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Racing to racialize Latinos

Photo by Spencer Platt / Getty Images

The Census tackles a question 500 years in the making:

“Hispanics may become a race of their own in the U.S. Census — a major change that some Latino advocacy groups are opposing.

Currently, the Census considers Hispanic not a race but an ethnic background. Hispanics can be of any race, and Hispanic origin is asked on Census forms in a question separate from the one about race.

Now, the Census is considering eliminating the Hispanic origin question and combining it with the race question in a ‘race or origin’ category. …

Hispanics historically have had difficulty identifying with existing race categories.”

Before I continue, let me first say that I am Latino and will never identify with the term Hispanic. Whether I’m Latino or Hispanic is in fact a related issue, but not enough for the purposes of this blurb.

On the issue of race, I agree entirely with our good friend and journalist extraordinaire Roque Planas, who tweeted last night, “Latino is not a race. Latin American societies are multiracial. It isn’t very complicated.”

Latinos cannot be considered a race in and of themselves for two, “not very complicated” reasons: 1) there’s no such thing as race among human beings, biologically speaking; and 2) calling someone “Latino” (or worse, “Hispanic”) says nothing about that person’s historical racial category — black, white, indigenous, mixed or whatever.

The race to racialize Latinos comes from two places. On the one hand, you have non-Latinos who feel they don’t have the time, energy or desire to understand Latinos and what it means to be Latino, and so they’d much rather place a neat label on all Latinos and go about their day. If a non-Latino asks a Latino what race they are and the Latino responds with “Well, Latinos don’t actually belong to one race,” the non-Latino’s likely to come away with a sigh and a eye roll. Life is short; who has time for understanding?

On the other hand, you have many Latinos who seem uncomfortable belonging to a group with such a mixed racial history and wish to impose the idea that Latinos are in fact one race — and usually the race they themselves identify as. You mostly hear it from darker-skinned Latinos who like claiming Latino as an intrinsically indigenous race, or lighter-skinned Latinos claiming Latino as an obviously European spin-off. Don’t believe me? Just read some of the comments made about this article.

The truth of the matter is Latino is a broad and inclusive term rather than a narrow and exclusive one. There are many ways in which someone is included under the category “Latino” and only a few ways in which they are not.

In sum, if one of your ancestors was born in Latin America and later came to the United States, you’re at least part Latino, a person of Latin American descent.

(Note that there’s even debate over whether or not the people of Latin America are Latino. To my mind, they’re Latin Americans and not Latinos, because, for me, the American experience is an integral part of what means to be Latino — just as being black in America and being African in Africa imply two disparate experiences.)

The push to assign Latinos to a race of their own by the Census Bureau — well-meaning, I’m sure — reminds me of something Hegel mentioned in his Phenomenology. Paraphrasing of course, he said people often make the mistake of attaching words to complex objects and ideas, like labels on cabinets, so they can file them away and not have to really contemplate their true natures. Again, life’s short and thinking’s hard.

Lumping all Latinos together into one, proper race would be a fast and simple way of organizing the group and the larger American society it’s a part of, but it would be a false categorization that brings non-Latinos no closer to understanding Latinos and Latinos no closer to understanding themselves.

Latinos must object to being taxonomized by others and themselves. Being Latino is not any one thing, but a mixture of things. And I for one see absolutely nothing wrong with that.

About Hector Luis Alamo, Jr.

Hector Luis Alamo, Jr., is the associate editor at Being Latino and a native son of Chicago's Humboldt Park neighborhood. He received a B.A. in history at the University of Illinois at Chicago, where his concentration was on ethnic relations in the United States. While at UIC, he worked first as a staff writer for the Chicago Flame and later became the newspaper's Opinions editor. He contributes to various Chicago-area publications, most notably, the RedEye and Gozamos. He's also a cultural critic for 'LLERO magazine. He has maintained a personal blog since 2007,, where he discusses topics ranging from political history and philosophy to culture and music.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and should not be understood to be shared by Being Latino, Inc.


  1. Race? It’s been happening for decades.

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