April 4, 2012
When Labels Don’t Fit: Hispanics and Their Views of Identity
By Paul Taylor, Mark Hugo Lopez, Jessica Martínez and Gabriel Velasco
I. Executive Summary
Nearly four decades after the United States government mandated the use of the terms “Hispanic” or “Latino” to categorize Americans who trace their roots to Spanish-speaking countries, a new nationwide survey of Hispanic adults finds that these terms still haven’t been fully embraced by Hispanics themselves. A majority (51%) say they most often identify themselves by their family’s country of origin; just 24% say they prefer a pan-ethnic label.
Moreover, by a ratio of more than two-to-one (69% versus 29%), survey respondents say that the more than 50 million Latinos in the U.S. have many different cultures rather than a common culture. Respondents do, however, express a strong, shared connection to the Spanish language. More than eight-in-ten (82%) Latino adults say they speak Spanish, and nearly all (95%) say it is important for future generations to continue to do so.
Hispanics are also divided over how much of a common identity they share with other Americans. About half (47%) say they consider themselves to be very different from the typical American. And just one-in-five (21%) say they use the term “American” most often to describe their identity. On these two measures, U.S.-born Hispanics (who now make up 48% of Hispanic adults in the country) express a stronger sense of affinity with other Americans and America than do immigrant Hispanics.
The survey finds that, regardless of where they were born, large majorities of Latinos say that life in the U.S. is better than in their family’s country of origin. Also, nearly nine-in-ten (87%) say it is important for immigrant Hispanics to learn English in order to succeed in the U.S.
This report explores Latinos’ attitudes about their identity; their language usage patterns; their core values; and their views about the U.S. and their families’ country of origin. It is based on findings from a national bilingual survey of 1,220 Hispanic adults conducted Nov. 9 through Dec. 7, 2011, by the Pew Hispanic Center, a project of the Pew Research Center. For a full description of the survey methodology, see Appendix A. (In this report, as in all Center reports, the terms “Hispanic” and “Latino” are used interchangeably).
Among the report’s key findings:
Hispanics and Identity
- When it comes to describing their identity, most Hispanics prefer their family’s country of origin over pan-ethnic terms. Half (51%) say that most often they use their family’s country of origin to describe their identity. That includes such terms as “Mexican” or “Cuban” or “Dominican,” for example. Just one-quarter (24%) say they use the terms “Hispanic” or “Latino” to most often to describe their identity. And 21% say they use the term “American” most often.
- “Hispanic” or “Latino”? Most don’t care—but among those who do, “Hispanic” is preferred. Half (51%) say they have no preference for either term. When a preference is expressed, “Hispanic” is preferred over “Latino” by more than a two-to-one margin—33% versus 14%.
- Most Hispanics do not see a shared common culture among U.S. Hispanics. Nearly seven-in-ten (69%) say Hispanics in the U.S. have many different cultures, while 29% say Hispanics in the U.S. share a common culture.
- Most Hispanics don’t see themselves fitting into the standard racial categories used by the U.S. Census Bureau. When it comes to race, according to the Pew Hispanic survey, half (51%) of Latinos identify their race as “some other race” or volunteer “Hispanic/Latino.” Meanwhile, 36% identify their race as white, and 3% say their race is black.
- Latinos are split on whether they see themselves as a typical American. Nearly half (47%) say they are a typical American, while another 47% say they are very different from the typical American. Foreign-born Hispanics are less likely than native-born Hispanics to say they are a typical American—34% versus 66%.
The American Experience
- Hispanics say their group has been at least as successful as other minority groups in the U.S. Most Hispanics (55%) say their group is about as successful as other racial and ethnic minority groups in the U.S. More than one-in-five (22%) say they have been less successful, while 17% say they have been more successful.
- The U.S. is seen as better than Latinos’ countries of origin in many ways—but not in all ways. Fully 87% of Latino adults say the opportunity to get ahead is better in the U.S. than in the country of their ancestors; some 72% say the U.S. is better for raising children than their home country; nearly seven-in-ten (69%) say the poor are treated better in the U.S.; and a plurality of 44% say moral values are better here than in their homelands. However, when it comes to the strength of family ties, a plurality (39%) say the home country of their ancestors is better, while 33% say the strength of family ties is better in the U.S.
