(Article) Ethnic Labels & Puerto Rican Identity
(Article) Understanding Ethnic
Labels & Puerto Rican Identity
By Diana Peña-Pérez
Very often my middle school students ask:
"Are you Puerto Rican, Latino or Hispanic?"
They also want to know
"Is Cinco de Mayo a Puerto
Rican or Latin American holiday?"
The truth is that the different labels used to refer to
the diverse Spanish-speaking communities and their
respective traditions in the United States baffle even adults.
This is a reflection of how little people know about the
fastest growing minority group in the United States .
Most Americans are not aware of the fact that there
are different cultures and races among the more than
20 million Spanish-speaking people in the U.S.
Afraid of generalizing, stereotyping or leaving
somebody or something out, people prefer
not to have this type of discourse.
We need to take time to research about these matters.
As teachers, we need to better prepare our
students to understand the different cultures and
ethnic groups that are the fabric of this country.
The dialogue on multiculturalism is becoming very
crucial as we are moving toward a more global society.
We need to talk about race and culture to
understand the changes in our communities,
in politics and in today's popular culture.
Culture and Identity
Culture, in anthropology is defined as the
study of all aspects of human life, past
and present (Encarta Online Deluxe).
Culture also refers to the patterns of behavior
and thinking that people living in social
groups learn, create and share.
In this sense, culture and society are
interchangeable in anthropology.
The definition suggests that we all have a culture
and that at some point as members of a larger
society, we share certain traits.
In the case of the Spanish-speaking community
in the United States, some of those traits include
----- a common language and shared history.
However, when we study the group closely, we
realize that its members share a diversity of cultures
according to country of origin and other variants.
Those cultures, as we will learn through this
unit, are unique and its members want
society to acknowledge this fact.
People are defined by the culture they are in, and every one
wants this important aspect of their lives acknowledged.
This unit explores `identity' issues among the
Spanish-speaking communities in the United States
by studying some of their history, cultures and races.
Hispanic or Latino?
Figuring out which ethnic label was best had never
been an issue for the writer of this unit even though
I considered myself a member Spanish-speaking
community in the United States.
But when I began to report for a newspaper in suburban
New York , I had to make a decision about how to
identify a group of Spanish-speaking people there.
The stories were about quality of life matters such as
police protection, housing and other community news.
I opted for the term Hispanic, which seemed
to be accepted by most people -- I thought.
At the time, I was totally oblivious of
all the attributes attached to it, and
frankly I didn't think it mattered.
Soon after my articles were published,
I received several angry calls from readers.
They preferred the term Latino, because, as
they claimed, it was more faithful to their roots.
This incident illustrates the sensitive nature of this matter
and how important it is for everybody to become
educated about the Spanish-speaking community.
It is also important to make the overall society aware of
these labels in an effort to promote cultural understanding.
The debate over how to refer to Spanish-speaking people
in the U.S. is one that has contributed to the confusion
of identifying members of this group.
In the 1970s, U.S. government came up with
[the term] "Hispanic" to resolve the problem.
The term is still used today as an umbrella
name that includes all Spanish-speaking
people living in the United States .
But some members of the Spanish-speaking community
have continued to opt for an `identity' which is connected
with other aspects of their lives such as their countries of
origin, their culture and the race with which they affiliate.
This is highlighted in an article published by
Martha E.Gimenez of the Department of Sociology
at the University of Colorado at Boulder .
She is an Argentine-born woman who was classified as a
minority and Hispanic by administrators at her institution.
In the article, she expresses her discontent with this
label and reviews its negative connotations along
with other labels currently used in society.
She writes the following about
her being labeled a minority:
"This was indeed a surreal and upsetting experience
first because of the racism entailed in the denial
of my identity and the imposition of a spurious
"hispanicity" loaded with negative connotations,
and also because of the administrative uses to
which I was subject by becoming part of the
statistics used to show compliance with the law."
Her work and that of others used for the lessons in this unit,
make it clear that national origin, social class, ethnicity,
race, and length of stay in the U.S, make it exceedingly
difficult to find a common term to define an
already diverse Spanish-speaking community.
The existing terms only serve to perpetuate
stereotypes further and oversimplify
people's experiences in this country.
Consider the fact that both labels, Hispanic
and Latino were created in this country to
refer to minority groups that are considered
according to Gimenez.
If Latino is a label that as some claim, embraces
the historical and political commonalties of Latin
American countries, how come it is often employed
to refer to the social/economic status of a group of
people as they are compared to the larger society?
What happens to second-generation
Latinos in the United States ?
