I remember being excited for Hispanic Heritage Month, or HHM, in college. It was a time to celebrate what I felt was my culture in a predominately white American space. I was even in the HSA (Hispanic Student Association) homecoming court at the University of Florida, which at the time boasted a strong Latinx population. These days, I find myself more troubled than anything by the awkwardly placed month.
Since moving out of Latinx heavy Miami, I have begun to question what it means to be Hispanic or Latinx (by far the more preferred term of the two, but not without its own critique). By way of background, my entire family is from the Dominican Republic, with me being the first to be born in the United States. My mom’s side of the family is visibly Black, while my dad’s side has lighter skin. I identify as Afro Latinx, and most strangers who see me on the street would identify me as Black in some way or another. In fact, the title of this piece is inspired by a blog/movement centering Afro Latinxs and our desire to be included into the Latinx narrative after decades of erasure.
First things first: the distinction between Hispanic and Latinx. The largest distinction is that Hispanic is based solely on a country being Spanish speaking and not geography, while being a part of Latin America is based more on geography and other factors. Thus, someone from Spain is Hispanic but not Latin and someone from Brazil is Latinx but not Hispanic, while someone from Colombia is both Latin and Hispanic. If this seems somewhat convoluted it’s because it is a made up, everchanging, and politically motivated definition.
The revived discussion on race in the U.S. has left some “Latinx” people in a peculiar position: what does this grouping mean? What holds us together as one, if anything? Whereas other groups can be more readily identified by continent/region, skin color or phenotype, culture, language, and other historical factors, some members of Latinx communities are left feeling excluded from the one group where they are “supposed” to belong. Often, they are Black people who are also Latinx and people who do not speak Spanish, to name a few.
Just look at the census questions surrounding this group and how they have changed over the years to see why it is hard to keep up. The question first appeared in 1970. In 1990, the census introduced the question divided in two (ethnicity and race), and in 2000 the order was reversed, asking “Are you Hispanic/Latino?” first and then asking about race. The Census did this because many were leaving the Hispanic/Latino question blank after answering about their race.
Despite the official definition of what makes a country part of Latin America, it does not seem that what unites us is language, it is not strictly geographical, and it’s certainly not historical (Haitians are now rightfully considered Latinx).
So where does that leave us? Some people identify squarely as Latinx and would not consider themselves to be of any other race/group. Some of us are acutely aware of our Blackness and identity as both “Hispanic/Latinx” and Black. I cannot speak to the experience of Latinx people who have strong ties to their indigenous communities, but I wonder if they feel the Census definition for Native captures their background accurately and their comfort level with that selection.
Last, at what point can someone self-identify as Latinx? Will my Black children self-identify? Equally importantly, will the world see them as Latinx? The answer is: the Census will if they check the box. The language of the only legislation describing this group is “Americans who identify themselves as being of Spanish-speaking background and trace their origin or descent from Mexico, Puerto Rico, Cuba, Central and South America, and other Spanish-speaking countries.”
As we celebrate this month let us keep in mind all of the “Latinxs” that are erased: Spanish speaking Afro Latinx, Haitians, and non-Spanish speaking second generation Latin Americans to name a few. We should also think critically about why some other groups are so readily accepted in the community without question: people from Spain, white people with no roots in Latin America whatsoever, and people whose connection to Latin America is generations removed. Many Latinx people who have moved in elite academic and professional circles will tell you that many of their Latinx counterparts are much more likely to look like Alexis Bledel, Pitbull, or Carmen Maria Machado, than Dolores Huerta, Jesús Colón, Celia Cruz, or Humberto Piaguaje.
Does that matter? To many, merely having more “Latin sounding” last names and backgrounds in the room is enough, others feel that the full diversity of Latinidad is not being shown, and yet others are starting to see the umbrella term as meaningless altogether.