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Who Put The 'Hispanic' In Hispanic Heritage Month?

Chelsea Beck

Hispanic Heritage Month is a nationally recognized, not-quite-a-month. (It's the back half of September and the front half of October).

That, according to the government's website, is because Sept. 15 marks the anniversary of Independence from Spain in El Salvador, Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala and Costa Rica. (Mexico declared its independence a day later). And Oct. 12 is Día de la Raza, loosely translated as Day of the Race, or "Columbus Day" — a national holiday in a number of Latin American countries.

Día de la Raza marks Christopher Columbus' landfall in the Caribbean, and is celebrated in various Latin American countries as the start of the "hispanicization" of the "new world." (It seems weird to me to include a day many believe marks the beginning of the rape, pillage and genocide that began with Columbus' voyage. But, I digress.)

Now, the whole notion that those of us from the Latin American diaspora refer to ourselves as 'Hispanic' or 'Latino' or 'Latinx' — that's pretty new. And, it's something we discussed on the podcast with Cristina Mora, a sociologist at the University of California, Berkeley. Mora wrote about the adoption of the term "Hispanic" and how the U.S. census played a big role. So, for "Hispanic Heritage Month," here's the Q&A we did with Mora about her book,Making Hispanics: How Activists, Bureaucrats, and Media Created a New American,edited for length and clarity.


Hispanic, Latino, Latinx — these terms are all used to group Americans from the Latin-American diaspora together. But you write that in the 1960s, the three largest Latin American diaspora groups — Mexicans, Puerto Ricans and Cubans — didn't really want to be grouped together. Why is that?

Oh, the issue was really contentious. On the one hand, you had Puerto Ricans, unsure of whether an alliance with Mexican-Americans would mean that their issues would be swept under the rug, because Mexicans were much larger.

Mexican-Americans were in Texas, sometimes under Jim Crow restrictions, or in places like California, where they were segregated to different schools and discriminated against. Puerto Ricans had these sorts of issues, but were also really concerned about the Puerto Rican statehood question, and what rights they had as U.S. citizens.

At the same time, these two groups had to contend with Cubans, many of whom claimed that they were white; many of whom saw themselves as not necessarily completely distinct from everyday Anglo-Americans in Florida. To the extent that [Cubans] were going to make demands on the state, it was to get the state to pay attention to Cuba. They were much less interested in making a demand based on minority rights. It just wasn't in their purview.

There was no Hispanic option on that 1960 decennial census, right?

No, not at all. There had been something called the Spanish surname count. And the Spanish surname count was a count that was only done in the Southwest. You would be labeled "Spanish Surname" if your name fell on this list that the U.S. Census Bureau had comprised of thousands of names culled from the Mexico City and the San Juan phone book. But once again, that was only if you lived in states like Texas, California, New Mexico and Colorado.

How did that change on the next census?

In the 1970 count, on the long form, which only select households were given, there was a question that asked, 'Are you of Spanish origin?'

There, people could mark off 'yes,' and then write in whatever nationality they were. They were on the road towards creating a category that would indicate some sort of umbrella, pan-ethnic grouping that wasn't necessarily tied to a practice, like the practice of speaking Spanish, or to some objective factor, like what your last name was.

But is it putting too fine a point on it to say that it was a total failure? That the 1970 census count really upset what we're calling the Latinx community, these days?

From the standpoint of the count, sure. There was a huge undercount, just as there was an undercount of African-Americans. And the Latino community and their organizations, from the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Education Fund to ASPIRA and other Puerto Rican groups, took to writing to U.S. newspapers — The Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Washington Post — assailing the U.S. Census Bureau for not adequately counting them.

In part, because they had this one select question that went to only 10 percent of households in the United States, and it wasn't in Spanish. And, they hadn't really mobilized a publicity campaign to actually teach people, 'Hey, there's this question that's about you that's incredibly important, that's going to be connected to political representation and all the ways that we see you.'

And then by 1980, the term Hispanic shows up for the first time on a census form. How did that happen?

