Who Are Latino Americans Today?

“It seems as if the rest of the country is perpetually in the act of discovering us,” Marie Arana writes in a new book, “LatinoLand: A Portrait of America’s Largest and Least Understood Minority.” It is equally true that an overwhelming amount of the cultural production about Latinos (books, news-media coverage, even the National Museum

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“It seems as if the rest of the country is perpetually in the act of discovering us,” Marie Arana writes in a new book, “LatinoLand: A Portrait of America’s Largest and Least Understood Minority.” It is equally true that an overwhelming amount of the cultural production about Latinos (books, news-media coverage, even the National Museum of the American Latino) seems to be perpetually in the act of explaining them. Trying to move past this continual Latino 1src1, Arana, a former editor and a writer-at-large at the Washington Post and the inaugural literary director at the Library of Congress, has produced one of the broadest portrayals available of this vastly diverse population of sixty-four million people. “LatinoLand” aims to show that Latinos are as essential to the fabric of America as everyone else is, and it does so by deconstructing the most pervasive stereotypes around them.

Stereotype 1: all Latinos are recent arrivals. They are not. Arana—who uses “Latino,” a label that most commonly signifies Latin American heritage, and “Hispanic,” which denotes Spanish-speaking ancestry, interchangeably, to the point of referring to a Spaniard as having “Latino roots”—traces the “dawn of the Latino presence” in the United States to the conquistador Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, the first Spaniard to spend extensive amounts of time in what is now Florida, starting in 1528. She writes about the first free Black man to settle in what would become New York City, the Dominican Juan Rodríguez, who came to Manahatta Island, in 1613, on a Dutch merchant ship and decided to stay. She shares the story of Linda Chavez, a Republican commentator from New Mexico whose ancestors owned land in Nuevo Mexico before the Mexican-American War (1846-48), after which the United States took a vast amount of Mexican land, leaving a hundred thousand Mexican citizens on new American soil.

Through other similarly personal portraits, Arana describes the multitude of national origins that make up the United States’ Latino population. These include the numerous Latin American countries whose people left them for the U.S. in search of money, safety, or opportunity. LatinoLand is populated not only by descendants of Mexicans, Cubans, and Puerto Ricans (some of the largest Latino communities in the country) but by Dominicans, Guatemalans, Salvadorans, Hondurans, Venezuelans, Colombians, Peruvians, Uruguayans, Argentines, and many more. Arana herself was born in Lima, the daughter of an American mother and a Peruvian father, and was nine years old when her family moved to the U.S., eventually settling in New Jersey.

Stereotype 2: all Latinos are brown. They are not. In a country obsessed with a Black-and-white race binary, Arana writes, there has been little curiosity about other shades, and Latinos come in all shades: nearly two-thirds of the group, she tells us, “are mixed race.” LatinoLand is inhabited by Indigenous people, Black people, Asian people, white people, and a combination of all the above. “In five hundred years of race mixing,” Arana writes, “Latin Americans—and we, their US Latino descendants—have come to represent every possible skin color.” And this will continue to be the case: “A full 4src percent of Latinos born in this country marry non-Latinos.”

Stereotype 3: all Latinos are Catholic. They are not. Gone are the days when the Catholic Church held a monopoly over Latin American and Latino souls: for decades now, the region has been shifting toward other Christian denominations, particularly Pentecostal, evangelical, and Protestant. Arana weaves together portraits of converts, born-again Latinos, Mormons (just one per cent of the U.S. Latino population but “the fastest growing group in the church”), Muslims, and Jews. She finds that “less than half (47 percent) of the entire Latinx population in the United States is Catholic—a radical drop from the majority (67 percent) the Church held just ten years ago.”

Other stereotypes dispelled by “LatinoLand” include an absolute political loyalty to the Democratic Party: Arana writes that “roughly one third of Hispanics now seem to vote consistently for Republican candidates.” She also dispels the notion of a uniform Spanish-language dominance, writing that both younger, U.S.-born Latinos and the descendants of some of the first Latinos to live in what would become this country are predominantly English speakers. Equally false is the stereotype of socioeconomic uniformity: although most Latino communities still face prevalent economic disadvantages, Arana highlights Ivy League graduates, executives in corporate America, political leaders, and so on. Nor are Latinos irrelevant to the civil-rights struggles of this nation: “LatinoLand” offers the story of Gonzalo and Felicita Mendez, who, along with four other Mexican families, sued the school district in Westminster, a suburb of Los Angeles, in 1946, for segregating their children, setting an important precedent to Brown v. Board of Education.

In sum, “LatinoLand” tells us that Latinos are of every skin color, many religions and nationalities, and a multiplicity of languages and political affiliations. But, if Latinos are everything, then what makes them Latinos? Arana’s answer does not make the identity easy to define: she mentions “a shared sense of otherness,” “our collective reverence for family, work, and joy,” and “a mind-boggling labyrinth of contradictions.” She even claims that the Latino population is “a fusion of all mankind’s phenotypes,” which is “unique in the history of the world.”

But how far back in the past do we go to look for Latino ancestry? And, if Latinos have multiple ancestries, how many relevant ancestors does one need to be Latino? And, for more recent arrivals to the U.S., how soon after one comes to this country does one become a Latino? Is it on the first day, or when one decides to stay? And when do members of a family stop being Latino? “By the fourth generation, only half of the people with Hispanic ancestry say they are Hispanic,” Arana writes. Sometimes this process is faster: Arana’s children (and her sister) do not identify as Latinos in questionnaires or documentation.

Even for those of us who do identify as such, Latino does not seem to work as a private identity. For most, “Latino,” or “Hispanic,” was originally a label chosen by others. Arana acknowledges this early on in “LatinoLand,” when she writes that the terms were initially “unfamiliar and puzzling names” that were “imposed on us,” and this is one reason why “a good number of us choose not to use any identifying term at all.” The most common way in which people identify has been (and still is) through their family’s country of origin, such as Mexican or Cuban. (According to a 2src2src Pew Research Center survey, “about half of Hispanic adults” do so.) And yet, Arana adds, “My own instinct—and that of most of the hundreds of people I interviewed for this book—is to embrace these labels. To get at what it is that unites us. To make the classification truly ours.” (The same Pew survey showed that “another 39% most often describe themselves as ‘Hispanic’ or ‘Latino.’ ”)

Perhaps the most important question is: What is such an identifying term for? For that, “LatinoLand” offers a very good answer. American Latinos, Arana writes, are “a cohort that has yet to understand its past, its bonds, its inherent power. Here in LatinoLand, in this wildly diverse population, in our yearning for unity, in our sheer perseverance, lives a vibrant force. A veritable engine of the American future.” That is to say that Latino is primarily a political identity. Arana narrates the extraordinary work of activists who have fought through the decades to build this sense of connectedness, as part of their battles for rights and opportunity. It is for a political purpose that building a shared sense of belonging, a collective identity, and true unity make sense—only when a degree of unity is achieved will this vast amalgamation of communities have true power in America. ♦

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