Research, Politics & society

I say Hispanic. You say Latino. How did the whole thing start?

By Yasmin Anwar

Video by Roxanne Makasdjian and Phil Ebiner/UC Berkeley


BERKELEY – From Hollywood actor Cameron Diaz to the late labor rights leader Cesar Chavez, the labels, “Hispanic” or “Latino” cover a strikingly diverse population of more than 50 million Americans.

In her new book, UC Berkeley sociologist G. Cristina Mora traces the commercial, political and cultural interests that colluded in the 1970s to create a national Hispanic identity and, in turn, boosted the political clout of Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, Cubans, Salvadorans, Guatemalans and other Latin Americans in the United States.

A Mexican American from Los Angeles, Mora completed her undergraduate studies at UC Berkeley and her graduate work at Princeton University, before returning to UC Berkeley in 2011 as an assistant professor of sociology. Her incisive investigation into pan-ethnicity in her book, “Making Hispanics: How Activists, Bureaucrats, and Media Constructed a New America” (University of Chicago Press) – as well as her related article in this month’s edition of the American Sociological Rev iew – is sure to position her as a player in the debate over racial, ethnic and national identity in the United States, especially as it pertains to Hispanic categories in the 2020 U.S. Census. Here’s what Mora has to say about the origins of the Hispanic category and where it’s headed.

How has your personal background shaped your scholarship?

Growing up Mexican American in Los Angeles in the 1980s and 1990s, I wouldn’t have been caught dead calling myself “Hispanic.” I called myself “Chicana.” It was not until I moved to the East Coast in 2003 and was around more Puerto Ricans, Cubans and South Americans that I realized that the Hispanic or Latino identity means something drastically different on the East Coast than it does on the West Coast. It was then that I started to think deeply about how this label can capture so many people who are so radically different from one another, and that story became my Ph.D. dissertation and my book.

Cubans in Miami are a diverse group within themselves and part of the larger Hispanic category

Cubans in Miami are a diverse group unto themselves and part of the larger Hispanic category

What’s the gist of your book?

It’s a story about people being disadvantaged, being a statistically reliable group and being consumers. All of these elements came together in an almost perfect storm in the 1970s when activists, the media and government bureaucrats learned how to work together to put out this pan-ethnic message.

How did this movement start?

It was the activists who first went to the Census Bureau and said, ‘You have got to create a category. You have got to distinguish us from whites.’ Up until that time, the Census Bureau mainly grouped Mexican Americans, Puerto Ricans and Cubans in the same category as Irish and Italian, and that became a real problem because it couldn’t show the government the poverty rates between Mexicans and whites. There was pushback on how large and how broad the category could be, but ultimately, a Hispanic category was established.

How was the category sold to Latin Americans?

The Census Bureau asked activists and the Spanish-language media to promote the category. The media created documentaries and commercials. There was even a Telethon where people called in, and were encouraged to identify as Hispanic on the Census form. We can see why the media executives were so happy and so quick to help the Census Bureau because, later on, it became in their interests to help grow that cooperation.

Why was that?

Until that time, Spanish-language media executives had been creating separate television stations and programming for Mexican Americans, Puerto Ricans and Cubans. Suddenly they were able to start using some of this broad Census data and go to advertisers like McDonald’s and Coca Cola and say, ‘Look, we’re a national Hispanic community and our consumer needs are different so invest in us and we will get you Hispanic consumer dollars.’ With that strategy, they were able to connect stations across the country, and over time, create a Spanish-language McDonald’s commercial that could broadcast to a national audience.

Spanish-language media also became an important platform to get the Hispanic political agenda out to communities, and activists were a regular feature on Spanish-language newscasts. For example, if you need funding for bilingual education, you lobby the federal government, you testify before Congress. But if you can go on nightly network news and speak to your people in their language, the message really gets out.

Weren’t Hispanics just being exploited to make a buck?

