who you were. The enumerators would come to your house and they would fill those out for you. It’s not until the late ’60s and early 1970s where folks had the … the option to self-identify.
Longoria: So people would just, like, take one look at you and decide what you were?
Mora: Uh-huh. And oftentimes these practices weren’t uniform. So, for example, if you looked particularly dark-skinned, um, you were put down as Black, because the only options that were available were “white,” “Black,” “Indian/Native American,” and then, depending on what census year, they would have “Chinese,” “Hindu.” Like, these were actual categories, right?
Longoria: Wow. That’s fascinating.
Mora: But by the 1990s—the late 1990s—the picture had evolved dramatically.
Longoria: Just 30 years later, you saw what you see today. The category of Hispanic or Latino was everywhere—in songs, in commercials, on TV, in political campaigns.
Mora: How did this shift occur? What happened in this 30-year period that made us go from three disparate communities to sort of this now one sense of a Latino pan-ethnic constituency.
Longoria: And—and so, what happened? (Laughs.)
Mora: (Laughs.) Lots of things happened! (Both laugh.)
(Plucky acoustic music plays gently in the background.)
Mora: You know, I generally see it in three steps. So I think the first step was advocacy.
National Chicano Moratorium organizer: (From a 1970s press conference.) What we’re planning to do is organize—not from the top, but from the bottom—and treat the real problems that our community faces.
Mora: At the beginning of this was a struggle to get the state to pay attention to the fact that Mexican American education rates were extremely low. Poverty rates were extremely high. They faced discrimination in job markets, discrimination in credit markets, and even campaigns of racial terror.
Activist: (From 1971’s El Pueblo Se Levanta.) Our people are killed in the streets all the time, brother by the name of … (Fades out to chants from Boricua marchers, also from the film.)
Mora: And the same thing in the Northeast. You know, everything from the more leftist, militant groups, like Chicano Power and the Young Lords groups, or Boricua power groups, to the much more conservative groups, like AGIF and LULAC and Aspira. At the very basis of this was a struggle and sort of ways of figuring out “How can we get our pain and our disparities recognized?”
These communities go up to the Johnson administration and say, “Hey, we need help. We need bilingual education. We need Spanish-language job-training programs.” And people in the Johnson administration would say, “Well, you guys are regional. This is a regional problem. This is a problem for your governor. This is a problem for your mayor. At the national level, we’re really focused on national constituency.”
And so time and time again, they face this: “What can we do to have the state pay attention to us? It’s not paying attention to us.” And so, over time, they came up with a strategy of experimenting with an argument of “We have national problems. We deserve national attention.”
Longoria: Leaders in these separate communities realized that if they were going to convince politicians to pay attention to their problems, they were gonna need to join forces.
Young activist from the Chicano Moratorium protests: Before, the people were divided. Now I see unity. [Call-and-response chanting begins.] Now you can go from one barrio to another and you’re brothers. And this is really beautiful, to see people united and fighting for the same cause.
Activist from the Chicano Moratorium protests: Throughout Latin America, throughout Mexico, wherever brown people exist, today is a day of history. And, from this day on, la raza mexicana shall be history.
Longoria: They’d need to create a single identity so big it was impossible to ignore.
Mora: I think of it often as sort of this struggle of recognition. And the struggle of the way that we define ourselves is consequential for the way that the state will intervene on behalf of these racial disparities.
Longoria: And so these advocates wanted a new national category. Not white. Not Black. Something else.
Mora: And so the second part was negotiating where the line would be drawn.
Longoria: And that negotiation happened with the government organization that does the messy, meticulous work of categorization in this country.
Radio announcer: (Crackly and dated, over space-age music.) The census has been handed down to us by the Founding Fathers as part of the Constitution.
Longoria: The Census Bureau.
Mora: And this next step was when, sort of, the Census Bureau had much more power and control.
Longoria: The Census Bureau negotiated with advocates to figure out what this new category would be called.
