Latino Ethnic Identity

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Research has shown that the governmental labels imposed to categorize Latinos or Hispanics are not what they associate with and are too general for them to identify with. It is becoming more common for them to find their own identities based on prior or new configurations of their environment. The issue of identity is those who are born here from immigrant children. Many times, they are labeled to be “Hispanic” or “Latino” instead of just being labeled “American.” Although they are entitled to the same rights and liberties as human beings, because they are labeled as not American, they are ousted and are felt to be othered.

According to the most recent U.S. census, Hispanics are now the largest and fastest minority group in the United States. They are an estimated fifty-six and a half million Hispanics in the U.S. in 2015, which accounts for roughly eighteen percent of the total U.S. population. An increase from the 1980 census when the Hispanic population was roughly fifteen million (Flores 2017). While many Hispanics have traditionally been foreign-born, as Flores demonstrates that nineteen million four hundred thousand are foreign-born in 2015, the majority are U.S.-born accounting for thirty-seven million one hundred thousand.

Although there is some debate about whether these numbers take into account those who migrated illegally and are possibly not accounted for, the overall trend is this group is rapidly increasing and is projected to grow by 57% by 2050 compared to 2015 (Krogstad 2014). Therefore, the U.S. must be able to better understand this group from a micro-level. Understanding the in-group and out-group dynamics with each other and understanding the internal structure of one vis-à-vis the other. Latinidad in the United States is a flexible, evolving identity that is intergenerationally and socially molded. That means there is no such thing as a static ethnic identity. Umbrella terms do not consider how changes may take place, therefore, umbrella terms are not useful in categorizing an ethnic group.

First, it should be distinguished why using “Latino” and “Hispanic” can be more misleading and hurtful, than trying to bring a group together under the same umbrella term. The foundational understanding of distinguishing “Latinos” and “Hispanics” is based on language and region. “Hispanics” are those that can speak Spanish and “Latinos” are those that live in Latin America. (Pittman 2015).

For example, using the definitions by Pittman, Brazilians will be considered to be “Latinos,” and Spaniards will be considered “Hispanics”. In terms of those who live in the United States, both terms have been used to categorize those who were not born here or speak a secondary language apart from English. Although the U.S. does not have an official language, it is safe to presume that English is the dominant language. The reason why Latino serves as a better umbrella term for those that have either migrated to the U.S., self-identify as Latino, come from countries that are geographically located in Latin America, or feel a cultural background with the term.

On the other hand, Hispanic was an institutional term that was implemented during the Nixon administration. This happened when the Bureau of the Consensus distributed, in 1970, a new form of self-identification; on it was a new racial category addressed “Hispanic” (Cohn 2010). Partially done by the Nixon administration for demographic changes and to tally the total number of “Hispanics” in the U.S. The questionnaire asked: “Is this person’s origin or descent—” and the responses were: “Mexican, Puerto Rican, Cuban, Central or South American, Other Spanish,” and “No, none of these.” (Cohn 2010).

For the purpose of viewing the Latino identity, Latino is a much better umbrella term if one is needed to be defined under such qualifications. If domestically Latino is a preferable term, there is still a problem. Puerto Rico, as a controlled territory of the U.S., they are not considered to be Latino although they do fall under the rule of U.S. There is no debate about the autonomy of Puerto Rico as a country, but the citizenship of Puerto Ricans is debated. The annexation came during the Spanish-American War of 1898 removed any Spanish influence in the region and, simultaneously, the U.S. gained territory in Guam and Puerto Rico. Therefore, the citizenship of Puerto Ricans was not well defined about whether they were considered American or not. The U.S. Supreme Court case, Downes v. Bidwell 1901, decided that U.S. territories were not properly part of the country, but the liberties and property were applicable under the Constitution.

