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CEPEDA: A Latino identity crisis

The melting pot that fuses the unique characteristics of newcomers from all over the world into a diverse America seems to be cooling -- at least when it comes to Latinos.

Or should I say Hispanics? Chicanos? Some are increasingly reaching way back into the heritage vault and taking on the label of "Native American" in a nod to their indigenous ancestors from the Americas (detractors in the blogosphere sometimes refer to them as "indigenazis").

And let's not forget those who actually have ties to Spain and don't mind when someone calls them "Spanish" -- a term considered fighting words to those who still hold a grudge against the conquistadores.

I bring this up because of a full-bore Latino identity crisis typified by obsessive conversations about labels. Across the country, Latinos are immersing themselves in challenging debates about who they are, who they want to be, what they'll call themselves and, most importantly, what they want others to call them.

Insert snore here.

Really, there are so many important issues that Hispanics are up against right now -- lack of jobs, inadequate education levels, the obesity epidemic -- you'd think there would be little time to spend on a discussion that should be simple: Identify as Americans first and consider your ethnic subgroup a less important data point. Relax, the Census Bureau is not out to "get" you.

But no. To some, the word "American" is a loaded term used callously by U.S. residents who always conveniently forget that Canada, Mexico and Central and South America are part of "the Americas," and, well, you see what the melting pot is up against.

So why the label mania? I simply attribute it to the "me generation" mentality: Everyone is special -- in his or her own way -- and self-esteem, individuality and self-expression matter above all other things. But others blame long-term institutional racism.

In a recently published paper, "Perpetuating the Marginalization of Latinos: A Collateral Consequence of the Incorporation of Immigration Law into the Criminal Justice System," Yolanda Vasquez, a University of Pennsylvania Law School lecturer, says that Latinos cannot gain acceptance and legitimacy in this country because they are so closely associated with the issue of illegal immigration. As a whole, she contends, they're seen as criminals who are a threat to national security. Vasquez blames policies that are criminalizing illegal immigration, which, she says, flow from more than 200 years of government-sanctioned oppression of Hispanics in this country.

Though I completely disagree with her conclusion that racism alone has driven immigration law policy -- every immigrant group has transcended discrimination, and laws are, generally speaking, a reflection of voters' values -- she's certainly right about Latino legitimacy in this country. Despite the fact that since 2000 the overwhelming majority of Latino population growth has come from births and not immigration, both Hispanics and non-Hispanics alike insist on equating Latinos with immigrants.

"Right now people are saying, 'I am Latino or Hispanic, but because I am proud of where I come from that doesn't mean I'm not an equal American,'" Vasquez told me. "That stems directly from the feeling of 'if you as a society don't treat me as an equal, then fine, I'll be something else.' Until we live in a society that doesn't believe that diversity equals the crumbling of a culture, then the mindset is that you're either going to be an 'other' or try to be that white American because there's no middle ground."

That was on display in June when the men's U.S. soccer team went up against Mexico at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif. The U.S. team was booed by the predominantly Latino crowd, and reactions after the match ranged from disgust on the part of Americans who would never diss their own, to anger from Latinos who were criticized for their behavior. A typical response to the ire was: "This country doesn't respect me, so why should I respect it?"

Right observation, wrong response -- you can't overcome hatred by acting hateful. Yes, sadly, there is lot of "otherness" and bold-faced racism infusing politics and day-to-day life. But Hispanics should be working on creating a middle ground -- not setting themselves apart and perpetuating the belief that they aren't fully committed to America.

Let's drop the label gazing -- trust in America's almighty melting pot and let it work its magic.

Esther J. Cepeda is a nationally syndicated columnist. Email her at estherjcepeda@washpost.com.