OPINION: Latin-o/a/@/e/x Is Here to Stay

May 26, 2021
5:11 PM

I think most people know that Latin doesn’t capture the incredible diversity of people from countries with official Latin languages.

My grandmother’s great-grandmother spoke a Native language and dressed traditionally. No one can remember what nation she came from. Was it Navajo? Was it Rararumi from the Chihuahua, Mexico area? All we know is that our roots go deep into the Southwest. Thanks to both circumstantial and DNA evidence, we also now know that most of my matrilineal ancestors were Conversos, Jews that escaped the inquisition’s wrath by coming to the Americas in the 17th century and converting under pressure or by force to Catholicism.

We also know that there was a West African ancestor or two, a secret that DNA has only recently brought into the light. DNA analysis isn’t perfect and can only tell so much, but it’s hard to dispute the specific mix of our Euro ancestry (Spanish/Portuguese, Levantine, Egyptian, Broadly North African, Ashkenazi) that is also corroborated by high-probability Sephardic last names such as Baiza, Cardona, and Carmona.

I don’t know a lot about my father’s family and he refuses to take a test. His mother was orphaned and his father was MIA. What I do know is that his mother’s side of the family has appearances ranging from Middle Eastern to West African. Many people, upon meeting my father’s mother for the first time, thought she was Black. The same is true for my little sister, who looks more like my dad’s side. I asked my then 80-year-old grandmother (my dad’s mom) in the 1990s where her people came from and she said that she couldn’t remember anyone being from the other side (Mexico) or not from LA or Fresno, but that her great-aunt thought that there was someone from Aguascalientes, Mexico, but if that were true, they would have come to Alta California in the 1800s.

I have a great-grandfather on my mom’s father’s side that was from Guanajuato, Mexico, who settled in Calexico, California, in 1921. I never met him. On top of all of this mix, my family on both sides lost the Spanish language in the 1950s, so, most of us don’t even speak a Latin language anymore (I learned it as any gringo might do so—in school and by marrying a Mexican national).

If there is anyone that has a reason to eschew any version of the “Latin” term, it’s me.

But I don’t think that the authors of the opinion piece “Rethinking Latino,” Dr. Gabriel Buelna and Enrique Buelna, make a strong enough case for me to let it go or even to use it “sparingly.” Their research is solid but still fails to capture the heart of the popularity of the term nor do they fully explain why it was even on the menu of terms to choose from in the 1980s when people were resisting Hispanic.

Latin America was coined by Michel Chevalier in the 1800s and used by Napoleon III to identify a very specific cultural reality of our lives that had been imposed for some and imported for others: a Latin language (Spanish, Portuguese, and rarely French), the Roman (i.e. Latin) Catholic Church, and generally a culture of Western European civilization strongly grounded in Greco-Roman ways. This identity was used as a foil to the then growing threat from the Anglo-Saxons who were becoming too powerful. In fact, Napoleon III urged the people of the Americas to engage in a defense du sang Latin, that is, we were asked to defend the Latin blood against the Anglos.

As a native North American from the U.S. mainland, I have always noticed that people from Latin American countries that are mainstream and mixed (i.e., not from isolated Native communities or Coastal/African ones) are way more like Spaniards, Italians, Greeks, or even some French people than they are like Anglo-Saxons or those of us who have inherited a lot of the Anglo culture and worldview. I remember marveling at how my husband from Guerrero, Mexico, and my friend from Athens, Greece, identified with each other, shared cultural norms of space and respect, and even had similar, cheesy musical tastes. I remember feeling like the gringo among them. While Greeks aren’t Latins, the Latins adopted the Greek culture. My point is that anyone who gets educated in Mexico or Brazil or other Latin American countries is strongly centered in a Greco-Roman perspective, regardless of race.

Latin never was a term meant to represent our diversity. It was a term that represented a lowest common denominator and a challenge to Anglo-Saxon dominance.

