The Meaning (and Power) of ‘Latinos’

Sep 12, 2014
2:30 AM

Last month The Federalist published an article by Mike Gonzalez, vice president of communications for The Heritage Foundation, in which he does a fairly decent job of summarizing the origins of the term “Latino” as it is used today. “The Spanish-language term Latino America,” he writes, “from which Latino derives, was in fact created by the French, and what’s more, in one of Europe’s most blatant colonial misadventures in the Western Hemisphere: France’s attempt to forge an empire in Mexico, which it invaded in the 1860s.” Gonzalez goes on to explain how the court of Napoléon III created the idea of an Amérique latine in order “to deemphasize the region’s ties to Spain and Portugal and create a larger connection to the Latin peoples of Europe,” with the implicit goal of making French rule more tolerable.

The plucky Gonzalez continues his wreckage of “Latino” by reminding us that it was the Latins, a tribe in central Italy, who went on to conquer the entire Mediterranean, including modern-day Spain and Portugal. “It is therefore surprising that anyone would ever have considered the term ‘Latino’ less colonial and more politically correct than ‘Hispanic,’” he argues. Gonzalez wraps up his diatribe by maintaining that the people of Latin America and their American cousins, who regularly self-identity according to national origin more than any pan-ethnic label, are being forced to adopt the term “Latino” by “knowledge-making elites in the academy, the culture, and the media.”



For what’s it’s worth, Gonzalez succeeds at underscoring the arbitrary nature of “Latino.” The label, as it applies today, did indeed begin with France’s imperialistic scheme in what we now call “Latin America.” Gonzalez is also right to say that “Latino” is being “foisted on people.” But while he clearly understands the origins of the term, he either ignores  or fails to recognize the term’s current importance and it aspires to achieve. What “Latino” does, better than “Hispanic,” is capture the complete New World experience, an experience molded in opposition to Anglo-American hegemony.

First, it should go without saying that to distinguish one group of people from another, to call them an ethnic group or race, and then to give them a distinct name, is usually harmful and pointless. There isn’t actually a “Latino people,” no more than there are “black people” or “Middle Eastern people.” People are people, belonging to one race, one single groping species. If anyone’s an African, it’s all of us. Nevertheless, history has bequeathed us such labels —systems have been built on them, identities formed around them— and so here we are.

Most Latinos consider themselves “Hispanic” and see no reason why that should change. The term “Hispanic,” naturally, implies Spanish origin; demands it, in fact. One still comes across purists insisting that only those people with Spanish ancestry can rightfully claim to be Hispanics or Latinos. We can disregard such people because, inconveniently for them, most of the people now considered Latinos claim other ancestry besides Spanish. There are also plenty of Latinos for whom the very least of their ancestry is European, and undoubtedly some who are non-European altogether, such as those Latinos of purely indigenous descent. Hence, a group label designating the Latin Americans and their descendants as being merely “of Spain” simply won’t do.

Besides generating a sense of kinship with the Latin peoples of Europe, the would-be French conquerors’ attempt to lump everyone living south of the United States under one umbrella accomplished something much more lasting: namely, it reinforced the notion of a family of nations in the Western Hemisphere, what we now recognize as Latin America. The notion of an American community didn’t originate with Napoléon III, of course. As it happens, the comity promised by a pan-ethnic identity in Latin America appeared alongside the chauvinistic bitterness of nationalism. Shortly after the Spanish colonies in the New World secured independence, men like Simón Bolívar and Francisco Morazán formed republics that covered much of the region and included many present-day countries. (The five stars on today’s Honduran flag, for instance, are a nod to Morazán’s splintered dream, and to the hope of it becoming a reality once more.)

In addition to the Spanish and Portuguese-speaking peoples of the New World, to whom the label “Latino” is currently applied, I submit that “Latin America” should also apply to all of the nations south of the United States. What “Latino” means then, to my mind, is the people of Central America, South America and the Caribbean, whose past bonds them in ways their distinct cultural traits tend to obscure.

I don’t necessarily think we should begin labeling Jamaicans, Bahamians and Haitians as “Latinos.” To start with, they don’t consider themselves Latinos, and that they never will is understandable. What I am saying, however, is that the countries south of the United States are a community, issued from similar pasts, facing common obstacles, staring down the same uncertain future. This community doesn’t have a name, but it’s a community, nonetheless.

Defining the term “Latino,” therefore, comes down to defining Latin America itself. Historically, the label applied to the Spanish-speaking countries; Portuguese-speaking Brazil was included rather recently. Brazil’s inclusion, however justified, opens the door to Haiti, a French-speaking country sharing the island of Hispaniola with the Dominican Republic. If Portuguese speakers are allowed into the Latino community (which they should be), then French speakers must also be allowed in. Latino purists will argue here that “Latin America” only refers to the former colonies of the Iberian crowns (Spain and Portugal), but that’s an arbitrary definition, considering the histories of Spain, Portugal and France were weaving in and out of one another throughout Latin America’s infancy; the region has more than two parents. And if we introduce the mostly African-descended, French-speaking people of Haiti into the Latino fold (which we should), then we must also recognize the mostly African-descended, English-speaking peoples of Jamaica and the Bahamas as Latinos. And if we recognize Jamaica and the Bahamas, then…

Ultimately, nothing keeps us from expanding our definition of “Latino” other than stubborn tradition, which will, after some time, make even a false belief appear true. If “Latino” isn’t a race, as most Latinos agree it isn’t, then it’s not a Jamaican’s skin color that excludes him from the Latino community. If “Latino” has no official languages —Brazilians speak Portuguese, the indigenous speak native languages, and U.S. Latinos are increasingly English-dominant— then it’s not the mother tongue of a Bahamian or a Haitian that disqualifies either of them from the “Latino” label.

“Latino” has begun to embody this pan-American sentiment, at least among the younger crowds, and the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States was launched in 2011 with the purpose of achieving the region-wide solidarity I’m calling for. It doesn’t really matter in the end what Latinos choose to call themselves, so long as they appreciate the things they have in common with all of the peoples inhabiting Central America, South America and the Caribbean. And whether we include Haiti, Jamaica and the other countries in “Latin America,” or invent some new name for the entire region, we must at last understand that the term “Latin American and the Caribbean” is a false partition, as well as a pernicious one. The people living south of the United States, because they live south of the United States, share more in common then they’re willing to know; and Latinos and Caribbeans living in the United States are just as bonded.

I admit “Latino” and “Latin America” are made-up labels, just as Mr. Gonzalez says they are. But when the French used them to place the region and its people under one roof, the proverbial cat was let out of the bag. “Latino” and “Latin America” being misnomers doesn’t eliminate the reality that the people of Latin America and the Caribbean are, in fact, a people. What’s left for them now is to realize that.


Hector Luis Alamo is a Chicago-based writer. You can connect with him @HectorLuisAlamo.