Mora: The bureau really liked “Hispanic/Spanish origin.” [Chuckles lightly.] Hispanic, um, seemed to be a term that could be Americanized. It was a derivative of the term Hispano, and that was used to differentiate them, basically, from Anglos, or whites.
Longoria: And where was Latino in all of that? Was Latino one of the terms that was being considered?
Mora: Yeah. Latin and Latino was considered, just the same as Latin American. Latin American was discarded pretty early on because there was a fear that it would be sort of seen as foreign, and basically just cover those people that were first-generation immigrants. There were many terms. And they sort of cycled through all of them, trying to figure out the pros and cons.
Each way in which you sort of came down had real implications for how large the category would be. For example, there were a group of folks that said, “We want this category to be called ‘Brown.’” And this was quickly rejected by census officials—very fast—in part because they feared, for example, that Native Americans or even Filipinos would choose “Brown,” and not “Asian” or “Native American,” for example.
Longoria: Why were they afraid of that?
Mora: Well, this was taking place during a moment of heightened racial advocacy amongst all groups. And so the bureau did receive letters from Native American, from Black, from Asian American groups that were really worried about this new category. Groups would get resources based on their numbers. And so they all were afraid that a new category would depress their numbers. That was navigated against another sort of set of arguments: Who would be in, who would be out. And there was an argument that Cubans should be excluded from this group.
And, in fact, there are archives in which folks had argued in political meetings that Cubans were actually of a different race—that they were more like whites because they had much more resources and a different experience in this country.
Longoria: Who was making that argument? Like, Cubans themselves, or other people?
Mora: No. No, no, no. (Chuckles lightly.)
Longoria: Okay. (Laughs.)
Mora: This is more mainly Mexican American and Puerto Rican …
Longoria: Yeah, yeah. Yeah.
Mora: More militant activists. Yeah.
Mora: But the bureau kept arguing that the larger the category, the more statistical power it would have.
Longoria: After all of this negotiation, the Census Bureau decided they would go with the name they liked: “Hispanic/Spanish origin.” Cubans were in. Filipinos were out. Mexicans were in. Native Americans were … out? Spaniards and Brazilians … were left unclear. It was not a perfect term.
Mora: The argument was “This is the most popular term. This is the term that could get the broadest umbrella.” Now I say that to say: This is not the term that was loved by everybody. But in the context of negotiating with the bureau, in many ways, folks at the table were just happy to have something in the first place. It’s almost as if you could call this category “Green,” or “the Green people,” or whatever you want to call it, but they just wanted to be at the table.
Longoria: So, at that point, when the Census Bureau decides, “We have this Hispanic category,” and all of these activists had pushed for something like this, there are people who fit this category scattered throughout the country. Like, how did it come to be that so many people then identified with this term? It’s one thing to name it. It’s another thing to get people to take it on.
Mora: Yeah. So the way I think about it is after the negotiation stage was the popularization stage.
1990 Univision ad: (Over festive music, enthusiastically.) Participe en el censo. ¡Esta es la nuestra! (A crowd cheers.)
Mora: What had once started as a political project meets the commercial project. And this is where Spanish-language media played a really important role.
Longoria: At this time, Spanish-language media was broken up into small, local companies. But there was a big opportunity here. If people started identifying with a national identity, then Spanish-language media would be a huge business in this country. Enter Univision.
Mora: For the company that would become Univision and networked radio, etc., in order for them to ever make claims to advertisers, like McDonald’s or Kellogg, they would have to first show how many potential Latino viewers are out there. And so they had a huge market interest in having this category developed. The more people chose this, the better for them. They started to develop a national media strategy in which Univision did everything from developing commercials to buying ad space in newspapers to radio stations specifically around “Fill out the census form. Fill out the census form! Fill it out, and make sure that you check Hispanic.”
Celia Cruz: (Over interstitial music.) Les habla Celia Cruz … (Fades under.)