What the authors get absolutely right is that most people do strongly identify with their family’s place of origin. As long as there is any immigration from any country in Latin America and as long as people treat us as foreigners even when we have been in the U.S. longer than them, that will continue to be the case. And even for really old families like mine, most of us still say Mexican or Chicano or Boricua or Cubano even if no one alive in our families is from anywhere other than a state or territory of the U.S. Such is the experience of those who have been conquered or colonized by the U.S. at some point. A handful of my cousins just say American and refuse any term other than that, but that’s a different story about internalized racism and xenophobia that deserves special treatment.

But make no mistake, our lowest common denominators of being native peoples and descendants of Western Europeans or Africans or both, coupled with a still highly Latinized culture are what creates a contrast to the American (U.S.) culture that is dominated by Anglo-Saxon norms.

We see this in each other, regardless of our specific family origins. We often look like each other. But even when we don’t, we often have similar values and speak the same language. We need a term that most people can get behind when we want to combine our political influence and protect our right to live how we live and speak how we speak (Spanish for most of us in the U.S. and, increasingly, Portuguese). Power is a numbers game. If we focus only on our particular group —Ecuadorians, for example— then actually getting anything for that community is going to be tough as Mexicans, Puerto Ricans and Cubans have the largest populations and longest political histories here.

In theory, Latin isn’t complete enough and disrespects our non-Latin roots. In practice, however, it has worked for most people when we need to invoke the aforementioned shared history and experience—ironically, it’s exactly that shared experience of being colonized by the Latins that has forged the Latino identity. Except for the educated elite among us, no one is thinking of the Conquest when they say Latine people need more representation in the legislature or in medicine or in law, etc.

The authors recognize that fact, but they underestimate its importance in public life. I spent 20 years in the Midwest, working with Ecuadorians, Mexicans, Mexican-Americans, Dominicans, Puerto Ricans, Salvadorans, Guatemalans, Cubans, and even a few Argentines. I guarantee you the “Latino community” is real and that there is such a thing as a “Latino vote.” You just have to be around all that diversity at the same time to see it. If you are only in a Cuban community or only in a Mexican community or only in a Guatemalan community, you kind of know there are some similarities, but you might not see the synergy that erupts when we work together. That doesn’t mean we don’t have disagreements or tensions or need to emphasize when a specific group within that community is disproportionately suffering. We can call attention to the needs of specific communities while getting other Latinos to empathize and take action.

To be fair, I agree with the intent of “Rethinking Latino.” Yes, a term or a focus that is too broad can sometimes be misleading when it comes to understanding data or a problem. For example, a recent survey of Californians found that 52% of Latinos think that the police treat all ethnic groups equally (compared to 18% for Black Californians). That result seems amazingly off to me. Even if you assume that in California, “Latino” is tilted toward Mexican, it doesn’t make sense. I think that’s because even Mexican would be too broad. I come from a very old family in Los Angeles. We have stories about police brutality and racism that go back generations. I know very few people from Chicano families like ours (if this were a bigger study, I’d probably be including Puerto Ricans in Chicago and New York) who think the police treat everyone equally or fairly. In this case, “Latino” is definitely obscuring part of the picture.

Still, I think the benefits of embracing Latino/e are worth the costs. To make change and to wield power, we need to act collectively. Latino is not a perfect term, but it is the only term that has been accepted widely enough (Hispanic is still a thing but not nearly as popular and it purposely does exclude a lot of other Latinos) to fit the bill. Ultimately, even with its growing popularity, there is no permutation of Latin that is going to erase our unique ethnic, cultural, linguistic, and racial histories. Oddly enough, the argument provided by the Drs. Buelna as to the enduring strength of the identities we get from our families of origin, is precisely why I don’t think we really need to “rethink Latino.” I won’t say never, but for now, this Native, Chicano descendant of Crypto-Jews and Africans has learned to embrace it.


Rey López-Calderón is the advancement director of Alliance San Diego. He has a wealth of experience in organizational development, fundraising, and organizing that he uses to improve the lives of the communities he serves. Twitter: @reylc.