- Most Hispanic immigrants say they would migrate to the U.S. again. Some 79% of Hispanic immigrants say that if they had to do it all over again, they would come to the U.S. When asked why they came to this country, more than half (55%) of immigrant Hispanics say it was for economic reasons, while 24% say it was for family reasons.
Language Use—English and Spanish
- Most Hispanics use Spanish, but use of English rises through the generations. The survey finds that 38% of all respondents are Spanish dominant, 38% are bilingual and 24% are English dominant. Among U.S.-born Hispanics, more than half (51%) are English dominant.
- Hispanics believe learning English is important. Nearly nine-in-ten (87%) Hispanics say adult Hispanic immigrants need to learn English to succeed in the U.S.
- Hispanics also want future U.S. Hispanic generations to speak Spanish. Fully 95% of Hispanics believe it is very important (75%) or somewhat important (20%) for future generations of Hispanics in the U.S. to be able to speak Spanish.
Social and Political Attitudes
- Hispanics, more so than the general public, believe in the efficacy of hard work. Three-in-four (75%) Hispanics say most people can get ahead if they work hard. By contrast, just 58% of the general public say the same.
- Levels of personal trust are lower among Latinos than they are among the general public. Fully 86% of Latinos say you can’t be too careful when it comes to dealing with people. Among the U.S. general public, just 61% say the same.
- On some social issues, Latinos hold views similar to the general public, but on others, Latinos are more conservative. Virtually identical shares of Latinos (59%) and the general public (58%) say homosexuality should be accepted by society. However, on abortion, Hispanics hold a more conservative view than the general U.S. public—half (51%) of Hispanics say it should be illegal in most or all cases, compared with 41% of the general public.
- Religion is more important in the lives of immigrant Hispanics than in the lives of native-born Hispanics. Nearly seven-in-ten (69%) immigrant Hispanics say religion is very important in their lives, compared with half (49%) of U.S.-born Hispanics. Among the general population of the U.S., 58% say religion is very important in their lives.
- Latinos’ political views are more liberal than those of the general U.S. public. Three-in-ten (30%) Latinos describe their political views as liberal or very liberal, compared with 21% of the general public.
About this Report
The 2011 National Survey of Latinos (NSL) focuses on Hispanics’ identities, behaviors, views about social issues, and language use. The survey was conducted from November 9 through December 7, 2011, in all 50 states and the District of Columbia among a randomly selected, nationally representative sample of 1,220 Latino adults. The survey was conducted in both English and Spanish on cellular as well as landline telephones. The margin of error for the full sample is plus or minus 3.6 percentage points. Interviews were conducted for the Pew Hispanic Center by Social Science Research Solutions (SSRS).
This report was written by Director Paul Taylor, Associate Director Mark Hugo Lopez, Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life Research Associate Jessica Hamar Martínez, and Research Analyst Gabriel Velasco. D’Vera Cohn, Cary Funk, Rakesh Kochhar, Luis Lugo, Jeffrey Passel and Greg Smith provided comments on an earlier draft of the report. The authors thank D’Vera Cohn, Cary Funk, Leah Christian, Richard Fry, Scott Keeter, Rakesh Kochhar, Rich Morin and Kim Parker for guidance on the development of the survey instrument. Gabriel Velasco and Seth Motel provided research assistance. Eileen Patten number-checked the report topline. Seth Motel, Eileen Patten and Gabriel Velasco number-checked the report. Marcia Kramer was the copy editor.
A Note on Terminology
The terms “Latino” and “Hispanic” are used interchangeably in this report.
“Native born” or “U.S. born” refers to persons born in the United States and those born in other countries to parents at least one of whom was a U.S. citizen.
“Foreign born” refers to persons born outside of the United States to parents neither of whom was a U.S. citizen. Foreign born also refers to those born in Puerto Rico. Although individuals born in Puerto Rico are U.S. citizens by birth, they are included among the foreign born because they are born into a Spanish-dominant culture and because on many points their attitudes, views and beliefs are much closer to Hispanics born abroad than to Latinos born in the 50 states or the District of Columbia, even those who identify themselves as being of Puerto Rican origin.
“First generation” refers to foreign-born people. The terms “foreign born,” “first generation” and “immigrant” are used interchangeably in this report.
