One of the most frustrating aspects of trying to correct the false narratives about México is the wrongly used term: Mexicans – for people who are U.S. citizens but are of Hispanic, or Latino heritage. The word Mexican is consistently used interchangeably to identify U.S. citizens of Mexican descent and those who are Mexican citizens. Often, I am faced with having to explain that a movement or a political activity is perfectly legal and correct because it is being driven by U.S. citizens who happen to have Mexican heritage. I believe that the word Mexican should only refer to a citizen of México, whether a dual citizen or not. Before the pitchforks start coming out, this has nothing to do with anyone’s cultural heritage or their ethnicity, but rather with having a dialog without misinformation.
For example, when a referendum is created to include Spanish translations of government documents, the referendum has nothing to do with Mexican citizens or Mexican immigrants who do not hold U.S. citizenship. Laws can only be voted upon by U.S. citizens. Thus, when referring to advocates of any political measure, it is important to remember that the only ones that can make it happen are U.S citizen voters. The issue got me thinking about the terms used in the United States for culture, ethnicity, national origin and race.
I have noticed that those educated in U.S. schools do not have a strong understanding of the differences between culture, national origin or race. I am a Mexican citizen but I am also white and I am mestizo, a Mexican construct. For many, that simple fact raises eyebrows and sometimes leads to debating whether I’m truly white, or Mexican. Much of the disconnect comes from how the term race was originally used to group people of similar language and traits together. Colonialism didn’t help matters as race empowered the Europeans to enslave others and eradicate the Native Americans from the New World. The origins of race classifications empowered one group of people over others.
The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) asserted in 1950 that race was a myth, arguing that all of us belong to the same species. Race continues to generate much debate across the globe with some arguing for and others against the different classifications. The United States, as well as other governments, including México, insist on having us categorize ourselves as a race and as an ethnicity.
This forces us to classify ourselves. The rise in DNA science has muddied the race waters even more leading scientist to debate the race classifications ad nausea. Since we tend to compartmentalize ourselves into little, self-imposed social, ethnically and economic groups, we continue to fill in the little boxes on the forms inquiring about our identity.
In the United States there exists a term that is mostly absent in all other countries – Hispanic. Hispanics are made up of many different cultures all grouped together based on general traits and sometimes just because of language. Since the term came to be, the different groups organized around the Hispanic label have pushed back arguing that not all Hispanics are the same and thus they should not be grouped together. For example, the all-encompassing term, Hispanic has been used to define whites, blacks, Native Americans and even nationalities like Hondurans, Guatemalans or Mexicans. Thus, we see words, like Mexican-American, used to further refine the groups.
But how did the uniquely U.S. term, Hispanic come to be?
Curiously, the term came to be because of the changing face of U.S. politics that, much to the chagrin of those advocating “assimilation,” has resulted in a demographic shift in U.S. politics. Politicians started to notice the rise in Spanish speaking activists who were imposing their views upon the national narrative. The Cubans in Miami, the Mexicans across the southwest, mainly in the states that were formally Mexican, and the Puerto Ricans in the New York area all had Spanish in common. Politically, they each had different principles. The Cubans generally supported anti-Castro and anti-Communism policies while the Mexicans were divided into two general groups, the many-generations of U.S. citizens and the undocumented workers working the fields.
The politicians needed to statistically quantify this rising political bloc and thus the term, Hispanic was born. The term ignored then, and continues to ignore today, that the political ideology is diverse within the group tied together by the term Hispanic. Anglos tend to view the world through the simple context of English and similar culture, against all others. Diversity is alien to them.
However, the term was not only an Anglo construct but it was also an opportunity for Spanish language minorities to exert their political clout by grouping themselves together. Hispanics are generally considered, by many, as the fastest growing political segment in U.S. politics. The reason for this is that in the 1970’s, minority groups started to realize that they needed numbers to be noticed. Cubans and Puerto Ricans, by themselves were numerically insignificant in national politics. Joining them with the Mexicans, or Chicanos and the other Spanish speaking groups transformed a small group into the fastest-growing political bloc in the nation. Additionally, they also had help from the advertisers who needed to sell advertising space based on large demographic groupings.
There is a constant ongoing argument between Univision and the English-speaking networks about national ratings with Univision claiming that the ratings do not adequately measure the demographic they serve. Univision, in the 1970’s, needed an artificial identity to group its market to quantify it for advertising purposes. The activists and the advertisers thus allied together to make the term – Hispanic – an official construct.
The boost to make the Hispanic label official came from an unlikely source – Richard Nixon. In 1969, Nixon created the Cabinet Committee on Opportunities for Spanish Speaking People. In his signing ceremony statement for the committee, Nixon stated “in the 1970 census we will learn, for the first time, exactly what portion of the American public is made up of Spanish speaking and Spanish-surname Americans.” Until then, the national narrative was seeing a rising demographic, but was not quantifying it. Nixon was reelected with an estimated 40% of the Spanish-language heritage vote in 1972. This, after Watergate had started to metastasize into a full-blown scandal. Interestingly, Nixon is credited with appointing more Hispanics, a term being created at the time, then John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson. He remained at the top of the list until Bill Clinton surpassed him.
Because of Nixon’s interest in the Spanish speaking demographic and the need to quantify the demographic for television ratings and grassroots efforts, a question was added to the long-form of the 1970 Census. It asked for the person’s origin. The respondents were asked to mark one of the following: Central or South American, Cuban, Mexican, Puerto Rican, other Spanish or none of these. The Census long-form is used for sampling purposes and does not go to all households.