Literature Review

One form in which identity is considered is whether it is innate, static, or both. The primordialism approach to identity is assuming that ethnic identity is not one that is chosen but given by some sort of criterion. Clifford Geertz’s chapter “The Integrative Revolution: Primordial Sentiments and Civil Politics in the New States,” discusses these primordial ties that connects someone to their identity. He discusses these “primordial attachment” meaning, “one that stems from the ‘givens’ – or, more precisely, as culture is inevitably involved in such matters, the assumed ‘givens’ – of social existence: immediate contiguity and kin connection mainly, but beyond them the giveness that stem from being born into a particular religious community, speaking a particular language, or even a dialect of a language, and following particular social practices.” (Geertz 1973). He then considers some attributes that might relate a group together. Blood, race, language, region, religion, and customs are seen as static. Someone cannot escape their inherent kinship, neighbor, fellow worshipper, and, as in result, one is always tied to these attributes.

Therefore, Geertz is suggesting that one’s ethnic ties are inherent in human beings. There are connections that are given that connect one to a particular group based on language, race, religion, or blood ties. However, primordialism creates ethnic identity, and identity in general, as a binary model. It goes to fit someone’s identity based on something innate and categorizing them with one group and not another. Thus, this creates an overarching term for everyone and Geertz explanation does not address the complexities of ethnic identity.

In terms of Latinos, it is difficult to consider Latinos based on innate features. Although there are some characteristics that are easier to group them together, such as skin color, country of origin, language, or culture, the standards are a misleading tool of analysis to determining who “fits” into the group.

Therefore, another approach that fits well with identity is one that sees identity as flexible. Constructivism, on the other hand, takes the approach in which it is flexible, relational, and contested. Kanchan Chandra classifies ethnic identities as “a subset of categories in which descent-based attributes are necessary to determine eligibility for membership.” (Chandra 2012) He then splits how a person can obtain their identity. Through nominal ethnic identities, in which identity is based on attributes that the person possesses and activated ethnic identities where they profess membership or “assigned by other as a member.” (Chandra 58).

Chandra arguments claims that membership to a certain ethnic identity, some descent-based attributes may be necessary but not always sufficient. He uses the example between someone who is “Jewish” and “Jewish settler” in Israel. The prior, a descent-based attribute of birth from a Jewish mother, is necessary and sufficient for membership. In the ladder case, descent-based attributes are necessary but not sufficient for membership. Due to non-descent-based attributes of settling in the West Bank during one’s lifetime, according to Chandra, qualifies the person to be considered Jewish. Although both hypothetical situations had different means to define their Jewish-ness, both would be considered ethnic Jewish. Therefore, the creation and flexibility of ethnic identity should be based on same descent-based attributes but not as a necessity.

In regards to primordialism, Chandra does seem to address how certain innate attributes might overgeneralize or complicated one’s identity. He uses the example of the United States and its category of someone who is “Black.” On one hand, someone may fall under the category “Black” if they have ancestry from Africa, which would be a descent-based attribute. However, someone may also be considered to be “Black” if they have dark skin, which may be a physical indicator of the person’s ancestry.

Chandra also makes the distinction on how activated identities are activated. A person may have different activated identities at once, but it is the process in which they are activated that differs. They can be activated through either the processes, or categories, of being chosen or assigned. Chosen identities are those “an individual uses to describe herself in any given situation.” An assigned identity is assigned to an individual from an outside source. These are not mutually exclusive. She provides an example of herself at a party in which she might describe herself as an “artist” and others might consider her a “grandmother.” Thus, the assigned being the grandmother and chosen being the artist.

This example can be extended in the terms of Latinos. For example, when using language or skin color as the unit of analysis to group them together, there are still many other characteristics that help shape their identity that primordialism looks over. Such as, national identity, the salience that person attributes to being part of the group, and a self-determining factor. Primordialism assumes that ethnic identity can be shaped by a binary model: whether the groups fits in based on certain characteristics or not. Considering the complexities of ethnic identity, and identity in general, it is difficult to use primordialism as the basis of one’s ethnic identity.

Chandra explanation of identity seems more applicable when looking at Latino identity in the United States. It does not create an umbrella term for all Latinos but allows for Latinos to find their own definition of what it is considered to be Latino. Using the chosen and assigned categories might help develop a better understanding of ethnic identity and one that is constantly flexible.

