“Hispanic, Latino or Spanish Origin?” Exploring the 2010 US Census

Haga clic aquí si gustaría leer este artículo en español.

This year the US will be conducting a new, 10 year, population count and this brings me to the topic of questions 8 & 9 of the Census: the race and ethnicity questions.

We can google and find many a discussion and internet slogan rejecting the label of “Hispanic” or “Latino”.  Folks claim to be neither regardless of Spanish names, surnames, languages spoken or country of origin.  Although many hold a strong conviction with regards to this, my observation has been that few bother to question the basis of this opinion.

Why is this so? I don’t pretend to read minds, but here are a few thoughts that pop up:

  • Sometimes we are using the same word but with different definitions.  We don’t look to see what definition the other party is using and assume it’s the same as our own.
  • Sometimes something just sounds really good to us and it’s easier to accept the information on faith, maybe even trusting some authority figure, and not bother to look into it any further.
  • Looking further is actually work and time consuming and indifference sets in (“What does it matter anyway?”)
  • Understanding that peer pressure doesn’t end with high school, some may feel the need to follow and support group consensus as truth, thus avoiding both confrontation with the group and possible social rejection or banishment.
  • The passion we can feel when we learn that the “truth” we’ve grown up with,  the denial and slander of our indigenous heritage were lies, can lead some to extreme over compensation; the denial of other possible ethnic influences.
  • It’s easier to follow the crowd and go with the flow; that’s how fads work and we are all susceptible.  Needless to say, being Indigenous has been a lucrative fad for some.

I understand all these thoughts and feelings having thought and felt them myself at one point in time or another. However, I personally believe it is our individual responsibility to move beyond the level of “opinion” and take a deeper look at what we have before us; what’s being asked and what we are saying…

For the sake of clarity, the purpose of this post is NOT to convince anyone on how to answer the census. How you answer the census is all up to you; of course, it’s all about self-identity. This post is an invitation to look beyond our reactive thoughts and responses and delve deeper into the language being used. By understanding the language the government is using in asking their questions, we can respond and express our truth fully, in a way that they understand.   This is important because the information gathered in the Census will affect us all, regardless of how we self-identify.

What is a “Hispanic”?  A Short Historical Review…

In doing a little research, I found that the word hispanic is derived from Hispania, the Roman designation for the Iberian peninsula known as Spain. Being that the Romans were using this word in antiquity, we can safely assume the word is not a modern invention.  It’s been around for quite some time and could be the reason why Spain is called “Spain”.  I couldn’t find supporting evidence for this, but it doesn’t take an academic to leap from “Hispania” to “España”.  Anything related to Hispania would then be considered “hispano“, literally hispanic, or “of Spain”.  Although initially this designation may have been limited to the the food, music and people originating from  Spain, it evolved to include the lands and people subjugated by the Spanish conquerors during their expansion.

A little historical background will reveal that the Spanish began their invasions after the Reconquista, the 800 year war that reconquered the Iberian Peninsula under Catholic rule.  Both the  Crusades and the Inquisition were born from The Reconquista, which ended in 1492- the same year Columbus was found by the Taino.  This Holy sanction of war, pillaging, rape and plunder, subjugation of villages and  forced conversion to christianity was what informed the cultural background, social framework and religious attitude of the Spanish when confronting the natives.  The invasion of the Americas and the Caribbean was nothing but a continuation of what they knew: conquering for the Crown of Spain and God.

The papal bulls and royal support the conquistadors had gave them the holy mission to expand the Spanish Empire, so all lands they conquered essentially “became” Spain, and the people that were christianized, regardless of their social status, were then subjects of the Crown.  Spanish citizens.

This is why most all lands conquered by Spain are known as Hispanic; it wasn’t a matter of blood, it was a matter of occupation; it was a matter of war. This label was not reflecting familial ties but political ones.

What About “Latino”?  A Little More History…

With all the goodies to be had in the Americas, the French wanted a piece.  They got a little bit when they controlled Haiti but then lost it all when Haiti gained its independence in the early 1800’s.  Failing to reconquer Haiti, France set its sights on Mexico.  France recognized that French, Spanish and Portuguese are all romance languages, languages based on Latin.  Armed with this information, the French created political propaganda referring to the lands that had been conquered by the Spanish and Portuguese Empires, as “Latin America”; thus creating common ground between the many different cultures in the Americas and France.  They used language as a way of promoting solidarity across the Atlantic; mainly between France and Mexico, which is where they were looking to come into.

In the end, the plans France had for Mexico didn’t pan out, but the label stuck  among the people nonetheless.  Most, if not all, of Central and South America, even today,  accepts identification with Europeans, mainly non-British Europeans.

Again we see that the label, this time “Latino”, is not expressing a blood kinship.  This label was expressing relationship by language.