According to a March 3, 2010, Pew Research report by D’Vera Cohn about how the Census started counting Hispanics, the 1970 Census counted 9.1 million Hispanics in the country. This was about 500,000 less than the estimates before the census. There was also some controversy about how the “Central or South American” category mistakenly included people living in the central and south regions of the country. The Pew report added that in 1980, the question was moved to the short form that is answered by all households. This version also removed the controversial “Central or South American” category. The 1980 Census showed 14.6 million Hispanics on the country.
However, the 1970 Census, along with the divergent factions trying to quantify the number of the rising demographic, were still dealing about how to bring together different ethnic backgrounds into one quantifiable group. The adoption of the term, Hispanic, is credited to Grace Flores-Hughes, a government employee working at the Department of Health, Education and Welfare, a federal agency in the 1970’s.
According to an undated Harvard Journal of Hispanic Policy essay by Flores-Hughes, she coined the term because of the objections to a study identifying educational issues affecting minorities in the country. Flores-Hughes relates that Native Americans objected to the term “Indians” to refer to them, while Hispanics were not happy being labelled Chicanos or Mexican Americans. According to her, the diverse Spanish-speaking demographic wanted a unifying term for all of them while allowing them to keep their national identities intact.
In 1975, under orders from the Education and Welfare Secretary, Casper Weinberger, the Ad Hoc Committee on Racial and Ethnic Definitions was formed. The mission of the committee was to develop definitions for ethnicities and race for federal agencies to use in quantifying the different demographics for reporting purposes. Grace Flores-Hughes writes that after much emotional debate, the terms Hispanic and Latino were adopted as the terms to use for the Spanish-speaking demographic in U.S. government reporting. Thus, Hispanics is the label used today for the fastest growing demographic in U.S. politics.
But there remains the original problem – the fact the Hispanic term does not represent a united demographic.
There are many ethnicities that are defined by Hispanic but their political ideologies are across the spectrum. As much as the media and some of the politicians attempt to group the different ethnicities and cultures together, the fact remains that each has their own unique set of historical circumstances. For example, the Cubans came to the United States fleeing the Fidel Castro regime and the Communism he represented. As such, for the Cubans, who were welcomed with open arms by U.S authorities, the underlining political issue for them is generally anti-Communism and a rejection of normalizing relations with Cuba.
However, the Mexicans, as an ethnicity, may have the common ancestry of México as their origin, but they are further divided into different groups by different circumstances. U.S. born Hispanics of Mexican ancestry, for example, are even further divided between those that have been living in their region for generations and the new comers, who also span generations. There are the natives who have lived where they live even though their nationality has changed from Spanish, to Mexican on to United States citizens. Those in Texas were even Texans at one time.
Their political ideology is defined by their historical record of animosity from fellow United States citizens who treated them as inferior, not as American as they were. Then there are the many generations of Mexican immigrants that emigrated to settle in the United States establishing deep roots in the country that many times tried to expel them and often used them as economic tools. The generational demographic often saw the new comers as the cause of further friction from the Anglos and as a threat to their own livelihoods. Although of similar backgrounds, their political realities were different but many times they had to deal with the same antagonists. The demographic further fragmented by the transit Mexican citizens, who came to work only to return to México once they are done working. Undocumented workers were also fragmented away from the rest because of their undocumented status.
This is not to say that the fragmented Mexican-origin demographic did not come together during serious moments of strife, but rather, that they united to fight a common enemy when it was palatable to the different clusters.
Thus, the notion that Hispanics hold the same political ideology is false. This is also true for those who can trace their heritage back to México.
Those wishing to observe this dynamic can clearly see this in the cuisine of New Mexico, which is distinct from the Tex-Mex cuisine from Texas. A clear lineage between New Mexican food can be traced back to Spain, while Tex-Mex can be traced to Mexican influences, but not directly to México.
This is why the notion of the rising Hispanic voter is a myth. The election of Donald Trump exposed the myth for what it is – a group of political ideologies artificially grouped together. Understanding that Hispanics is a label that defines a group ideologically not unified then it becomes clear why many U.S. voters, defined as Hispanics, voted for Trump.
This brings us back to the often-misused term, Mexican, for political rhetoric. Just like Hispanic does not define the demographic it pretends to, neither does the term Mexican. Mexican citizens may be undocumented in the United States and they may want to exercise some control over their destinies, but the fact remains that only U.S. citizens can make the laws. This is also true for Mexicans, like myself, who pay taxes and live legally in the country but ultimately, have no say in the public policy of the nation because we cannot vote.
For that reason, it is important to stop using the term to argue public policy like immigration and political rhetoric, like assimilation, because the only ones that can drive the public agenda in the United States are U.S. citizen voters.
As a non-citizen, I often express my opinion but my opinion does not drive public policy in the U.S. Likewise, undocumented immigrants are often blamed for issues that they have no control over. For example, Spanish language interpreters or cultural diversity.
The country needs to stop blaming those that cannot vote and instead focus on those that are making national policy through the ballot boxes, i.e. U.S. citizens, no matter what their national origin is because, ultimately, no matter where they came from, they are United States citizens with the right and the authority to drive the national agenda in whichever direction they want.