Mora: And this was a star-studded event with celebrities from Latin America …
Frank Corral: (Over dramatic 1980s commercial music.) Hola, soy Frank Corral, de Los Angeles Rams. El censo 1980 es muy importante para …
Mora: And so, very quickly, these pan-ethnic lobby and media and civic organizations learned to make the idea of “Hispanic” or Latinidad complementary, and not mutually exclusive, with national identity. So, for example, one of the clearest examples of this is El Show de Cristina.
Cristina Saralegui: (Over talk-show smooth jazz.) Nuestro tema de hoy es el rebelde impactante …
Mora: Cristina was billed as “the Spanish Oprah.” And the way that they would do this is by sort of having a topic—let’s say the topic was raising your kids in the United States …
Cuban guest: (From El Show de Cristina.) Bueno, yo soy Cubana, y en Cuba …
Mora: And they would have a Cuban family, they would have a Mexican family, they’d have a Colombian family on stage. The idea was never to say, “Are you Mexican or Hispanic?” It was to say, “Because you’re Mexican, you are Hispanic or Latino.”
Saralegui: (From El Show de Cristina.) Yo veo una contradicción aquí.
Mora: Cristina, I think, was always, um … You could tell she was certainly Cuban, but there were ways in which they were trained to sort of have what they called the, uh, “Walter Cronkite Spanish” …
Saralegui: (Clearly articulated, each word very distinct.) ¡Las chicas buenas son femeninas! (Fades out.)
Mora: So that they could be understood by a broader number of communities. And so then Cristina became incredibly popular.
Longoria: My grandma had it on all the time. Like, that’s a soundtrack of my childhood. Yeah.
Mora: Yeah! [Both chuckle.] In L.A., in New York, in Texas. And then a funny thing that starts to happen is that it also becomes an incredibly big hit in Latin America itself. In fact, it had an incredibly large following in Mexico in particular. In some ways, Cristina gave Latin Americans in Latin America a view of what their family members were going through in the U.S.—what those who had migrated to the U.S., what they were living, what their stories were, what their struggles were, etc.
Longoria: That’s so interesting. Like, did Cristina bring “Latino” to Latin America, basically?
Mora: Yeah, in many ways. [A beat.] I would say Univision did.
(Soft, floating synthesizer music plays.)
Longoria: Was there pushback to this categorization as they tried to make it mainstream? Did people resist being called “Hispanic”?
Mora: Absolutely, they still resist it right now.
Longoria: Yeah! (Both laugh.)
Mora: Um, for good reason! For good reason.
Longoria: In 2019, almost 61 million Americans identified themselves as Hispanic/Latino … including me. This is the visibility and the bigness that activists, the Census Bureau, and Univision were going for.
But what do you lose when you join a category this big?
That’s after the break.
(The music plays for a long moment, winds down, and then the break.)
(Vintage space-age music plays again out of the break.)
Mora: So I’m originally from L.A., and I’m from a part of L.A. that’s called Pacoima.
Longoria: Professor Cristina Mora is Mexican American. I am Cuban American. That makes us both Latinx … Latinas … Hispanic … all of the above?
Longoria: The term I grew up with is Hispanic over Latino. [Stutters] What was your—was … ? [Mora laughs.] Did you grow up with Latino over Hispanic?
Mora: I grew up in Pacoima, which was pretty much, at a time, 99 percent Mexican. So I grew up with, like, what part of Mexico I was from.
Longoria: Right, yeah.
Longoria: Yeah, right. I mean … exactly!
Mora: Or not even that I’m from! I’m from L.A. Where my parents were from. I didn’t think about Latinidad until, um, really, when I moved across the country.
Longoria: I didn’t either. I’m from Miami, a place where people speak to you in Spanish before English, and people ask you what part of Cuba or Venezuela or Puerto Rico your family is from.
Mora: In fact, in the 1990s, one of the most popular bumper stickers in Miami was Don’t call me Hispanic. I’m Cuban. (Longoria laughs.)
(Funky synth music plays.)
Longoria: The first time I heard Latino or Hispanic, it was when other people used it to describe me. It was a bit weird—kind of uncomfortable at first. For Cristina too.