Added to the above mentioned historical references to Hispanic and Latino, we have the  ongoing mental and physical genocide against anything indigenous that has been encouraged since the very beginning of the occupation of the Americas.  To this day we have cousins that use the word “indian” or a tribal name as an insult.  To be called “indio”, “apache”, “jibaro”, “guajiro”, “cholito”, “mapuche” or the like is to be referred to as an idiot,  slow minded, dim-witted, etc.  Needless to say, this has been the perfect recipe for the quick adoption of any label denying the native.  And thus another reason to refuse it when coming into our indigenous self identity.

The Governmental Machine and the Census

Towards the end of the 1800’s the US went to war against the Spanish Empire.  Spain couldn’t defend its colonies and admitted defeat.  So the US  gained most of Spain’s holdings in the peace treaty signed after.  During this time Texas, Arizona and California were also becoming states of the Union, having been under several flags, including that of Spain and Mexico.

By the year 1900, The US, who was originally British and English-speaking, found itself having citizens and colonies who spoke Spanish as a first language within its borders.   Having additional lands and people under their flag, the US has a governmental and economic responsibility towards them and for this to work, the government had to be able to know and relate to them.

Governmental representation, from the local all the way up to congress, is based on population.  The census was created as a head count so as to make sure that governmental seats were adequate to the population.   Also, the information gathered provides the government with a way to determine where federal funds may best be spent.   Over the years, the census has grown and evolved to reflect our times, attitudes and values.  Originally the census questions were limited to how many free white male/females, over/under the age of 16, how many slaves and how many other free persons were in the household.  Today the information gathered is a lot more detailed reflecting the complexity of our society.

The statistical information provided by the census is extremely useful for both political and civil matters.  Businesses use the statistics to see  where to offer their services, what to build, where to advertise and how.  The economic and social information is used by scientists to determine trends.  Even charities use the information to better focus their energies and resources.  And, of course,  the government uses the census information as well.  As mentioned already, they use it to determine how federal funds will be spent: the development of roads, highways,  schools,  libraries, health institutions, public programs for all ages,  as well as the buildings to provide public access to these programs, housing, transportation, parks and recreation,  neighborhood improvements, social security, employment centers… most every governmental service draws some information from the US Census.

Reaffirming what I said earlier, understanding the importance of this  document, we need to take note on the kind of language they use so as to make ourselves heard in a voice that the government understands.

What the Census is asking

A sample of the 2010 Census form is available on line but for the sake of convenience questions 8 & 9 are presented below:

8.  Is Person 1 of Hispanic, Latino or Spanish origin?

No, not of Hispanic, Latino or Spanish origin
Yes, Mexican, Mexican Am., Chicano
Yes, Puerto Rican
Yes, Cuban
Yes, another Hispanic, Latino, or Spanish origin Print origin, for example,
Argentinean, Colombian, Dominican, Nicaraguan, Salvadoran, Spaniard, and so on.


9.  What is Person 1’s race? Mark X one or more boxes

Black, African Am., or Negro
American Indian or Alaska Native — Print name of enrolled or principal tribe.

Asian Indian
Other Asian — Print race, for
example, Hmong, Laotian, Thai,
Pakistani, Cambodian, and so on.

Native Hawaiian
Guamanian or Chamorro
Other Pacific Islander — Print race, for example, Fijian, Tongan, and so on.


What I find most interesting are the instructions given just before these questions are asked.  It says: “Please answer BOTH Question 8 about Hispanic origin and Question 9 about race. For this census, Hispanic origins are not races.”   This then, leads us to question: “What do they mean when asking if one is of “Hispanic, Latino or Spanish origin” if it is not referring to race?  And why do we have to answer both questions; why is answering one not enough?

Ethnicity and Hispanic Origin is NOT Race~ Dissecting Question 8

Following good test-taking advice, we can look to the answers for clues on what the question  is asking.   Looking at the responses we have to choose from, it lists Mexican, Mexican American, Chicano, Puerto Rican, Cuban and other “Hispanic, Latino or Spanish origin”, with a blank space to write in your designation.  It even offers examples to help you fill out this part correctly: “Spaniard” and “Dominican”, “Argentinian” and “Colombian”, to name a few labels.  The common denominators among these origin designations are: That they were originally conquered by Spain, are not States of the Union and most speak Spanish as a first language.  In other words, these nationality affiliations are known historically as Hispanic or Latin American.

This is what we can gather from deduction; however, we don’t want to guess their definitions,  we want to know what the government means when asking this question.  I repeat myself again when I say that we need to focus on their language so as to communicate our truth in a way that they understand.  So here we have clarification straight from the horse’s mouth.  According to the Census website, they use the race and ethnic classifications as defined by the Office of Management and Budget (OMB). The OMB website states their definition of the word “Hispanic” as follows: “The term “Hispanic” refers to persons who trace their origin or descent to Mexico, Puerto Rico, Cuba, Central and South America, and other Spanish cultures.”

It also states that “Race and ethnicity may be thought of in terms of social and cultural characteristics as well as ancestry.” So, when asking about “Hispanic, Latino or Spanish” origin, the census, and thus the US government, is  asking if we self identify as a descendant of a country or culture which has historically been known as “Hispanic, Latino or Spanish”.  A blood relationship is not assumed.

