Sunday, February 14, 2010

The 2010 US Census is Here and It Wants to Know: What in the world are you?

The 2010 US Census is Here and It Wants to Know: What in the world are you?
By Desi Sánchez (February 13, 2010)

There's been a lot of buzz about the latest Census and how it categorizes Latinos, and there's nothing like well-informed advice from expert sources to help us out when those government packets hit our mailboxes. I recently read an interesting article from the NiLP Network that provided just that, entitled How Can Taino Be Counted in the US Census?, which really sparked my interest and my own not-so-expert opinions on the subject.

The article, and especially its preface note, inspired several concerns about the latest incarnation of the Census and how we as Latinos can classify ourselves in terms of race in the US. One, there is no "mixed race" option, only the option to select more than one race, which is a problem for those of us who do not know our exact racial admixture.

Also, one of the options available, "Black/African American/Negro," may not be a historically or geographically accurate description of many Latinos' African ancestry. And finally, the issue that disturbed me most, was the implication that many Latinos might indeed select only one race, whether it be "white" or "black" or "American Indian," when the reality is that since many of us are racially mixed over several generations, few of us can truly be considered "pure" anything, thus highlighting once more the necessity of a "mixed race" option.

As a Latina whose mixed-race is a big part of my personal identity and family history, I am surprised that there is no mixed-race option for those of us who do not know our exact racial admixture. As a group, Latinos are Mestizo, Mulato, Criollo, or Cuarteado. Some of us have Asian blood or German roots; there could've been direct lines from Spain, or convoluted family histories winding throughout the globe, picking up snippets of DNA along the way as they meandered their way back to Latin America. Yet there is still one thing that unites us racially as Latinos, which ought to be acknowledged on the Census. And that one thing is not racial homogeny, but quite conversely, our general mixed heritage, especially the Spanish/African/Native American mixture which is so very common. And it is such an intrinsic part of our genetic makeup, evidenced by the sheer variety of racial markers, often even between family members, that it seems petty and inaccurate to try and separate and check off each race individually. After so many generations of miscegenation, is "mixed" not a race unto itself?

Adding to the confusion are the cultural connotations behind race, and the conflation of cultural identity with racial background. According to the article's preface, the Afro-Latino Forum at NYU is advocating that Afro-Latinos mark "Black" on the Census. However, do the terms "Black," "African American," or "Negro" accurately describe our African lineage as Latinos? In the US, "Black" and "Negro" do not only imply race or literal skin color, they also imply "African American," African American culture, and the African American community, specifically. And that is not a heritage/culture/history that all African-descended people can necessary relate to.

I fear that Afro-Latinos marking "Black" on the Census may divide and dilute our Latino communities, which have our own history, lineage, and often, ancestry from very specific parts of Africa, that are separate from that of our African American brothers and sisters (as proud, admirable and parallel in many ways as their culture is to ours). And although I am aware that in other parts of the world, "Black" and "Negro" do not have a cultural meaning and are not interchangeable with "African American," this is still, after all, a US Census, not a global Census, so perhaps we should not use terms that have double meanings in our country. Yes, for ease's sake, we can take the Afro-Latino Forum's advice this time around, but I think we should push for a clearer term next Census - perhaps "African" or "African-descended"? Ah, the frustrations of semantics!

And what about those of us Latinos who think we can check off only one option under race (with "mixed" not being one of them) and be done with it? Really? I understand that the Census is based on "self-identifying," but if some of us are picking only "white," and others are picking only "black," and another contingent are picking only "American Indian," that implies a racial purity among individual Latinos that I do not believe is the truly accurate "snapshot" that the Census is trying to achieve. I know you cannot strong-arm people and tell them who or what they are, but somehow, I think we need to establish, if not as Latinos in general, then at least among our smaller subgroups that share a common general racial heritage (Caribbean Latinos, Central Americans, or even more specific populations, like country-by-country, or if necessary, community-by-community) how we are going to represent ourselves as a group.

We need a way to unify ourselves, not just culturally, but racially, so that when two "white" Latino parents have a "black" Latino child (because of mixing generations back), they are not marking off different races for different members of the same family; and so that genetically similar, yet unrelated, mixed individuals are not checking off random and different races from each other, just because of how they "feel." Which brings me back to the "mixed race" option - it may be the only way to unify such a diverse people while remaining accurate.

With the Latino population growing exponentially, and the need for our collective community to be better recognized in government proceedings, programs and legislation, I am happy that the Census Bureau is seemingly more aware of the differences between our people, with separate places to mark off race and Hispanic origin. But perhaps in recognizing our differences, the Census may also be losing sight of our similarities, and even inadvertently lumping some of us in with other ethnic groups.

Thus, I look forward to more accurate terms for the various races, as well as to more inclusive terms for those of us of mixed race. And I would encourage all Latinos to embrace their history, embrace their diversity, and in the absence of a "mixed" race option, to check off as many race options as are applicable, and especially not to assume that what they personally see in the mirror is all there is to their individual heritage. Because after all, "Y tu abuela, ¿donde esta?"

Desi Sanchez is an artist, musician, TV host & native New Yorker, born to Cuban and Dominican parents. Every week, Desi celebrates her fellow Latinos on the nationally syndicated TV show LatiNation, and enjoys imitating silly Monty Python clips and eating mail-order sugar-free chocolate in her free time. She can be contacted at and her website is

1 comment:

  1. Very well written and insightful.. our government and society continues to show their ignorance of cultures and identity.