Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

Where did 'Hispanics' come from?

By Claude Fischer


Oldsters may well wonder where the term Hispanic, and for that matter, Latino, came from. The press and pundits are all abuzz about the Hispanic vote, Hispanic organizations, and Hispanic cultural influences. Back in the mid-twentieth century, however, they wrote about Mexicans or Puerto Ricans or Guatemalans, not about Hispanics.


Of course, people of Latin American origin have become far more numerous in the United States since then and the immigration itself brings more attention. Nonetheless, the labelshavechanged. Starting in the 1970s, the media rapidly adopted the pan-ethnic term Hispanic, and to a lesser degree, Latino, and slowed down their use of specific national labels.[1] So did organizations, agencies, businesses, and Hispanics themselves.

As recounted in her important new book,Making Hispanics, sociologist (and my colleague) G. Cristina Mora tells the story of how people as diverse as Cuban-born businessmen in Miami, undocumented Mexican farm workers in California, and third-generation part-Puerto Ricans in New York who do not even understand Spanish were brought together into one social category: Hispanic-Americans.

Politics, Business, and Government

Mora describes an alliance that emerged in the 1970s among grassroots activists, Spanish-language broadcasters, and federal officials to define and promote Hispanic.

Activists had previously stressed their national origins and operated regionally notably, Mexicans in the southwest (where the term Chicano became popular for a while) and Puerto Ricans in the northeast. But the larger the numbers they could claim by joining together, the more political clout, the more governmental funds, and the more philanthropic support they could claim. Pumping up the numbers was particularly important given their latent competition with African-American activists over limited resources and limited media attention. Some pan-ethnic term promised to yield the biggest count.

Univision ad

Spanish-language television broadcasters, notably Univision, looked to expand their appeal to advertisers by delivering them a national market. Although the broadcasters faced obstacles in appealing to Spanish-language viewers across the country differing significantly in programming tastes and dialects, they managed to amalgamate the audiences by replacing content imported from abroad with content developed in the United States. They could then sell not medium-to-small Mexican-, Cuban-, or Puerto Rican-American audiences to advertisers, but one huge Hispanic-American audience.

Making the term official as a census category helped both activists and entrepreneurs. Previously, the Bureau of the Census classified Latin Americans as whites with distinct national origins, usually poorly measured. The activists pressed the census bureau, as did some politicians, to provide as broad a label as possible and count everyone who might conceivably fit the category, including, for example, the African-origin Dominicans (although not the French-speaking Haitians nor the Portuguese-speaking Brazilians). This pressure led to the 1980 formulation, used ever since, in which the census asks Americans whether or not they are Hispanic separately from whether they are white, black, Asian, or Indian.

The three interest groups worked together to publicize and promote the idea and the statistical category of Hispanic. As Mora explains, leaving the labels meaning somewhat ambiguous was useful in both expanding the numbers and in selling the category as a large needy population to the government and as numerous, affluent consumers to advertisers. The three parties also campaigned to get other institutions, such as state vital statistics bureaus and big businesses to adopt Hispanic as an official category.

Many so-called Hispanics preferred and still prefer to call themselves by their national origins; Mora quotes a 1990s bumper sticker, Dont Call Me Hispanic, Im Cuban! But the term has taken over.

And, so Hispanic-Americans matter a lot now.


map with faces

Categories of people that we take to be fixed for example, our assumptions that people are old or young, black or white, male or female often turn out to be not fixed at all. Social scientists have documented the way the definition of Negro/African American/black has shifted over the generations. There was a time, for example, when the census bureau sought to distinguish octoroons and a time when it could not figure out how to classify people from the Indian subcontinent.

InMaking Hispanics, Mora lets us see close up just how this new category, Hispanic, that we now take to be a persons basic identity, was created, debated, and certified.

One lesson is that it could have been otherwise. If the pace and sources of migration had been different or if the politics of the 1970s had cut differently, maybe we would be talking about two separate identities, Chicano and Other Spanish-speaking. Or maybe we would be classifying the darker-skinned with Blacks and lighter-skinned with Whites. Or something else.Making Hispanicsteaches us much about the social construction of identity.



[1] Based on my analysis of statistics onNew York Timesstories and the nGram data on words in American books. Use of Chicano surged in 1960s and 1970s, but then faded as Latino and, especially, Hispanic rose.

Cross-posted from Claude Fischers blog, Made in America: Notes on American life from American history.