CEPEDA: A Latino identity crisis

Esther J. Cepeda

Esther J. Cepeda

CHICAGO -- Let me introduce you to my fake Latino children. No, no, they're real children -- it's just their Hispanic bona fides that are in question these days.

Up until four years ago, when they attended a nearly all-Caucasian private school, my two sons -- who are part Mexican and Ecuadorean, half white and all American -- always thought of themselves as white.

In 2008, I wrote a column about how far into subsequent generations could U.S.-born Latinos still claim to be Hispanic, quoting the boys as they described themselves. "I'm white," said my older son, just 9 at the time, noting that despite his mom's heritage he considered himself Caucasian because of his dad and: "I don't know, 'cause I look more white -- I'm white, I want to be white."

My younger son, 7 at the time, declared, "I think I look more peach," and despite my explanations that being Hispanic was an ethnicity and that his race was still white, he politely declined being classified as Latino. "I think I'd still like to be white."

Oh, how times change. Just the other day, those same two boys had a strong reaction to me referring to them as white.

"We're not white," they said, practically in unison and looking at me as if I'd grown an extra head. Apparently, now that they've spent three years as somewhere-in-between students in a predominantly Mexican-American school, they've defaulted to being "other."

Apparently, that "other" status comes with a small, manageable amount of taking flak in certain parts of our town for not being a "real," Spanish-speaking Latino. Yet they also get to be the lone diversity component of groups that happen to be mostly white, like their extended family.

I told them the pendulum will swing depending on what group they happen to find themselves in, and to just get used to the absurdity of people's label hang-ups.

Surely no group seems to revel in label wars as much as Hispanics, who constantly fight among themselves over whether to be called Hispanic or Latino, and whether the U.S. Census should consider either of those terms a new racial classification -- even though it really isn't.

Recently the question about who is a "real" Latino has centered on the topic of language. In the comments section of a story about why Ted Cruz, Texas' Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate, doesn't speak Spanish, someone posted: "If you want to connect to Latinos, learn to speak Spanish -- language is culture."

Ironically, at the same time on Twitter, another commenter was busily complaining about the sprinklings of Spanish in convention speeches: "Do all of the Latina/Latino Republicans think that speaking Spanish will improve the party's polling numbers with that demographic?"

But don't think this is a partisan issue. As San Antonio mayor Julian Castro was about to light up the stage of the Democratic National Convention, multiple news stories popped up about Castro's inability to speak Spanish. Yes, even as he became the first Latino keynote speaker to address the DNC, he was getting knocked left and right as a "fake Latino."

And, by the way, some of the same people pummeling Cruz and Castro for not speaking Spanish have also enthusiastically put down Craig Romney's Spanish-language campaign ads on his father's behalf on the grounds that speaking Spanish doesn't make the Romneys more relatable to Hispanics.

These are big "wow" moments, especially in light of recent research illustrating what poor reputations Hispanics have with non-Latinos. How sad that -- at least on the language issue -- it appears we're not safe from toxic "you're different from us" animosity even among ourselves.

Maybe not having the advantage of being able to speak in two tongues is what makes it so plainly obvious to my kids, and both sides of their diverse family, that it's ridiculous to boil an entire cultural heritage down to mere language acquisition.

Whether it was a family's desire to assimilate by adopting English language, or extended mixed-language families like mine, or because speech specialists suggested a child with language difficulties stick to learning one tongue, no Hispanic who doesn't speak Spanish should ever feel inauthentic.

And to those who need an accent or vocabulary to serve as a barometer of cultural legitimacy: A Fox News Latino poll recently confirmed for the umpteenth time that Hispanics' most important issue is the economy. Let's stick to talking about that, shall we?

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


JV 3 years ago

We should insist that if the immigrant who comes here does in good faith become an American and assimilates himself to us he shall be treated on an exact equality with every one else, for it is an outrage to discriminate against any such man because of creed or birth-place or origin.

But this is predicated upon the man's becoming in very fact an American and nothing but an American. If he tries to keep segregated with men of his own origin and separated from the rest of America, then he isn't doing his part as an American. There can be no divided allegiance here. . . We have room for but one language here, and that is the English language, for we intend to see that the crucible turns our people out as Americans, of American nationality, and not as dwellers in a polyglot boarding-house; and we have room for but one soul loyalty, and that is loyalty to the American people.

Theodore Roosevelt 1907


notblind 3 years ago

It's all tied into the race card. The whole language thing is just an outgrowth of that. Another way to differentiate the minorities from the bad ole white people.


news2me 3 years ago

A Fox News Latino poll recently confirmed for the umpteenth time that Hispanics' most important issue is the economy.

I just love how the left gathers their facts. Cepeda gives props to Fox News without flinching. If she disagrees, then it will be Faux News yet again.


FordGalaxy 3 years ago

The media's portrayal of race relation in national politics is rather amusing. The glowing example being MSNBC's continual desire to portray Republicans as racists. They accomplished this in part by cutting away from the Republican National Convention every time a minority candidate was speaking.People claim to want a post-racial society, and I remember hearing people say that Barack Obama's election signalled that the US was ready for that same post-racial society. Then again, these same people, to paraphrase President Obama, "bitterly cling" to hyphenated-Americanism. It fels like a collectivist mindset. You're not white, you are a Caucasian-American. You're not black, you're an African-American. The fact is, many African-Americans have never been to Africa (many could go back several generations before finding an ancestor who originated in Africa). Many Causcasian-Americans could not tell you what "Caucasian" even means, nor could they point out where it is on a map.

During the Trayvon Martin ordeal, the media took great pains to call George Zimmerman a "White Hispanic." Zimmerman had a white father and a Peruvian mother. Barack Obama had a Kenyan (black) father and a white mother, yet no one in the media refers to him as a "White African-American." But Zimmerman, whose physical complexion could lead a person to question his ethnicity, was labeled "white." Meanwhile, we've learned that Elizabeth Warren, who upon physical ispection is rather obviously Causcasian(white), was possibly given a bit of preferential treatment by claiming Native American status in colege. Her claim comes from high cheekbones and family stories. We claim we want a post-racial society, but we still base so much on a person's race. I'm pretty sure when Martin Luther King Jr delivered the "I have a dream" speech, he wasn't talking about his children being given preferential treatment simply because of thier skin color.

The silliness of the media's portrayal of race really took center stage during the Olympics, as commentators referred to black athletes from European countries as Afircan-Americans. On a more serious note, on September 11, 2001, the hijackers didn't want to kill Caucasian-Americans, or African-Americans...they wanted to kill Americans. It didn't matter what race or ethnicity or culture you claimed. You were a target. To me, that kind of puts these racial arguments in a bit of context.


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