Hispanic Heritage Month: What’s in a Name?

cucaracha824.gif I’ve had locals and people from out of state ask me all the time about terminology for people from Latin American countries. They usually bring it up when I mention one of my undergraduate majors, Chicana/o Studies, or am adamant that I not be called Hispanic.

I know identity politics and terms can be confusing. I’ve changed my mind on the subject a couple of times. I’ve gone from Mexican(a) to Mexican American to Hispanic to Latina to Chicana and then back to Chicana/Mexicana. When asked for my race, I say Mestiza. Oh yeah, and I’ll check boxes like Hispanic even if I don’t like the term. Opinions on labels differ, even amongst the “experts.” Yes, I know it is confusing.

So, how are you supposed to know what to call us?

Panethnic terms:

Raza: translates to race, but is often used as “people.” I use Raza as an all encompassing panethnic term.

Latina/o: most people I know in LA choose Latina or Latino over Hispanic. It encompasses people from Spanish-speaking countries. Some people wonder whether or not it includes countries like Portugal and Haiti. I’m not sure, I just stick with the easy stuff.

Although I think the term Latina/o is okay and it doesn’t bother me too much, I really dislike Latin. As Elenamary, an Irish Xicana in Ohio, writes Latin is a dead language, not a people.

Hispanic (or Hispano): term used most often in business and on government forms. Main reason I know a lot of people don’t like it is because of it’s roots and because the term implies that all people from Latin America speak Spanish and have some kind of Spanish roots. Not true. Others claim that using such a panethnic term lumps together a lot of different people who might share language, but obsures differences in immigration patterns, colonization, class and even race. Oh yeah, and those who want to reject the colonization of the Americas dislike it because the term focuses on the colonizer.

Brown: very simple. Yes, I know there are a lot of brown people and a lot of people from Latin America don’t even look brown. Still, it’s easy and quick to use. I use it because I feel I have some privilege as a Chicana.

Nationalities: I like using nationalities (i.e. Mexicana/o or SalvadoreÒa/o) when I know them, but you should take care in doing this. I know people who get offended if you automatically think that they are Mexican just because they speak Spanish and have dark skin.

Chicana/o: a lot of people assume you have to be Mexican to call yourself a Chicana/o.

Ruben Salazar, a former LA Times journalist, defined Chicanos in an article in the late ’60s:

“A Chicano is a Mexican-American with a non-Anglo image of himself. He resents being told Columbus ‘discovered’ America when the Chicano’s ancestors, the Mayans and the Aztecs, founded highly sophisticated civilizations centuries before Spain financed the Italian explorer’s trip to the ‘New World’.”

Although this was the case in the late ’60s, the term has evolved and many people, including myself, do not see Mexican heritage as a prerequisite for calling oneself Chicana/o.

These terms are all incredibly fluid and changing. I don’t feel the right to tell someone what to call themselves, but just ask that they respect the label I choose. If I were to recommend one, I’d go with Latina/o.

10 thoughts on “Hispanic Heritage Month: What’s in a Name?”

  1. Well, here’s what the real answer-man, GUSTAVO ARELLANO says:
    From the OC Weekly April 8-14, 2004
    “Dear Mexican,

    Why do many Mexicans call themselves ìLatinoî instead of just ìMexicanî? Are they ashamed of something?


    Dear Gabacho,

    What Mexicans are you talking to? Gloria Estefan? Self-appointed spokespeople for la raza such as Orange County Register ìLatinoî columnist Yvette Cabrera and Dora the Explorer want you to believe Mexicans drop their nationality en los Estados Unidos in favor of the pan-hemispheric Latino. Well, thatís a pinche lie. Only PC gabachos and Mexicans pining to be PC gabachos call Mexicans ìLatinos.î But youíre right about Mexicans rarely calling themselves ìMexican,î John. Since there are so many damn Mexicans in Orange County, we more commonly identify ourselves by stateóI, for instance, am from the central state of Zacatecas, Mexico. But since there are so many damn Zacatecans in Orange County, we usually branch off by municiparioóthe rough equivalent of a county. Iím from the municipario of Jerez, Zacatecas, but since there are so many damn jerezanos in Orange County, we then divide ourselves by ranchos (villages)óI hail from El Cargadero, Jerez, Zacatecas, Mexico. But since there are so many damn cargaderenses in Orange County . . . you get the picture. Provincialism is as Mexican as tequila and the illegal-immigrant cousinóthere are multiple soccer and baseball leagues in Orange County organized around different ranchos, municiparios and states. In fact, the last thing a Mexican will call himself is a Mexicanóand only to differentiate himself at work from that mÈndigo Guatemalan. “