Mora: Folks push back against this in part because national identities are strong. There’s a country I can point to. There’s a history. There are political figures.
There’s no Hispanic or Latino country. There’s no figures that I can point to. No landmass that I can really properly define.
Longoria: Even so, when I left home, I met other people who identified as Latinx—second- and third- and fourth- and fifth-generation Mexican Americans, for instance, who identify more as Latino than they do as Mexicans.
Even though Latinos have roots in many many different countries, the flag of Latinos is American. Our country is the United States.
Mora: For decades—decades, decades, decades—Latino advocacy groups have been trying to cement this idea that Latinos aren’t sort of this picture of just foreigners, that Latinos are part and parcel of this country, that there are groups of Latinos that have been here for generations, and that Spanish is not necessarily a foreign language, that it was actually found in some of the nation’s founding documents and institutional procedures.
So, for decades, Latinos have been saying this, and, you know, for centuries now Latinos have consistently, as a category, never been seen as fully American.
Longoria: What do you think is the mainstream idea of what a Latino is?
Mora: Certainly someone that’s not from here or whose parents are not from here. And then however stereotypical you want to get it: um, eats spicy foods, speaks Spanish, dances salsa, sometimes votes—and if they are going to vote, they’ll vote Democrat. [Longoria chuckles.] I mean, it’s just how badly stereotypical you want to get it.
(Lush electronic music plays, with the sound of a breeze blowing through, evoking a large, abstract space.)
Longoria: This is the problem with categories. It’s always a balance between recognition and nuance. The bigger the group, the more visible it is, the more powerful it is—but the less nuance it has, the more it flattens a wide variety of experiences into one thing.
I think that’s why Cristina and I both had a bit of a weird reaction to first being called “Latina.” We wanted to hold onto our specificity. Cristina is from this particular Mexican American community in L.A. I’m from a specific Cuban American community in Miami. The category of “Latina,” or “Latinx,” combines the experiences Mexican Americans had with a long history of discrimination in this country, and privileged Cubans, who got special treatment for decades in immigration policy. It takes the experiences of Afro-Latinos and white Latinos and indigenous Latinos, of rich and poor, of queer and straight, of those who’ve been in the U.S. since the Founding and those who got here yesterday … It takes all of those experiences and makes them one.
Is it fair to call us all the same thing?
Longoria: I think, um, at first I was just … I felt like this category was telling me that I had to have a certain kind of experience in order to be an “authentic Latina.” [Mora laughs.] I felt like a freeloader of the category because I grew up surrounded by people who look just like me, who have the same experiences. I have this privilege.
And I see the way that this category can really flatten a wide array of experiences. And sometimes take nuance away from the conversation. I mean, do you feel like people like me are free riders on this category? (Mora laughs, then Longoria laughs.)
Mora: I don’t! (Both continue laughing.)
Longoria: You know, it’s something I think about a lot. It’s … you know?
Mora: I mean, I can tell—I mean, maybe ’cause I’m a mom too, but I can tell that you’re somewhat struggling with it, in terms of sort of your sense of privilege.
By creating this large category, you certainly obscure the patterns that make it such that you might have this particularly weird experience of having a narrative of Chicano racial disparity and need and things like that when you might have grown up having a totally different, privileged background.
But it probably doesn’t negate the numbers that show an absolute racial disparity. For example, in California, upwards of 90 percent of those that are working in grocery stores, agriculture, and the service sector are Latino. I mean, these are real. And so they’re essential workers, and that’s connected to their risk exposure. Latino wealth rates lag every single racial group—except for, I think, Native Americans.
Even when you aggregate those that might be privileged, their rates overall are incredibly low. We all have the capacity to walk and chew gum at the same time. We should have the capacity then, also, to think about Latinos as both a dynamic, different, varied—with various, you know, class backgrounds, language ability, skin colors, etc.—as both dynamic and also having this common experience of marginalization in the aggregate.