Spanish-language media is key to keeping immigration reform in the spotlight

Spanish-language media is key to keeping immigration reform in the spotlight

On the one hand, there were media executives selling the idea of a hot new consumer market. On the other hand, this hot new consumer market still has high poverty rates compared to other groups. But without the media, activists have a hard time getting the message out. If you look at Spanish-language media right now, it’s the perhaps the No. 1 means of getting out information about immigration policy reform. Whereas other networks have moved onto the next hot topic, it’s Spanish-language media that’s still reporting on the issue.

How did they bring together such a diverse group?

The Spanish-language media was key to creating a narrative about Hispanics. For example, one of the most popular Spanish-language programs at that time was the Miami-based El Show de Cristina, billed as the Spanish-language version of Oprah. On the set, Cristina might have a Colombian family, a Mexican family and a Puerto Rican family talking about the difficulties of raising second- generation immigrant children or passing on the Spanish language and traditions. This created an image that we were together, that we share the same problems, that we are a community.

Weren’t there enough Mexican Americans to warrant their own category?

In the 1970s, this was fine if you wanted to capture the California governor’s attention, but it wasn’t enough for capturing President Nixon or President Ford’s attention, and it certainly wasn’t enough for capturing the attention of East Coast politicians because many of them had never even met a Mexican. But when activists were able to cite the number of Cubans in Florida, Puerto Ricans in New York, Salvadorans in DC and Mexicans in the Southwest, and when they were able to argue that these groups were all connected and were all in need of resources for job training programs and bilingual education, then they were onto something. It was only then that activists could get federal attention – by making Latin American groups seem like part of a national constituency.

What do Hispanics have in common other than the Spanish language?

Cuban-American journalist Cristina Saralegui, the Hispanic "Oprah." helped promote in Hispanic identity in her show that ran for 21 years until it was canceled in 2010.

Cuban-American journalist Cristina Saralegui helped promote a Hispanic identity in a popular show that ran for 21 years until it was canceled in 2010.

In many cases, they don’t even have that in common. You have the person whose great-grandmother came from Argentina, but has never visited Latin America, and does not speak Spanish, lumped into the exact same category as a Guatemalan who just crossed the U.S. border.  One argument the book makes is that in order for all these government, market and political interests to come together, the category had to become broader in order to fit in all these ideas about Hispanics being consumers, or Hispanics being disadvantaged people.

Over time, the Hispanic identity has become based on cultural generalities such as ‘We all love our families. We are all religious and we all have some connection to the Spanish language however far back that may be.’  That’s a weakness and a strength. It was because of that ambiguity that we have the large numbers who identify as Hispanic and who have made advances.  But when you have such a broad and opaque category it’s hard to elicit and sustain passion and commitment.

Is the Hispanic category here to stay or is change in the air?

When the category was first established, Latinos were a smaller percentage of the population, but now we’re the largest minority group with increased migration from central and South America and the Caribbean. Why does the guy with the grandmother from Argentina have more claim to the Latino category than, say, Brazilians or Haitians? These questions are going to be asked and we are going to need to develop a new narrative even if it means splintering the group in some ways.

At the same time, I would advocate that we not forget the political origins of the Hispanic label, that we not forget there are real experiences of discrimination and disadvantage that started this story and that continue today. If we dangerously slip into just a narrative about culture, we forget that there is, within the population, a considerable number of people who still face poverty and a lack of education that the larger community can mobilize help for. There are still really important issues like immigration reform that this community can mobilize its strength toward, but it can only be done with an eye toward respecting diversity.

What about Hispanic vs. Latino?

Hispanic generally refers to the way that Latin Americans are united through their connection to Spain and their links to Spanish culture and tradition. Spaniards would be included in this formulation, but Brazilians would not. Latino, on the other hand, is usually used to refer to the way that Latin Americans are connected to one another via their common history of colonization. Spaniards, then, would not be part of this formulation, while Brazilians might. Yet for the most part, these labels and categories are ambiguous and lots of organizations and institutions invest in keeping these terms as ambiguous and as broad as possible.

As for the breakdown, there is still a slight preference for Hispanic over Latino – 51-49 percent – and it’s more regional and less political. Urban areas on the coasts prefer Latino. Rural areas in states like Texas and New Mexico use Hispanic. Organizations have become adept at using both. The media prefers “Latino.”

Which do you prefer to be called?