Jorge Garcia’s book offers a philosophical view on the Latino identity throughout the changing demographics in the U.S.. He calls for a “philosophical process of reflection about who they are as individuals and as members of the larger global population.” (Pulido 2018) His critique stems from looking at the Latino community through, what he calls, “theory of historical relevance” which looks at the Latino identity “as a family tied by changing historical relations that in turn generate particular properties distinguishing this ethnic group from others in particular contexts.” (Pulido 2018) Using Wittgenstein’s family metaphor, the idea that all family members might share some form of similarities but not all, Garcia argues Latinos have a sense of grouping and community that stems from the historical events from the Iberian Peninsula in 1492. He concludes that it is this commonality that might group them, but does not trap them into a particular identity. It is based on a mixture of different cultures and races, but allows them to maintain their own level of uniqueness.

Others tend to distance themselves from Garcia’s explanation of Latino identity. Linda Alcoff argues, instead, “that metaphysical considerations cannot be separated from political considerations.” (Tammelleo 2011) She continues, “Ethnic categories are a means through which groups of people validate and conceptualize their history; and, as such, the process of naming groups will always have political consequences.” (Tammelleo 2011) She argues that it was not until “Mexican-Americans became organized and mobilized that the term Chicano even came into existence” (Tammello 2011) But these ethnic broad terms might be a great sense of U.S. imperialism in Latin America.

After the Spanish American War of 1898, Spain stopped being the dominant power in the Western hemisphere and, subsequently, the U.S. took on that role. She believes ethnic categories, such as Latino/a, should take into account the war and other politically motivated events that lead to the dominance of the U.S. in the Western hemisphere. Ultimately, the use of these ethnic categories or umbrella terms might be hurting rather than helping those that migrate to the U.S. Concluding, “the use of broad ethnic names may aid the project of US imperialism in Latin America by reducing individuals’ allegiances to countries subject to US colonial projects.” (Tammello 2011) Although she does address the issue with the overarching and general terms to Latinos, she fails to address how any terms affects future generations and the economic disadvantages that these terms entail.

Other scholars have also attempted to describe what Latino identity is. Angelo Corlett’s book lists certain characteristics that someone must reach to be considered Latino. For Corlett, the only condition that must be met to be considered Latino is the first, which is having genealogical ties, the others might be sufficient but not necessary. He uses the example of Jaime, who is half European and half Latino. Although he meets the requirements to be considered Latino, there is still more to be learned with those who are mixed. He uses these requirement for political programs which are aimed towards ethnic groups. In particular, he hopes that by creating a more accurate account of who fits into a particular ethnic group, may help qualify those into “affirmative action programs [or] other governmental allocations of resources aimed at the members of certain ethnic groups.” (Tammello 2011)

However, using Corlett and Chandra’s argument, they both have a binary model for ethnic identity. Corlett tries to expand on innate characteristics that might qualify a person to an ethnic group, but in terms of the first requirement, the criteria it take have genealogical ties is not clear. If a person was born in another country than their parents, it is difficult to address whether their country of origin matters more than that of their parent, or the other way around; or if these ties must be traced even further back. Genealogical ties can come from any level of one’s ancestry, so it is necessary to question the start and end.


The problems with the previous literature on Latino identity is that it does not consider how it has changed or if it will. There is an understanding that it changes but not how. Additionally, it does not consider how future generations of Latinos see the Latino identity, many Latinos tend to disassociate themselves with any ethnic identity and take on the dominant identity, at least that is the growing case in the U.S.. For this purpose, Latino identity is generational and flexible when looking at social conditions. By looking at first hand accounts of ethnic identity and statistical research, the findings demonstrate a greater understanding of what it means to be Latino.


It is difficult to talk about ethnic identity without considering how it has changed. Zana Vathi’s book examines how identities change across generations for Albanians when migrating to Europe, specifically in Britain, Greece, and Italy. For Albanians, specifically parents, their first experience of identity in their host country is that of “migrant identity.” (Vathi 2015) In other words, it was “associated with feelings of settlement and long-term residence in the host country.” (Vathi 2015)

Cite this paper

Latino Ethnic Identity. (2021, Jul 26). Retrieved from https://samploon.com/latino-ethnic-identity/

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