BOB GARFIELD: Serious undercounts have happened before. In 1970, when the Bureau estimated it had overlooked 5.3 million Americans, the US Commission on Civil Rights found that the process recounting Spanish-speaking people had been, quote, "confusing and disastrous.” On the question of race, the 1970 Census offered only White, Black, American Indian and a variety of Asian categories.
G. CRISTINA MORA: And so, if one was Mexican-American, for example, their parents had emigrated from Mexico, they were born in San Antonio or they were born in Los Angeles, the stated recommended option for them was to check off “White.”
BOB GARFIELD: Cristina Mora is a sociology professor at the University of California at Berkeley. She says the undercount was especially frustrating for advocates seeking more federal aid for an underserved population that we now know as Hispanic. The trouble was it wasn't clear in the 1970s that there even was such an identity.
Mara is the author of Making Hispanics: How Activists, Bureaucrats and Media Constructed A New American. She says the cause was taken up by the National Council of La Raza, an activist group focused on Mexican-American issues, which started in the Southwest.
G. CRISTINA MORA: They saw, for example, dire levels of poverty. Schools were underfunded. They saw the need for job training programs. But lawmakers and the federal government would relegate them to regional or state issues that did not merit national funds. Puerto Ricans were rallying around the same exact issues in the Northeast, mainly in New York and in Philadelphia. And so, the first initial steps was to create an alliance between Mexican-American and Puerto Rican issues.
BOB GARFIELD: I wonder what was the process for determining that the word “Hispanic” would be used ‘cause it was, by no means, a universal way of describing Spanish speakers, especially on the East Coast.
G. CRISTINA MORA: As they got together, there were several different labels that could have been used. They had labels like “Spanish speaking” but many activists feared that this would not cover those Latinos that basically didn't speak Spanish. A Spanish surname was also quite difficult. My favorite example is the former president of Mexico, Vicente Fox. He would not have the necessarily Spanish surname.
Then there were two funny labels. One of them was “Brown.” Activists offered this at one point. This fit in with many of La Raza and Chicano nationalist philosophies at the point of Latin American populations being a sort of mixed people of different origins and different races. But from a statistical point of view, this would have been a nightmare. No one was positive that the lighter-skinned Latinos, like Vicente Fox, for example, would have seen themselves as “Brown.”
“Latin American” was seen as too foreign, unAmerican, and the “Hispanic” label was used in part because many of the Latino activists at that point were actually from New Mexico, where the term “Hispanic” was really popular. In fact, when they tested the category in California people didn't necessarily recognize the label, hence, the need for a big media push.
BOB GARFIELD: The media, particularly Univision, which at that time was called the Spanish International Network, had a direct interest in selling advertisers on the power of this large Spanish-speaking market.
G. CRISTINA MORA: Yeah, and power that is hard to sell if you don't have the data to sell it. Univision had no data to show to McDonald's, Kraft’s, General Mills and other corporations that could potentially advertise. They hired agencies to create consumer market surveys, but this data was never quite as believable as what the census could provide.
BOB GARFIELD: Univision got busy.
G. CRISTINA MORA: Mm-hmm. [AFFIRMATIVE] They said, we’ll create commercials, we’ll create documentaries, we’ll create segments on our news and talk shows, telling people to mark themselves off as Hispanic on the census forms.
[CHI-CHI RODRIGUEZ SPEAKING IN SPANISH]
BOB GARFIELD: Now, that was golfer “Chi-Chi” Rodriguez, and there were a whole series of other prominent Spanish speakers, mostly athletes.
EFRÉN HERRERA: Hi, I’m Efrén Herrera of the Seattle Seahawks and this is my family. Hola, soy Efrén Herrera de los Seattle Seahawks y esta es mi familia.
G. CRISTINA MORA: Yeah, this was a rallying message. The fact that the media was out there, the fact that activists were giving town halls, really imploring people to trust the census and to identify with the Hispanic category helped quite a bit.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, this is kind of weird because, on the one hand, the activist community is trying to get better data to prove that the population needs services and government help.
MAN: The National Council of Raza is pleased to announce the release of a report that looks at what's been happening to the Hispanic community in the decade of the ‘80s. And the Hispanic reality is not in keeping with the American dream.
BOB GARFIELD: On the other hand, Univision's trying to tell its advertisers, no, this is a huge potential marketplace.
[JOHNSON & JOHNSON AD IN SPANISH]
[WEIGHTWATCHERS AD IN SPANISH]
G. CRISTINA MORA: Yeah, they both need the data in order to spin a narrative. Whether that narrative is going to McDonald's and say, this is how large we are, this is our potential, activists need that data to tell the federal government, this is a national minority community facing severe crisis, and we need national attention on this.
BOB GARFIELD: So Univision was all in with this idea but they had to signal this in ways beyond just TV commercials and documentaries, right?
G. CRISTINA MORA: Yes, so soon after the census they invested their resources in what they called American Hispanic programming. So they began, for example, with a nightly network newscast in which they got Mexican anchors but also Puerto Rican and Cuban reporters. And one of the things that they did in order to really signal this American Hispanic identity was submit their anchors and the reporters through a sort of language training camp and they wrote endless language manuals that taught news reporters how to deaccentize their Spanish. In the industry, they would eventually come to call this a “Walter Cronkite Spanish” that didn't use colloquialisms or sayings that were particular to specific communities. Another trick they tried was to develop what they thought of as a Latin look, sort of olive skin tone and dark eyes.
BOB GARFIELD: Wait, wait, wait, wait, this is amazing. You mean, they didn’t want to be too brown; they went for tan.
G. CRISTINA MORA: To some extent. Over time, they'd be criticized for “whitening” or for not paying attention to a significant black Latino population. But in the beginning, this was a lot of social experimenting. Leaders of panethnic organizations knew that in order to deal with the state, in order to use data, they had to represent themselves as Hispanic. But with everyday people, that would say, look, “Hispanic” is a complement to your national identity; these things are not mutually exclusive. And that’s a very tricky thing to do. What makes you one community is very hard. The answer is not skin color. The answer is actually not Spanish. The answer is not just basically you’re south of the US border. It’s actually quite ambiguous. It’s about something related to culture, something related to values and something related to an experience of underrepresentation and being a minority.
One of the difficulties activists had in claiming that Latinos were all equally underrepresented was the fact that many Cubans weren't. There were these real differences in poverty levels, education levels and in social conditions that had to be papered over in order to create these arguments about a national minority.
BOB GARFIELD: Are Latinos in 2017 more likely to think of themselves as a homogenous group than they were in 1980?
G. CRISTINA MORA: The first study we have was done in 1989, and roughly about 20 to 25% of Latinos answered, yes, they feel Hispanic. By 2012 and onwards, that number is upwards of 90%. Identity is tricky and it never perfectly matches onto the classifications that are assumed to represent how we think and feel and how we move about and see ourselves in the world. And so, all of these classifications, from things that we might have thought were hard and fast, like male and female or black and white, are subject to change and subject to scrutiny. And they should be.
BOB GARFIELD: Cristina, thank you very much.
G. CRISTINA MORA: Okay, thank you.
BOB GARFIELD: Cristina Mora is a sociology professor at the University of California at Berkeley and author of Making Hispanics: How Activists, Bureaucrats and Media Constructed A New American.
[1980 BUREAU OF CENSUS AD/CLIP]:
SINGERS: Can we count on you?
VOICE: You can count on me! Oh –
[SINGING UP & UNDER]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Coming up, governments purchase spyware from cyber arms dealers, when they can't make their loans.
BOB GARFIELD: This is On the Media.
SINGERS: Answer the census. We’re counting on you!