Do they share the historical and political experiences
attributed to their counterparts in Latin America ?
If so, should they be considered a minority because of it?
These thoughts raise questions about the validity
of the following terms currently used to refer
to members of the Spanish-speaking community.
The information that follows was collected from
Oboler's Ethnic Labels, Latino Lives, and the
articles "Latinos/Hispanics What next?"
and "Taxonomy: More on the Label Trap."
The articles can be found on the Internet
by searching under the keyword Latin
American Studies and Labels:
Used to refer indiscriminately
to any person who speaks Spanish.
Some believe it is imprecise and inappropriate
because it clusters together people from
two dozen countries, spanning the entire
American continent, the Caribbean and Spain .
This term is used to refer collectively
to all Spanish-speakers in the U.S.
Officially, it identifies people of Latin
American and Spanish descent living in the U.S.
It specifically connotes a lineage
or cultural heritage related to Spain .
It was created by state agencies after 1970.
As stated in Oboler's book, some feel that
this term ignores the diverse experiences
of descendants of U.S. conquest, such as the
Chicanos and those of the Puerto Rican populations.
It homogenizes the varied social and political
experiences of more than 23 million people
of different races, classes languages,
national origins, gender and religions.
The term may be cause for offense as to the
millions of people who Speak Spanish but are
not of true Spanish descent (Native Americans).
Some feel it ensures the community access
to resources from the ethnically based
political structure of the government.
This term describes a geographically
derived national origin group.
It refers to people originating from or
having a heritage related to Latin America .
"Latin" refers to the romance languages
(Spanish, Portuguese and French) spoken
by the majority of Latin Americans.
The term began to emerge among grassroots sectors
of the population, created as an alternative to what
was perceived to be an imposed label: Hispanic.
It is preferred by health practitioners and policymakers
for describing populations of Latin American descent.
Very much as the other terms, it undermines
generalizations about the entire group.
The term is not considered appropriate for the millions of
native Americans who inhabit the Latin American region.
The adoption of the new term would merely add to the
confusion and ultimately hinder Hispanics' competition
with other groups --- for government resources.
Its first use usage seems to have been discriminatory.
The source of the word is traced to the 1930s and 40s
period, when poor, rural Mexicans, often
Native Americans, were imported to the
U.S.to provide cheap field labor under an
agreement of the government of both countries.
The term originated from the inability of Native
American speakers to pronounce the word
Mexicanos and instead said "Mesheecanos." .
Mexican-American activists who took part
in the Brown Power Movement of the
60s and 70s later appropriated the term.
Among more assimilated Mexican-Americans,
the term still retains an unsavory connotation,
particularly because it is preferred by political
activists and by those who seek to create a new
fresh identity for their culture rather than to subsume
it blandly under the guise of any mainstream culture.
It is important to understand that there isn't just one
type of Spanish-speaking person in the United States.
Spanish-speaking Americans come from a variety of
places and belong to a variety of different ethnic groups.
Some examples of Spanish-speaking American
groups are Mexicans, Puerto Ricans and Cubans, to
mention a few.Although tied by the same language,
Spanish-speaking Americans don't share the
same historical, political or social experiences.
Furthermore, their conditions upon
entering this country varied significantly.
Mexicans, for example, were residents of a
ection of Mexico that became part of the United
States following the Mexican American War.
They soon supplied a demand for workers
in the country's mining and agricultural resources.
Their entering differed significantly from
Puerto Ricans, whose island and population was
colonized 50 years later by the United States .
The exploitation of Puerto Rico's human and
material resources led to the massive migration of
unemployed Puerto Ricans whom were attracted by
the postwar demand for labor in the east cost of the U.S.
Just as it is wrong to assume that Spanish-speaking
Americans share the same culture and history, it
would be erroneous to compare the more recent Latin
American immigrants with earlier European arrivals.
New immigrants face a declining demand for unskilled
workers and entry-level jobs and they cannot follow the
kinds of labor market insertion open to earlier groups.
The particular historical and economic situation when
Latin American populations arrived in the country
has shaped each national group's experiences.
One aspect in the history of many Latin American countries
that sets them part from Europeans, is the repeated U.S.
military interventions in their native land.
There have been U.S. interventions in Guatemala , Cuba ,
the Dominican Republic , Nicaragua and Panama .
There was an overthrow of democratically
elected leaders as in Chile and the constant
policing of Latin American governments.
Our own history reveals our government's
intention with [The] Monroe Doctrine, which
basically gave the United States an excuse
to intervene in Latin America affairs.
Monroe was vying the Caribbean with
plans of turning it into an " American Lake ."