One wouldn't necessarily think of [President Richard] Nixon as a champion of Latino rights or Latino identity. But he was open to hearing Latino concerns, in part because he grew up in Southern California, in a context where he knew Mexican-Americans existed.And they were different. Their lives were different; their experiences were different from whites. In 1972, he created the first comprehensive 'Hispanic vote' political campaigns at the presidential level that the country had ever seen. Nixon had what he called "amigo buses" that roamed around the Southwest but also the Northeast and into Florida. Those that roamed on the East Coast played salsa and cumbia and those that roamed in the Southwest played mariachi. This was before the Democratic Party did anything close to this. And the Nixon administration also pressured the Census Bureau to create an advisory board comprised of the Mexicans and the Puerto Ricans, who were incredibly loud, and also some Cuban sympathizers that had been big contributors to Nixon. One of the biggest points of debate is: What would this group be called on the census?

How did they choose the term 'Hispanic'?

Some of the advisory members said, "Hey, why not use 'brown'? We don't fit into these white, black, Asian categories. That's not us." Now, if you're a demographer, if you're a statistician, that seems like an incredible nightmare. You know, brown can mean Filipinos. Brown can be Native Americans. Brown can be South Asian Indians. This was a complete non-starter.

They went down the list. Latin American. One of the problems is that Latinos were seen as foreigners, invaders and not inherently American. And one of the jobs of the advisory board was to really show that Latinos were an American minority group, like African-Americans — a minority that stretched from coast to coast and that were patriotic, that fought in wars, that contributed to American history, that built American cities. So when a term like Latin American was used, right away, it seemed to strike discord because it was seen as too foreign.

Hispanic was never a term that everybody loved, but it was a term that got a lot of support from within Latinos in the Nixon and, later, the Ford administration.

And, then, how did they make it stick?

The Census director called all the Latino advocacy groups that were being set up in Washington, D.C. — the National Council of La Raza; the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund, and said: "HELP." NCLR set up town halls in places like Miami, New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, showing people the new census form and telling them, "Look, we're Hispanic. This is us. This is our chance. This is our category!" The second phone the Census director picked up was to Spanish-language media. At that time, the company that would later go on to be called Univision was growing rapidly. They ran documentaries, commercials, even a day-long telethon, where different performers from across Latin America came out. Each of them held out the census form and says, "Hey, remember to fill out the census. We're Hispanic on the 1980 census. This is important for us."

How did we get from arguing for totally separate identities like Mexican, Puerto Rican and Cuban, to me calling myself a Latina?

Because it takes on a life of its own! Once the category was made, everything from political groups to civic organizations to every other media group that would emerge, would draw on census data. As soon as the census numbers came out, Latino lobby groups could then run the numbers and say, 'Look, this is what Latino poverty looks like; this is what Latino educational attainment looks like.'

They could go up to the Department of Education, for example, and say, "Latinos are the second-largest minority group. And yet, our educational attainment pales to that of whites. Send money to our schools."

The same exact thing happened in the market. As soon as the numbers came out, Univision releases the first Hispanic marketing manual, in which they take figures like income, and they call it "Hispanic buying power." And they take the census report and make pitches to McDonald's and Kellogg's and everybody else. And they start to slowly grow.

During the 1980s, Latino political organizations started to demand that not only should we have a Hispanic category in the census, but we damn well should have it on birth certificates. Michigan, Georgia, Louisiana — they still categorize Latinos as whites. And there was a large political push among these groups, with even Spanish-language media writing to them and saying, 'Look, put us down as Latinos. We're not white. We're distinct. We're different.'

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Shereen Marisol Meraji is the co-host and senior producer of NPR's Code Switch podcast. She didn't grow up listening to public radio in the back seat of her parent's car. She grew up in a Puerto Rican and Iranian home where no one spoke in hushed tones, and where the rhythms and cadences of life inspired her story pitches and storytelling style. She's an award-winning journalist and founding member of the pre-eminent podcast about race and identity in America, NPR's Code Switch. When she's not telling stories that help us better understand the people we share this planet with, she's dancing salsa, baking brownies or kicking around a soccer ball.