Get to Know the Hispanics Around You Foreign Languages Department
Salem State University

Hispanic/Latino identity and community

The communities we feel we belong to, that we identify with and thus shape our identity, are not necessarily those we share external, objectively definable characteristics with, such as where you were born, your language or the color of your skin. To feel a communal identity or 'group solidarity' one needs to have shared social experiences. West Indian Blacks or Africans, for instance, do not necessarily And to feel as a member of a group one needs to feel accepted and feel at home in it. And white Anglo Americans do not necessarily feel one people with white Anglo Australians, except perhaps in a very vague sense. Similarly with Hispanics in the US, we cannot just assume that they all feel like part of a Hispanic community. Thus here we will ask to what extent do Hispanics in the US feel they form such a community, an 'imagined community' in the sense of anthropologist Benedict Anderson. And we will also ask to what extent do they feel they are part of the larger 'imagined community' that is the United States? [Wikipedia: Imagined communities] [Wikipedia: Category:Ethnic groups in the United States] [Wikipedia: Hyphenated American]

The Spanish Speaking World
Americans tend to think of Hispanics as forming a natural community because they (or their ancestors) shared some cultural characteristics, such as speaking Spanish. Hispanics, however, by and large do not feel any great attachment to such a large, Hispanic community, unless they have had shared experiences with them within the US. The Hispanic "community" is a very heterogeneous one, the only objective link uniting it being having ancestry in a part of what once was the Spanish Empire. Also remember that Hispanics in the US may come from any of more than 20 "Hispanic countries," may be of any race, and often do not speak Spanish (as with any other immigrant group in the US, the Spanish language tends to get lost after two, or even one generation). [Wikipedia: Hispanic America] [Wikipedia: Equatorial Guinea]

The question about the multiple names for this group of people is related to this question of identity. In the words of Roberto Suro (2006), of the PEW Hispanic Center,

The U.S. Census Bureau tells us that in 2004 there were 40,459,196 people in the United States who identified themselves as "Hispanic or Latino." Which is it, then, "Hispanic" or "Latino," or both? The Los Angeles Times sticks to "Latino." The U.S. Office of Management and Budget (OMB), the arbiter of such things for the federal government, debated the matter and decided not to pick one or the other so as not to offend anyone. The confusion, and occasional controversy, over the name is just symbolic of a much larger question to which there is no simple answer: who are these people? Indeed, you have to ask: are they, in fact, a single people with a common identity, a common bond or common goals? This is important to know because that population number reported by the U.S. Census Bureau is big already, and growing fast. Forty million folks is enough that if they started pulling in the same direction all at once, they could probably change the nation’s course—socially, culturally, perhaps even politically one day.

...the idea of a Hispanic or Latino people comprising many nationalities is not a very strong concept in those regions; not as strong, certainly, as individual national identities. The notion that people from all these places are bound together by an overarching group identity exists more powerfully now in the United States than in Latin America. So, whether the label is Hispanic or Latino, the “label on the label” says Made in the USA. In other words, we are dealing with a uniquely American phenomenon: even if it is based on national origins rooted elsewhere, the group identity for many Hispanics is created in the United States."

According to Suro, neither one of the two traditional models of group identity, the minority group model (or excluded group, such as African Americans) and the ethnic group model (such as Italian-Americans) works very well for Hispanics. Hispanics, he argues, "do not share an obvious common marker like skin color that sets them apart, and they have not begun their journey through American society from a common and tragic starting point, such as slavery." That's why Hispanic identity is bound to be something different, as well as still being in the process of being formed.

Newly arrived immigrants to the U.S. from a Spanish-speaking country may have trouble with the labels Hispanic or Latino, much like a newly arrived Jamaican or Nigerian would not necessarily feel comfortable with the label African American, despite the color of their skin. At the very least, they are not likely to make it part of their identity automatically, other than very superficially. They are much more apt to think of themselves as Puerto Rican, Dominican, Argentineans, and so on. In fact, there may even be national rivalries which make them unlikely to feel a commonality with other Hispanics, even if they share a language. It is only through the sharing of common experiences, not just objective characteristics or imposed labels, that they may come to belong in an 'imagined' Hispanic community. Even sharing a language, Spanish, which is the case of most newly arrived Hispanic immigrants, but not necessarily of second or more generation Hispanics, is not enough to make them feel like part of a Hispanic community.

Roberto Suro, of the Pew Hispanic Center, claims that Latinos will never become a group in the same way as African-Americans in terms of identity, for the divisions among the groups are just too great. Telemundo star anchor Jorge Gestoso also sees that there is also a tremendous "confusion of identity" among Hispanics (Fox 1995). In the words of another well-known Hispanic anchorman, Jorge Ramos of Univision, "Nobody really feels Hispanic" in the U.S. (ibid.). National identities, such as Mexican or Puerto Rican, are still primary for most viewers and the "proclamations of unity" are presumably more fictitious than real. And, of course, Hispanic immigrants' new American identity is also in competition with the Hispanic and the national identities. According to a recent New York Times/CBS News poll, for example, "nearly 70 percent of foreign-born Hispanics say they identify more with the United States than with their country of origin.

Still, there is some evidence that in recent years at least some Hispanics may be in the process of translating the objective affinities into an imagined fellowship, especially through the means of U.S. Spanish language media, particularly TV, which makes all Hispanics feel like they're part of a community. To what extent the imposed category of Hispanic will be able to unite the heterogeneous peoples so-labeled remains to be seen.


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