Expansion to Latin America was a reality.
The U.S took over Puerto Rico in 1898
with intentions of making it a naval base.
Despite pleas to end the military regime, Puerto Rico
remained colonized by Americans and the military
governors soon began the process of "Americanization"
of Puerto Rico by implanting U.S. institutions,
influencing education, culture and economy.
One of the tools of Americanization was the teaching of
English as the primary language in the public schools.
Puerto Ricans between two cultures
Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens by
virtue of the Jones Act of 1917.
As American citizens they can
travel freely to and from the mainland.
The exploitation of the island's natural resources
since the U.S. intervention caused the overpopulated
island's economy to deplete and as a result, thousands
of Puerto Ricans have emigrated to the U.S.
From the time of their inception into the mainland -
-dating back to the 1960s-- Puerto Ricans have
experienced adjustment issues in the new society.
They continue to face ethnic, racial and
religious prejudice in the American society.
A new Puerto Rican has emerged in the mainland,
especially in New York City , where there has a large
concentration of people of Puerto Rican descent.
A pressing matter for Puerto Ricans
in the United States is that of their `identity'.
With what they `identify' --- in terms of
culture and ancestry --- has been a major
source of debate among Puerto Ricans.
When they arrived in the mainland, Puerto Ricans
interactions with "black" people in the United States
have been the prominent and much of the ethnic
literature that emerged from New York reveals
the group's affinity with African Americans.
This kinship was strengthened by the groups'
socioeconomic positions and struggles, and a
similarity in racial background among some of the
first Puerto Ricans who emigrated to the mainland.
A rich racial mixture of mulattos, whites
and blacks characterizes Puerto Rico .
Roberto Santiago's essay, "Black and Latino,"
encapsulates much of the inner conflict that
some Puerto Ricans in the U.S. experience
--- in regard to their skin color, and their
African and Latino cultural heritage.
It tells the story of how a young boy came to understand
this country's attitudes toward people-of-color, and how
that boy, now an adult (the author) finds no harm in
'identifying' himself as both "black" [socio-politically
speaking] and [as] Puerto Rican [culturally-speaking].
In most of the literature accompanying this
unit, the reader will find an underlying theme
surrounding the issue of Puerto Rican `identity':
Are Puerto Ricans "black" or
`White' because of their skin?
Do Puerto Ricans have an American culture?
These are only some of the
questions that the literature poses.
Puerto Ricans of all colors and ancestry
would say that they are just Puerto Ricans.
The most telling fact about Puerto Rican culture
in the U.S. is its emphasis on difference, and
most notably, on the distinction between cultures
of colonial peoples and that of imperialist society.
Some of the American Puerto Rican literature
reflects the influence of North American culture
in a special mixture with the elements of the
Latin American and Caribbean cultures.
Students will see that for Puerto Ricans, cultural
'identification' supersedes everything else.
The poem "Ending Poem" by Rosario Morales and
Auroa Levins Morales contains a special blend
that characterize Puerto Rican `identity' in the U.S.
The poem reveals an inner struggle to find `a concrete
classification' in terms of cultural and historical `identity'.
The Morales (mother and daughter) reject any
'preconceived category'and search for their
'own definition' of "who they are".
Other writers that will be studied under this unit, refer to
a lack of `identity' among Puerto Ricans, an idea furbished
by the establish cannons of the dominant society.
"Ending Poem" encapsulates the complexities of
being Puerto Rican: it can mean island-born and
of a Hispanic tradition, but it can also mean
North American, inner city, country or poor.
The poem also reveals elements of African,
Amerindian and European roots ---- without
necessarily wanting to be exclusive of any of them.
Identity and race
Skin Color and other Physical Characteristics
are used by residents in the island of Puerto
Rico to `identify' themselves in terms of "race".
The terms Trigeño, Blanco and
Moreno are perceived by Puerto
Ricans as "racial" classifications.
Other aspects considered for "racial" `identification'
are Color, Class, Facial-Features and Texture-of-Hair,
thus resulting in a variety of "racial" classifications
that are not recognized in the North American society.
Rodriguez explains that in Puerto Rico, not only is the
"racial" classification very different from that of the
United States , but that a "black" or `White' Puerto Rican,
for instance, is not considered a `distinguishable' group.
[The social-construct referred to today as] "race" -- as a
form of `identity' -- is a recent concept in human history
according to Audry Smedley of the Department
of Sociology and Anthropology at the
Virginia Commonwealth University .
The author goes on to say that "race" in
American society has become equivalent and
the dominant source of human `identity', in
many cases superseding all other aspects of `identity'.
