Punto Latino: Population Growing, Identity Shifting

Punto Latino, a weekly column by Voto Latino, examines the news to bring you insight on how it affects our lives. We comment on topics that have dominated the headlines and items that didn't get their deserved attention. If it matters to Latinos, you'll find it here.

By Michael Saldarriaga

Last week, NPR posted an intriguing interactive map that shows demographic changes in the United States, with a dedicated filter demonstrating the growth in the Latino population, state-by-state, county-by-county, and tract-by-tract.

A quick glance at the map tells you a few of things. First, the Latino population is growing quickly throughout the country, with all but six states experiencing Latino population growth over 40 percent. In what is traditionally known as the "Deep South," the Hispanic population has more than doubled. Another surprise in the data is that the states traditionally associated with large Latino populations, New York, Florida and the border states, were not among those with the highest percentages of Latino growth. In fact, California, New Mexico and New York experienced some of the smallest percentages of growth in the continental United States--between 19-25 percent. The only state or territory of the U.S. that experienced a decrease in the Latino population was Puerto Rico, with a decrease of 1.97 percent.

Significantly, the map shows more than just shifts in demographics. It also documents a change in American perspectives on race and ethnicity. The 2010 census is the first to state explicitly that being "Hispanic" (or Latino) is an ethnicity and not a race. People were instructed to answer questions regarding both their race and whether they were of Hispanic origin. As a result, according to the census, the population of the United States classifying itself as "white" grew, in part due to the fact that white Latinos no longer had to choose on the form between being "white" and being "Hispanic."

Why is this significant? Because we live in a country where identity and identity politics are pervasive, though almost never acknowledged outright by politicians and the media; where "white" culture is what is considered mainstream, and everything else is a niche market, a sub-culture, or foreign; and where the definition of what "white" is changes, and has changed several times throughout our history. One could argue that American culture is a binary culture--between white and black, or more accurately: white and other.

In the 19th century, being "white" was a very exclusive club, including only those of British, French and German descent, but excluding other Caucasians, like the Irish, Italians, Slavs and European Jews, who were generally considered non-white (not to mention the significant African-American and Asian-American populations). In the 20th century, the binary shifted. Broadly speaking, whites were those of European descent, whereas the people from South and East Asian, Latino, African and Middle-eastern descent represented the other.

What the 2010 census signifies is the breakdown of "Hispanic" or "Latino" as a racial identity pretense, and the understanding that Latino people represent a plurality of races and cultures, just like Americans. The only criteria necessary to be considered Hispanic is that you, or your parents, come from south of the United States and speak Spanish or Portuguese (though I suppose some native language would technically qualify, too).

So the binary might be shifting once again, and white Latinos may be incorporating into "white" culture. If this were true, would that dramatically change the nature of American identity politics? I would say no. "Hispanic" as an identity is really more political than cultural. Sure Hispanics speak Spanish and come from Latin America, but you'd be hard-pressed to find a Cuban and a Colombian, or a Mexican and Argentine who have the same life experiences. That's not to say that there isn't a feeling of fraternity (because there is) but there isn't the kind of connection shared by two people of the same nationality.

Latinos in the United States rally together because in this country they are faced with many of the same issues, and so it is politically important to have some kind of unity--racial differences has nothing to do with it. As long as mainstream America otherizes Latinos with legislation like Arizona's SB1070 or similar anti-immigration bills, as long as there are issues specific to Latino interests different from those of "white" America, the Latino identity will not fracture or fade. Rather, the Latino community will continue to be an increasingly relevant political actor.

The author, Michael Saldarriaga, is the marketing intern at Voto Latino. He graduated from Boston College, and hails originally from Orlando.

The opinions expressed in this article represent those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of Voto Latino.