But I am Native American!~ Dissecting Question 9, the “Race” Question

Race has been an incredibly destructive myth.  It’s a fabricated class system that has ravaged whole continents and civilizations.  Racial hierarchies, with the support of religions, philosophies and even science, have given birth to wars, massacres, slavery and the genocidal destruction of complete cultures.   To this day,  the myth of race still remains a very strong conviction among many and until our present paradigm changes, (and it seems to be doing so, albeit slowly), we are pretty much stuck with the word and it’s multiple definitions.

But again, we can find out what specific definitions the government is using.  The last time the OMB revised their race and ethnic classifications was in 1997.  At that time, they not only accepted “Hispanic, Latino  or Spanish” as an ethnic designation, but they also accepted the proposition that the term “American Indian”  should include indigenous people originating from outside the political borders of the United States.  The revised term “American Indian” is defined by the OMB  as: “A person having origins in any of the original peoples of North and South America (including Central America), and who maintains tribal affiliation or community attachment.”

This is significant since it is reflecting the evolution of the people’s understanding of this designation and it is reflecting the fact that there are other American Indians besides those originating within the United States.  Before this revision,  the only “American Indian” that counted was defined by the federal government.  Their view limits “authentic” American Indian people to those enrolled in a recognized tribe and carry a BIA  (Bureau of Indian Affairs) card.   Any other indigenous people are then lumped with whatever their National background was and this was done by penciling in their national designation in the blank under “Some other race”.  The Mexica and Aztec were Mexicans, the Maya were Salvadorean, Honduran or Guatemalan and so on.  The census today, however, reflects the understanding that Native America doesn’t end at the US border.  Quite the opposite, it encourages a more in-depth self description; so a Chicano can be Aztec, a Peruvian can be Inca, an Argentinian can be Mapuche and a Puerto Rican can be Taino.

And why do we have to answer both questions?  Native American, Taino, should be enough!

As per Censuscope.org the Census Bureau had this to say on the matter of race: “The concept of race as used by the Census Bureau reflects self-identification by people according to the race or races with which they most closely identify. These categories are sociopolitical constructs and should not be interpreted as being scientific or anthropological in nature. Furthermore, the race categories include both racial and national-origin groups.”

This statement tells us mostly what we know already, that the census is is all about self identification.   And the possibilities mixing and matching labels are endless!  But the really interesting part of this paragraph is the last sentence: “…the race categories include both racial and national-origin groups.

This is why we must answer both questions 8 & 9, because the national origin groups (ethnicity) can be any race designation.  A Spanish speaking Apache, from Texas, would be “not Hispanic, American Indian, Apache”, a  Spanish speaking Pueblo or Tiwa would answer the same way, the only variation would be in the Tribal affiliation.  Even the Canadian Mi’kmaq would mark “not Hispanic, American Indian”.  This means that a the only way the government will understand that you are an American Indian from outside of the North American continent (in our case, the Caribbean) is by letting them know where you trace your ancestry.

To be or Not to be…THAT is the question

And it is a question that only you can answer.

The main argument against the use of the word “Hispanic” is that we are not from Spain and the main arguments against the use of “Latino” and “Spanish” is that we are people and these are language designations, which don’t apply.  My argument against all of the above is twofold:

  1. That is not the language the government is using; they are speaking dinga and we are speaking mandinga.  To be clear, we need to realize the semantics used and then work within them. The census is not the forum to make your opinion known regarding definitions.   If we are truly concerned about the definitions used, we need to make it our business to contact the OMB and see how we can participate in making changes there.  The OMB is the office who provides the definitions, not the Census Bureau.
  2. By answering the census according to our own definition, just to make a point, we are cutting our nose to spite our face.  The Taino are seeking federal recognition, but according to the federal document  we fill out ourselves, the US census, we don’t exist.  By marking “not Hispanic”, we are effectively denying our “heritage, nationality group, lineage, and country of birth of our… parents and ancestors before their arrival in the United States [political borders].”, which is the definition of Hispanic ethnicity that the US Census is using.

Personally, I believe we want to make our presence known to the government as an indigenous  Nation from outside the continent of North America; in no uncertain terms, clearly and unequivocally.  We are proud to be American Indian, an original culture from this hemisphere.  But more than that, we are proud to be indigenous to our lands in particular: Quiskeya, Boriken, Cuba, Mexico, Chile, Bolivia, Venezuela, Panama- wherever!  We are not generic indians.  We are not tribal mixes.  We are not indian through a great, great grandmother who was a full blooded native princess.

We are Caribbean Indigenous people.  We are Taino, and we are still here.  Let’s make sure the government knows this.

(c) A. Nanu Pagan, January 2010

Author: Nanu

A Taino woman of a certain age, exploring decolonization from the perspective of the First People to meet, and survive, Western invaders and Manifest Destiny. What I share is true to me. I encourage everyone to research to THEIR OWN satisfaction.

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