“Second generation” refers to people born in the United States, with at least one first-generation parent.
“Third and higher generation” refers to people born in the United States, with both parents born in the United States. This report uses the term “third generation” as shorthand for “third and higher generation.”
Language dominance, or primary language, is a composite measure based on self-described assessments of speaking and reading abilities. “Spanish-dominant” persons are more proficient in Spanish than in English, i.e., they speak and read Spanish “very well” or “pretty well” but rate their English-speaking and reading ability lower. “Bilingual” refers to persons who are proficient in both English and Spanish. “English-dominant” persons are more proficient in English than in Spanish.
Editors’ Note: The author prefers to capitalize Black and White along with other socially constructed racial categories.
For much of American history, race has been a dichotomous, Black-White affair where the “one-drop rule” dictated that people with any amount of racial mixture were defined legally and socially as Black. In recent generations, however, with the rise of intermarriage and the entrance of new immigrants from all over the world, American racial categories and conceptions have become much more complicated and contested. Latinos provide a particularly revealing case of the new complexities of race in America.
Persons of Hispanic ancestry have long had mixed racial identities and classifications. The history of Latin America is characterized by the mixing of European colonizers, native Indigenous groups, and Africans brought over as slaves. As a result, the diverse Latino group includes people who look White, Black, and many mixtures in between. In the mid-twentieth century, it was assumed that as they Americanized, Latinos who looked European would join the White race, while those with visible African ancestry would join the Black race, and others might be seen as Native American. For 50 years, the Census has supported this vision by informing us that Latinos could be classified as White, Black, or “other,” but not as a race themselves. “Hispanic” remained an ethnic, not a racial, category.
But today, few think twice when a breakdown of races in America includes, among others, the categories Black, White, and Latino. Throughout our media and popular culture—in newspapers, television, social media, and even academic research—we tend to treat Whites, Blacks, and Latinos as if they were mutually exclusive groups. How has this come about, given that the United States has long insisted that “Hispanic” or “Latino” is not a race, but an aspect of ethnicity?
To answer this question, I studied Dominicans and Puerto Ricans, two groups whose members span the traditional Black/White color line. I interviewed 60 Dominican and Puerto Rican migrants in New York City, and another 60 Dominicans and Puerto Ricans who have never migrated out of their countries of origin. We spoke about how they understand and classify their own and other people’s races, their perception of races in the mainland United States and their home country, what race means to them, and the migrants’ integration experiences. Their interviews revealed that most identify with a new, unified racial category that challenges not only the traditional Black-White dichotomy but also the relationship between race and ethnicity in American society. In other words, the experiences of these groups help us to better understand how immigrants’ views of collective identity and the relationship between color and culture are reshaping contemporary American racial classifications.
How Dominicans and Puerto Ricans Understand Identity and Race
My respondents all identified primarily as “Latino,” “Dominican,” or “Puerto Rican.” Even among those who had migrated to New York City, these were strongly held identities, associated with language, culture, and nationhood—the kinds of attitudes, attributes, and claims American scholars tend to associate with ethnicity. But many respondents also gave the same answers when asked specifically how they identified their race. They explained that, with their country’s history of racial intermixing over many generations, the meaning of “Puerto Rican” or “Dominican” is itself racialized as the mixture of White, Indigenous, and Black. For instance, Blanca, an arts administrator in Puerto Rico, looks European. Because of her mixed roots, she identifies herself as Puerto Rican.
Many Puerto Ricans consider themselves… [a] mixture of blancos, indios and negros…. I consider myself a mixture of blanca, negra and maybe india…. I don’t consider myself mulata because mulato is blanco and negro. I consider myself Puerto Rican, and the Puerto Rican is that.
Q: Puerto Rican is blanco, negro, and indio?
Yes. I don’t know if I have indio race and I don’t know if I have negro race but if I look at myself in the mirror I think that, although I have, look, straight hair and I’m more blanca than negra, but I’m a Puerto Rican. There is no way that I’m not Latina.
Gregorio, a taxi driver from the Dominican Republic, identifies his race as Dominican.
