If these labels seem ambiguous, they are and the ambiguity is helpful in a number of ways.
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
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 Review
– 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.
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
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
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?
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
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
What do Hispanics have in common other than the Spanish language?
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
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
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?