The Problem With Pew Polls About Being Latino (or Hispanic) in America: Too Many Labels

Apr 6, 2012
12:15 am

We are told that the US Latino (or Hispanic) (or Mexican-PuertoRican-Cuban-Colombian-Dominican-Salvadorean-CostaRican-Honduran-Guatemalan-Nicaraguan-Panamanian-Venezuelan-Bolivian-Peruvian-Ecuadorian-Paraguayan-Uruguayan-Argentinian-Chilean-Spanish-Belizian-with-a-shout-out-to-Brazilian) population, estimated to be around 50 million people, is at an "identify" crossroads.

We are told that in a hodgepodge of countries, cultures, new arrivals, old arrivals, first-generation families, families that have lived in the US for decades, those who have lived here for centuries, bilinguals, monolinguals, Spanish-only speakers, English-only speakers, Spanglish speakers and anyone else whom we have forgotten, the conventional wisdom is that this growing demographic needs to be defined and defined quickly.

We must figure ourselves out soon! We must boxed ourselves and be labeled, so that we fit nicely into whatever vision of America is being crafted in the 21st century.

We are told that these 50 million people are hard to figure out, that the rest of America doesn't understand them. Why do you 50 million whatever-you-want-to-call-yourselves people have to be different?

So then we are told that in order to finally reach some consensus about who the 50 million truly are, questions must be asked.

And this week, the Pew Hispanic Center (we are wondering if they are changing their name now, just like we might need to change ours), asked some of those questions in a sweeping poll that tries to define US Latinos/Hispanics and the other nationalities we listed in our first paragraph. And now the problems and distractions begin.

The results have become the talk of the media this week.

Latinos don't want to be called Hispanics!

Hispanics don't want to be called Latinos!

Mexicans identify themselves with being Mexican!

Puerto Ricans will always say Puerto Ricans! The generalizations go on and on and on.

And there lies the distraction.

Because the type of information Pew spewed out (yes, we have always wanted to use the verb "spewed" next to "Pew") did very little to what the BIG GOAL is now for the 50 million: true unity and true political power. (If indeed those are the goals that US Latinos/Hispanis truly want, which we think they do.)

Can you imagine what would happen if people just ignored the labels about who they are and just say, hey, the issues that pertain to me as a US Latino/Hispanic living in Miami, actually have a lot more in common with the US Latino/Hispanic living in San Diego?

Can you imagine if we can actually maintain a deep pride of who we are and where we come from, BUT are also deeply interested in someone else who comes from different country but shares the same linguistic (Spanish) history as you? Or that when you both talked, you would find out that both of you are fully bilingual and bicultural and actually have a more common background that you had originally thought?

That is what the Pew poll should be discussing. Not the differences, but the commonalities. So while others spend time reflecting on the “big identity crisis” of US Latino/Hispanics, we would like to focus on some similarities and explore how we can use them to create a better path for dialogue, true unity, and real political power among the 50 million. So, we won't rehash everything that Pew spewed. We chose to focus one a few takeaways: 

Respondents do, however, express a strong, shared connection to the Spanish language. More than eight-in-ten (82%) Latino adults say they speak Spanish, and nearly all (95%) say it is important for future generations to continue to do so. The survey finds that, regardless of where they were born, large majorities of Latinos say that life in the U.S. is better than in their family’s country of origin. Also, nearly nine-in-ten (87%) say it is important for immigrant Hispanics to learn English in order to succeed in the U.S.

OUR TAKE: Anyone who thinks Spanish is going away in the United States or that people who want to reach out to the 50 million without having a better sense of the linguistic and cultural nuances of Spanish, better start taking Rosetta Stone courses. The Spanish language is a key uniting part of what it is to be part of the 50 million, whatever we become once this “identity quest” ends.

The survey finds that, regardless of where they were born, large majorities of Latinos say that life in the U.S. is better than in their family’s country of origin. Also, nearly nine-in-ten (87%) say it is important for immigrant Hispanics to learn English in order to succeed in the U.S.

OUR TAKE: This one is key: Just because one learns and understands and uses Spanish, it doesn't mean that English should be ignored. That is the biggest mistake that the non-50 million makes. They hear a part of the 50 million talking Spanish, and they have nightmares of a reconquista. They fear change, when in fact, the vast majority of the 50 million also see value in learning English to succeed in this country. Is being bilingual not a noble goal?

Most Hispanics do not see a shared common culture among U.S. Hispanics. Nearly seven-in-ten (69%) say Hispanics in the U.S. have many different cultures, while 29% say Hispanics in the U.S. share a common culture.

OUR TAKE: This is perhaps this silliest question ever asked. Can anyone in this country even define what a "common culture" is? American Idol, Jersey Shore, and apple pie? Results and findings like these are just dangerous when seen from the outside because they segregate different cultures (and countries) and pit them against each other. We got more work to do, people, about finding commonality that will ultimately transfer to the end goal. Furthermore, this Pew finding also suggests that having many different cultures is not a good thing, when in fact, we think it is.

Latinos are split on whether they see themselves as a typical American. Nearly half (47%) say they are a typical American, while another 47% say they are very different from the typical American. Foreign-born Hispanics are less likely than native-born Hispanics to say they are a typical American—34% versus 66%.

OUR TAKE: Another dangerous question with findings that will just be skewed by those who don't understand the 50 million. What is a typical American in the 21st century? What does that even mean? Findings like these only perpetuate the fact that the 50 million are being viewed as different and that a vast majority of the 50 million also see themselves as different. The poll is creating division and distraction. The tactic is clear: Let us, dear Latinos and Hispanics, debate this identity issue amongst ourselves while the rest of America just sits and stares, perplexed and confused, yet also making sure that it still has all the political power.

You see, this is very simple: the United States is more diverse, and those 50 million who form a part of that diversity, are complex and not monolithic. Sure, there will be many who hold up this Pew study and focus on the findings that will confirm their shorts-sighted beliefs all along: that US Latino/Hispanics are "different."

That is the part that scares us. And it is why there has never been a greater time to actually get the 50 million to put away all its labels and start focusing on the real issue here: we can no longer allow Pew surveys and identity questions define us. We must remember where we came from, celebrate our roots, but also forge ahead by continuing to know more and more about the 50 million.

Because in the end, we, the 50 million, AND the rest of America will all be thinking that Latinos/Hispanics are "different," when in fact the 50 million are more like other Americans who believe in a diverse land, where diverging points of views are respected and celebrated. If we choose to use the label Latino in some places (like this page) or Hispanic in other places, so be it. We use Latino because we want to and it defines us (it speaks to who we are), but that doesn’t mean that we will turn away those who might use different labels (or no labels at all). Yes, we do come from different countries, but we all live in one right now. We must strive for ways to build up the notion that living in one country peacefully and without ignorance is a very achievable goal.

Enough with the analysis of identity labels. It is time to forge ahead. Who’s in?

PS And no, our new web page name is not going to be We say Latino Rebels because it is what unites us with many, it is what defines US, but we would never impose our point of view on someone else. We will still be doing what we do. We don't need a poll or survey to confirm that.