10/31 response

Two of the readings for October 31 discussed the U.S. census and some of its issues. The New York Times article “For Many Latinos, Racial Identity is More Culture than Color” addresses the shortcomings of the Census in identifying Latinos or people with Latino heritage. The article mentions that the historic racial binaries that some people argue the census perpetuates do not apply to many Latinos. The concept of race can lead some people to lump many different cultures together because its members may have the same general skin tone. It seems like this is the case for Asian Americans, even though one American with Vietnamese heritage may have next to nothing in common with a Korean immigrant. I have also noticed that this happens with Latinos, or people with Latin American or Caribbean heritage.

I thought it was interesting that this article used the term “Latino” instead of “Hispanic.” That was a good choice, I think, because of the linguistic history of “Hispanic.” The term Hispanic relates to Spain and Spanish speaking countries specifically, which of course is tied to colonization. This term excludes Portuguese-speaking Latinos, such as Brazilians, and Latin Americans who do not speak Spanish. My Dominican American coworker called the term racist. I didn’t get an explanation from him as to why he thinks that, but I understand that it must be frustrating for him to not have his heritage or culture adequately acknowledged.

It has become more clear to me since I’ve lived in New York that different people’s identities and cultures are not sufficiently represented by a handful of “races.” If we categorized all the various Latino communities in New York by just that — Latino — then the differences between cultures would be disregarded, and all Latinos would be seen as the same. In New York, the Puerto Rican, Mexican, Dominican, and Ecuadorian communities, to name a few, would all appear as generically “Spanish.” Also, where would Caribbean people who don’t necessarily speak Spanish fit? How are Jamaicans and Trinis categorized on the Census?

I grew up in a whitebread town where everyone was either a white American, the token minority, or some form of ethnic. My community now is totally different. At work, for example, I have a supervisor who is Jamaican, a manager who is originally from a small Pacific island near Guam, and a coworker whose parents are from Haiti and Bangladesh, respectively. Many of my friends and coworkers are also Hispanic, meaning that any Spanish-speaking tourist who is trying to order something with a limited knowledge of English will be able to communicate with at least one of my coworkers. Coming from a town where it was unusual to hear anyone speaking anything besides English, this is really cool.

It is cool to be around a diverse group of people, not for the purposes of neocolonial cultural tourism, but because it is much more interesting and challenging to spend time with people different from me, who grew up in a different context. I talk about this a lot with my boyfriend, who moved to New York three years ago from the Dominican Republic. We disagree on a lot of things just because we grew up in two very different places. For us, and probably for most people, what most comprises our identity is where we are from and who we spent our childhood with, not our race or even our language. This is why I am skeptical of official racial categorizations, because they place people in boxes that may not represent who they are at all.

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