Regardless of whether African, Indigenous, or European features predominate, Dominicans and Puerto Ricans view “race” as this shared ancestry, not as something that divides them. Puerto Ricans and Dominicans refer to a range of physical appearances as “color,” but insist that such appearances—such as blanco, negro, mestizo, trigueño, and a host of others—are not their race. Eduardo, a young Dominican administrative assistant in Santo Domingo, gave a response typical of both groups when he said, “They’ve taught us that this is color… for me, they’re only skin colors.” Many respondents believe that “color,” or appearance, is just a matter of chance—what happens to get expressed—but that a person’s racial mixture is latent and can present itself in future generations.Regardless of whether African, Indigenous, or European features predominate, Dominicans and Puerto Ricans view “race” as this shared ancestry, not as something that divides them.
Q: Could you tell me what race you consider yourself to be?
Well, from the country, I mean, Dominican. Dominican.
Q: Okay. And would you say that Dominican is a race?
Yes, I believe so. Yes, because… each country has its race of origin…. I’m Dominican and everywhere you go, you say, “What country [are you] from?” or “What race?” Well, you say, “Dominican.”
For instance, Jaime, a Puerto Rican professor in San Juan, locates the essence of the Puerto Rican race in an ancestral inheritance: “If… you’re Puerto Rican, [and] you have the races, Spanish, Indian, and African, then that’s your race. And it doesn’t matter if you’re more blanco, or if this one is more negro, and they got married, the son still has the race. You see? Because the race isn’t lost, the pedigree isn’t lost, you know, you carry it.” As a result, Jaime maintains, “I don’t think that the color defines a race.” This view of “Puerto Rican,” “Dominican,” or even “Latino” as a mixed racial ancestry is quite different from how Americans traditionally think of race and distinguish it from ethnicity.
Confronting the American Racial Context
Studies by scholars such as Laura Gomez and Julie Dowling show that other Latino immigrants, such as Mexicans, have similarly understood their ethnicities as a mixture of races. I found that when my migrant respondents first came to the mainland U.S., they brought this “mixed” understanding of race with them. When early migrants arrived, this view ran up against the prevailing American racial images and categories, especially those associated with darker skin tones.
Most people from the Hispanic Caribbean have some African ancestry, which would have led to them being classified as Black under the United States’ one-drop rule. This surprised and often frustrated migrants who identified their race in terms of their nationality. Celia, a Puerto Rican school counselor who was sent to live with her older sister in New York in 1955, explains:
I discovered so much about racism when I came to this country… When I came to school… for my ethnicity, they put Black. And then my sister went [to correct it] and she said, “She is a Lat—” At that time we didn’t use the word “Latino.” We said Puerto Rican.
Q: …Did they change your race on the form?
Yeah, they changed it… I don’t think they gave her a hard time. But yet, it was a problem. It was a problem.
The problem, for Celia, was one of respect. Being classified as Black not only imposed a race she did not accept, but also implied a lower status.
Because of their treatment as Black, even where Puerto Ricans and Dominicans have been allowed to live and travel has been constrained. Antonio, a Puerto Rican migrant who arrived in New York in 1947, settled in Spanish Harlem. He became aware of racial divisions through the territorial demarcations that divided his neighborhood landscape:
East Harlem was divided into two portions: the portion east of 3rd Avenue and the portion west of 3rd Avenue. East of 3rd Avenue was where all the Italians lived, and there was a tremendous amount of fights between the kids. And the demilitarized zone was 3rd Avenue because it had an “el,” an elevated train. I had to go to the elevated train to go downtown or whatever so that was a place that it was safe to go. But you wouldn’t go past [east of] that and the Italians couldn’t go west of that. I was very young when I first became aware of that because we were told “Don’t go east of 3rd Avenue or your life is in danger.” …And then west of that was Central Harlem where all the Blacks were living and we mixed with Blacks.
The African Americans Antonio grew up with could not understand why he did not identify as Black. Having internalized the one-drop rule themselves, they insisted, “If you’re mixed, you’re Black.” This, after all, was their reality.But much has changed in recent years, led in no small part by the tremendous growth of Latino populations. In New York City, the Puerto Rican population grew from about 600,000 in 1960 to almost 900,000 in 1990. Between 1960 and 2000, the Dominican population grew by more than 3,000% to become the second-largest Latino group in the city. Moreover, the entire Latino population of New York City has surged from less than 10% in 1960 to 27% in 2000 and has become increasingly diverse. With more than one in four New Yorkers identifying as Latino, native-born Americans are more familiar with these populations, and the communities themselves have more power to determine how they will be classified.With more than one in four New Yorkers identifying as Latino, native-born Americans are more familiar with these populations, and the communities themselves have more power to determine how they will be classified.