  2. Rachel,
    I suppose I could just parrot what, my fellow Cargaderense, Gustavo Arellano, writes in his weekly column. We may both hail from the same small rancho in the Mexican state of Zacatecas, but we still see things differently. Plus, a lot of what Gustavo writes is related to Mexicans and Raza in the OC. And yeah, it’s just a few miles away, but I want to focus on LA.

  3. The issue of names is one I’ve been thinking a lot about lately. Not just as relates to Latina/os, but also African-Americans, Chinese-Americans, Icelandic-Americans, et al. I realize that in many cases we’re talking about citizens of other countries, but I’m referring to those that were either born here or became US citizens. How about we drop the fancy labels entirely and just call those people “Americans?”

    I’m not trying to diminish the importance of anyone’s heritage or cultural background; I certainly celebrate my own. I love Guinness, celtic music and potatoes, but I am *not* an Irish-American. I think it’s important to celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month, Black History Month, etc., because we all need a sense of where we’ve come from; our own history. On the other hand, I think that the labels can sometimes be a divisive symbol of separatism.

    Before the criticism starts, just remember that unlike the president, I’m a uniter, not a divider.

  4. Rachel,
    Well, he seems to be writing enough. I don’t know him personally, but how about featuring some other Latino bloggers in LA who don’t write for an alternative weekly?

    Like I said, if you want to call yourself American, great. In fact if I came across another person with my similar background who just wanted to be called American, I wouldn’t mind. I think the issue of identity is very personal and I should be able to choose which name I call myself.

    Personally I feel very close to my Mexican ancestry. I am bilingual, have a lot of family in Mexico and my customs are all uniquely infused with that culture. I don’t just eat tortillas and think that listening to a mariachi is all I need to to celebrate my culture. I live it, and for that reason I’ve decided to embrace an identity that recognizes my biculturalism.

    Also, all Latinos are Americans. We do come from the continents of North and South America. Mexicans, Venezuelans and Costa Ricans are all Americans just as we consider French, British and Russians Europeans.

  5. And it’s not even confined to ethic labels. As I’ve written before, I abhor being called “disabled”, because I’m generally quite able. If asked, I’m handicapped, because that’s what I am, an able person with a handicap.

    That said, I do think that there’s a bit more to ethnic labels since they often have racist underpinnings. Ask the Inuit.

    Personally, I prefer self-labelling, kinda like my Flickr tags.

  6. “but how about featuring some other Latino bloggers in LA who don’t write for an alternative weekly?”

    Because he’s a writer who has more going for him than just the Latino tag and he’s funny. Why read the mediocre when we can read the talented?

    There are Costa Ricans of Germanic descent–are they Hispanic? Selma Hayek is of Middle Eastern descent–is she really Mexican?

  7. Rachel,

    You don’t seem to get it. I tried emailing you, but you might want to get an address that actually works.

    First, he is in Orange County and addresses most of what he writes to that area. Whatever we write on b.la should be related to LA. Simple.

    Two, if you want to read Gustavo then just go to his column, or do a search on the OC Weekly for all the stuff he’s written. I find him funny too, but also know that there are other talented people worth reading online. How would you know if they are mediocre or not if you’ve probably never read them. Arellano also briefly had a blog that you can read at ronmaydon at blogspot (the actual link won’t go through) since you’re such a big fan.

    Three, suggesting featuring another Mexican writer is actually a little offensive. Gustavo is not a mouthpiece for Mexicans and as with any community there is a lot of diversity. I might see things different ways than him and that’s okay.

    Four, b.la is about using a personal angle and not just copying and pasting what we find on other websites or in other print publications. Copying and pasting his writings would just defeat the purpose of b.la and other metroblogging sites.

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