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It's not always "a Hispanic Thing"

By Dan Moffett, published in the Palm Beach Post, March 30, 2001.

This is the time of the decade when a lot of unnecessary confusion about identity creeps into our I lives.

The census used to be mostly about counting, but it also has become a great national exercise in labeling. It's not enough to know how many we are. We also have to know exactly who and what we are.

I can tell you I'm very comfortable in my non-Hispanic white male identity. Non-Hispanic non-black male works for me, too. If I had to, I even could live happily as a non-Hispanic, non-black non-female, which, given my Irish roots, appeals to my affinity for negative definitions.

People make too much of the Hispanic thing and how the Census Bureau uses it. It's really quite simple.

If you come from a nation that speaks Spanish, you're probably Hispanic. Easy enough.

Of course, that's a difficult sell to most Guatemalans. Spanish is the country's official language, but most of the people don't speak it. Most Guatemalans would prefer not being called Guatemalans, as a matter of fact. Most Guatemalans are Mayans, speak a Mayan dialect and would rather be called Maya. No problem.

Otherwise, Hispanic works fine. Naturally, many Mexican-Americans would rather be called Latinos. Hispanic links them to Spain, which reminds them of the conquistadors - not a particularly pleasant memory, as the Guatemalans, - er, rather, the Maya people - can attest.

Now, I grant you that it is important to refrain from calling Brazilians Hispanic. Their national language is Portuguese. You wouldn't put Lisbon in Spain, so you should not make Brazilians Hispanics.

No one's saying there aren't labeling complications among South Americans. Many Argentinians would prefer to be called Argentinians - and nothing else - because of the strong influence of Italian ancestors in their culture. Peru has many people of Japanese and Asian descent who speak Spanish or even the Indian dialect Quechua. So you might not think of them as being Hispanic, and, frankly, neither would they.

It does get a little tricky trying to put people into ethnic categories according to language. Would you put Alabamians, the Irish, people from Indiana and India, Jamaicans and Australians into the same ethnic group simply because they all speak English? Probably not.

Yet the Census Bureau does that with Hispanics, probably because the nation's census techniques were developed mostly by non-Hispanic, non-black non-females who tend to look at the world from a from a non-Hispanic, non-black non-female perspective. Not that there's anything wrong with that.

So when the Census Bureau talks about a national Hispanic explosion, what exactly do we know about the people who are exploding? Not much. They could have come from any of at least three continents. They could be of any race. If their country of origin is Mexico, they're likely to support Democratic politicians. If they're from Cuba, they'll probably vote for Republicans. If they're from Puerto Rico, they're likely to support whoever isn't bombing Vieques at the moment.

OK, Hispanics don't become a homogenous group just because they checked the same box on the census form. Actually, 42 percent of Hispanics said that. They checked the Hispanic box but also marked their race as "other," signaling that the bureau's racial categories did not fit them. Many also checked multiple boxes, signaling the inevitable racial melange awaiting the species.

Semantics is going to be a problem whenever we look into the national mirror from now on.

In the 1950s, school kids were taught that America was a great melting pot in which cultures were easily assimilated. The new thinking describes us as an ethnic salad bowl, a stew or a mosaic, in which all the components retain their individual tastes, colors and identities.

Editors this week groped for the correct verb to describe how Florida's Hispanic population had grown larger during the last decade than the number of African-Americans. Did Hispanics displace blacks as the state's top minority? Did they unseat them, overtake them, pass them? Nothing sounded right. It isn't a competition, and, of course, there was no bloodless coup. Top minority is itself a dubious accolade.

From the perspective of a non-Hispanic, non-black non-female, I must confess to some trepidation when I talk about us.

Dan Moffett is an editorial uiriter for The Palm Beach Post His e-mail address is dan_moffett@pbpost.com.

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