Celia, quoted above, now teaches at a school in the center of Spanish Harlem. In her school, Latinos are the majority, and there is no question that staff and administrators are fully sensitive to their cultural backgrounds and unique way of thinking about race, nationalism, and ethnicity. The size and prominence of the population has helped them assert their view of race as based on culture, a view that also fosters a shared Latino identity. And just as “Puerto Rican” or “Dominican” represented the particular mixture of Spanish, African, and Taíno peoples, these migrants have applied their understanding of race to view “Latinos” as a mixed-race group. This is much like José Vasconcelos’s notion of a “cosmic race” created out of the blending of peoples in Latin America. In racializing the “Latino” category, many respondents highlight the contrast to European Americans, who historically tried to avoid the racial mixture that characterizes modern Latinos.
Migrant respondents tend to emphasize their Latino identities in situations where they see it as advantageous. Those with darker appearances find it particularly useful to distinguish themselves from Blacks. Yesenia, a retired Puerto Rican garment worker, explained, “Negro [dark-skinned] Puerto Ricans don’t want to be Black Americans…. When they come in the elevator and you think they are Black Americans and you speak English to them… they quickly speak Spanish to you.” Speaking Spanish or revealing their name is usually enough for others to “reclassify” those initially “mistaken” for Black.
But Not White, EitherBut by the same token, those with lighter appearances often find that Americans do not accept them as White. When they assert a White identity, an identity many held in their countries of origin, light-skinned Latinos are often corrected by people around them. Carla, a Dominican lawyer, learned that she is no longer considered White through an experience at college. Latinos of all appearances find themselves occupying a middle rung on the country’s racial ladder.
In my country, I’m very light in color. That is, very, very light among Dominicans. I even think that my personal identification card… said White. And actually I considered myself White before, until I came here. And later when I arrived here I realized that no, that I’m not White and that actually I realized what discrimination was, that is, being treated differently.
Q: And how did you realize that you… aren’t White?
That happened one day when we were at the university, my friend and me. My friend is also Dominican and she is negra. We were studying at the university until very, very late [so we were told to call] the security office and ask them to accompany us to our home… So I called, and they asked me how we looked… I told them that we were two women and that one was Black and the other one White. And my friend who had lived in the U.S. for some time laughed and she told me, “Do you think that you’re White?”
Through reminders like these, light-skinned migrants learn that the most privileged racial category is the hardest to join. Either through their own efforts to move up the racial hierarchy or other people’s efforts to keep them down, Latinos of all appearances find themselves occupying a middle rung on the country’s racial ladder.
Of course, light-skinned Latinos could become White by integrating culturally—losing their accent, language, and their Latino identity. But many of the migrants I spoke with did not. In addition to being proud of their roots, they also saw distinct advantages to being bilingual and bicultural in a country with a growing Latino community. Nilda has light skin and could pass for a White American, but when applying for jobs she finds that it helps to be seen as a Puerto Rican English speaker. Even if her English is not perfect, her ability to speak Spanish lifts her above other job candidates, especially in customer service.
Migrants of all appearances recognize the tremendous potential of being able to “navigate in two worlds” as the Latino community (and market) grows, which makes them reluctant to fully “Americanize.” Even for those who are largely acculturated, the prominence of the Latino community in New York City’s psyche keeps the identity alive. Subtle indications of their origins—their name, references to their family roots—remind others that they are part of this group. Unlike an ethnicity, the Latino race does not seem to be fading over time.
Immigration, Integration, and Race and Ethnicity
In August 2012, the Census Bureau announced that it is considering replacing the separate race and Hispanic origin questions with one combined question that will place “Latino” on equal footing with other recognized race categories. In recent censuses, about 40% of Latinos have chosen not to select White, Black, or one of the other races listed and have instead marked themselves as “Other” race. Many interpret this to mean that they identify their race as Latino or as their nationality.