It’s not as easy as, you know, opting for one story—which I see too often. It’s like, “Oh, it’s so diverse. Let’s get rid of it.” Or the other way, like, “You might think you’re all diverse, but you’re actually the same.”
We need to be able to be way more sophisticated and nuanced and complex with our arguments and be able to hold these arguments together. I mean, one thing I think about is, my kids are actually Afro-Latino. I want a Latinadad that doesn’t marginalize them. Absolutely. I want the face of Latinidad to be able to include them.
Longoria: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, you know, we’re doing this episode about Latinidad, but I think you could have this conversation for the African American category. You could have this conversation for Asian or even, you know, Indian.
Mora: Native American, of course. [A beat.] In all these categories, there’s variation. And so Latino is not such a special category that it’s immune to this. All of these categories fall prey to that. Should we get rid of all of them? I mean, France does, I mean … and look how it’s going for them. (Mora laughs heartily; Longoria laughs a little.)
Longoria: Can you explain what you mean?
Mora: Well, I’m just saying, you know, a country that doesn’t collect racial statistics on the sense that if you were to collect racial statistics, you would be dividing the country. Then there come all of the difficulties that exist when you don’t collect it, and, thus, you can’t sort of really understand, for example, the racial disparities in educational attainment between folks of North African descent, and other French.
When you don’t have data as a tool, you can’t really make claims and prove the conditions of your community.
Longoria: Yeah. It allows you to kind of turn a blind eye to any problems that are happening if you’re not collecting the data.
Longoria: You can kind of maintain myths of equality better— (Chuckles.)
Longoria: —if you can’t point to these kinds of categories.
Mora: Which takes us back to why it’s important to remember that one of the origins of the Latino category was about this struggle for recognition.
(Upbeat elevator music plays.)
Longoria: In the end, these categories are good. They’re best when they help us describe what is real in this country. We get a better picture of what people’s lived experience is by naming groups like this. But it’s important that we leave room for nuance.
Today, the census allows people to pick “Hispanic/Latino/Spanish origin” and also a subcategory of national origin, like “Mexican,” “Puerto Rican,” “Cuban,” or “Other.” And advocates are pushing for more changes that would try to add more options for how people identify.
In the end, the debate over where the lines of these categories are drawn is less important than what we do about the problems we see.
Mora: We, in many ways, keep relegating these stories to sort of academic talk, maybe symbolic talk, maybe, you know, cultural talk. And there are things that we’re not doing. If you think of the first struggle for civil rights in the 1960s, that very quickly—by the 1980s—led to broader conversations of “We should all be color-blind; race doesn’t matter,” which keeps us in these sort of trapped cycles. I mean, how long have we been putting kids in cages at the border?
We are talking about our racial past in all these ways, but we’re not, for example, like South Africa or other places in which there have been, you know, traumas and creating tribunals to understand, for example, reparations, to understand what the state really owes, then, the descendants of people of color.
Now, I’m not a policy maker, so I’m not here to say what we should do. But I am here to say, “Isn’t it strange we continue to talk about it and have these moments, and we continue, now, to see the vast racial devastations that continue to happen? Isn’t it strange that we continue to talk about it and we’ve talked about it for so many decades now?”
So in this way, we do talk about it. We talk about it here. We talk about it because it’s diverse, and stuff like that. And then we also continue to fall short on what we should do.
(The music plays up for a long moment.)
Gabrielle Berbey: This episode was produced by Julia Longoria and me, Gabrielle Berbey, with editing by Katherine Wells. Fact-check by William Brennan. Sound design by David Herman. Music by Tasty Morsels. Special thanks to A. C. Valdez and Christian Paz.
Our team also includes Emily Botein, Matt Collette, Alvin Melathe, and Natalia Ramirez.
We’re still a pretty new podcast, so, if you like what you heard, tell a friend to listen to the show, and don’t forget to rate and review us on Apple Podcasts, or wherever you listened to this episode.
The Experiment is a co-production of The Atlantic and WNYC Studios. Thanks for listening.
(The upbeat elevator music plays for several long seconds and then, with a bell chime, ends.)