But will being seen and now counted as a race affect Latinos’ place in the American social hierarchy and their opportunities for empowerment? In her book In the Shadow of Race, Victoria Hattam suggests that U.S. groups that have been viewed as ethnicities have experienced more social mobility over time while those viewed as races are often relegated to the bottom of society. In effect, she suggests that there are some real costs to being seen in racial terms.
However, most of the groups that were defined as ethnicities and experienced mobility in the past were European, a category that was already, in effect, racialized and associated with Whiteness. They tended to lose their primary attachment to their ethnicity as they acculturated and were able to position themselves as part of the White race. This has always been far harder for those with African ancestry, who are unlikely to be seen as White no matter how integrated they are.It has also been difficult for groups to shed a strong ethnic identity when they experience ongoing immigration, as sociologist Tomás Jiménez has shown. A steady stream of newcomers ties the group to its immigrant origins in the public mind. In this sense, Latin Americans are different from earlier European immigrants. The Depression and World War II spurred decades with little immigration when European groups could shed their immigrant identities. But steady Latin American immigration over the last 50 years has produced an association between our images of “Latino” and “newcomer.” Latinos are in a unique position relative to other immigrant groups, past and present. Some members of the group—those with light skin and Americanized behavior—could have followed the path of earlier groups toward Whiteness even if it meant changing their names or hiding their origins. But other members—actual newcomers and those with darker skin—influenced public perceptions of the group overall.The Depression and World War II spurred decades with little immigration when European groups could shed their immigrant identities. But steady Latin American immigration over the last 50 years has produced an association between our images of “Latino” and “newcomer.”
The fact that Latinos have not, by and large, shed their Latino identities also creates advantages for the group as a whole. Groups that identify their shared interests and structural barriers are more likely to be involved in political mobilization. Yen Le Espiritu has shown this to be the case among Asian Americans who have fostered a sense of Asian pan ethnicity with common structural positions and shared interests that stem from their racialized treatment. A Latino identity functions in a similar way. The attention given to Latinos in the 2012 election cycle shows their ability to mobilize as a voting bloc, and Latinos will likely only continue to use their numbers for political gain.
The intertwining of race and ethnicity in the national imagination has created greater solidarity within the group. That can improve the situation of all Latinos rather than the lucky few. A common racial identity allows those with lighter skin and greater advantages to share resources and information with those with darker skin. In other words, the Latino race, whether embraced or imposed, might help to lift the entire group and not just those members who are able to jump across the color line into Whiteness. As they form a strong political voting bloc and gain the ability to self-identify on official documents like Census forms, American Latinos will continue to further express their identity and challenge the ways Americans have traditionally thought about race and ethnicity.
Julie A. Dowling. Forthcoming 2014. On the Borders of Identity: Mexican Americans and the Question of Race. Austin: University of Texas Press. This study examines Mexican American responses to the census race question and explores the disjuncture between federal definitions and local constructions of race.
Yen Le Espiritu. 1992. Asian American Panethnicity: Bridging Institutions and Identities. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press. A case study of how diverse national-origin groups can come together as a new panethnic group.
Laura E. Gómez 2007. Manifest Destinies: The Making of the Mexican American Race. New York: New York University Press. Uses New Mexico as a case study to explore the paradox of Mexican Americans’ legal designation as White but social position as non-White.
Victoria Hattam. 2007. In the Shadow of Race: Jews, Latinos, and Immigrant Politics in the United States. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press. A comprehensive study revealing how the assignation of certain groups as ethnicities has reinforced the racial inequality of other groups.
Tomás R. Jiménez. 2010. Replenished Ethnicity: Mexican Americans, Immigration and Identity. Berkeley: University of California Press. A cleverly designed study that examines the role of continued immigration on later-generation Mexican-Americans’ identity and experiences.
Clara E. Rodríguez. 2000. Changing Race: Latinos, the Census, and the History of Ethnicity in the United States. New York: New York University Press. Uses historical analysis, personal interviews, and Census data to show that Latino identity is fluid, situation-dependent, and constantly changing.
David R. Roediger. 2005. Working toward Whiteness: How America’s Immigrants Became White: The Strange Journey from Ellis Island to the Suburbs. New York: Basic Books. Roediger shows how American ethnic groups—like Jewish-, Italian-, and Polish-Americans—came to be seen as White only after immigration laws became more restrictive in the 1920s and 1930s.