The problem Smedley sees with that is that no
social-ingredient in our understanding of "race"
has allowed for Mixed-Races ---- expressions of
which are recognized by many Spanish-speaking
cultures as in the Puerto Ricans Trigeños and Morenos.
This problem is highlighted by the misunderstood attempts
in the American census to establish a Mixed-race category.
The result is that a large group of people
is left "feeling an absence" of `identity'
because they "do not exist" `formally'.
These sentiments are echoed in many
works of Puerto Ricans in the U.S. ...
[The goal of this essay is to help people]
understand the process of identifying
Spanish-speaking Americans and at promoting a
better understanding of the culture within that group.
[This includes learning] about the issues
surrounding Puerto Rican `identity'.
[It also included demonstrating] how ethnic labels were
created in the U.S.to refer to Spanish-speaking peoples [and
relizing how certain] other groups [ex. African Americans
and Mexican Americans] face similar struggles.
1. Algarin, Miguel and Miguel Piñero, (Eds.) Nuyorican Poetry: An Anthology
of Puerto Rican Words and Feelings,William Morrow and Company, New
York , 1975. A collection of poems that express Puerto Rican identity.
2. Gimenez, Martha. "Latinos/Hispanics What Next!
Some reflections on the politics of identity in the U.S. "
Department of Sociology University of Colorado , Boulder .
The author explains why she does not want to be considered "Hispanic" and
provides a little bit of the history of that term and others used in the Unites States.
3. Jaffe, A.J., Cullen and Thomas d. Boswell. The Changing
Demographic of Spanish Americans. Academic Press, New York , 1980.
4. Keesing, Roger M., "Theories of Culture Revisited," Canberra Anthropology,
v. 13(2), 19990, 46-60. The author argues for a concept of culture that
combines modern ways of life and those of small-scale communities.
5. Luis, William Dance Between Two Cultures: Latino Caribbean
Literature written in the United States , Vanderbilt University Press, 1997.
It provides a critical analysis of literature written by Latino writers
from the Caribbean including Puerto Ricans living in the United States .
6. Oboler, Suzane, Ethnic Labels, Latino Lives University of Minnesota 1997.
This book explores the history and current use the labels "Hispanic" and Latino
and how they affect some people's struggles for social participation in the U.S.
7. Perl Lila, Puerto Rico: Island Between two Worlds, William Morrow and
Company, New York , 1979. This book summarizes Puerto Rican history,
economy and social problems following the United States occupation in 1898.
8. Roberto Rogdriguez and Patrisia Gonzales, "The Label Trap," Albuquerque
Journal, August 4, 1994; and Taxonomy: More on the Label Trap.
These essays discuss the different labels used to
refer to people from Spanish-speaking countries.
It also touches upon the uses of Mexicans versus Mexican
Americans and Chicano terms in the Unites States.
9. Santiago, Roberto (Ed.) Boricuas Influential Puerto Rican Writings:
An Anthology, New York : One World 1995. Includes essays, poetry
and chapters from some famous works that deal with the Puerto Rican issues.
10. Smedley, Audrey. "Race and the Construction of Human
Identity," American Anthropologist, vol. 100(3), 1998.
This paper briefly explores how race became part of our culture and argues
that we must disconnect cultural features of identity from biological traits.
11. Turner, Faythe, Ed., (1991). Puerto Rican Writers at Home in
the USA . An anthology, One Hand Publishing, Seattle , Washington
12. @SH:Annotated Student Readings "Ay Ay Ay for the Kinky Black Woman"
by Julia de Burgos. (Boricuas Influential Puerto Rican Writings:
An Anthology). This poem is about a woman's Puerto Rican's African roots.
13. . "Black and Latino," by Roberto Santiago. (Boricuas Influential Puerto Rican
Writings: An Anthology). An essay on how a dark-skin Puerto Rican came to
understand race in this country and how an incident helped him find an identity.
14. "My name is Maria Cristina" (Herejes y Mificaciones, Dance Between
Two Cultures). "For Lolita Lebron," "From Fanon" and "Here" by Sandra
Maria Esteves. (Puerto Rican Writers at Home in the USA . An Anthology).
These poems reflect the ambivalence some Puerto Ricans experience
when confronting their American/Puerto Rican cultures.
15. "Child of the Americas " by Aurora Levins Morales and Rosario
Morales (Puerto Rican Writers at Home in the U.S. An Anthology).
This poem is abut about a woman being "born at the
crossroads," one with roots from three ethnic groups.
16. "African Things," by Victor Hernandez (Boricuas).
This poem reveals information about Puerto Rico 's African history.
17. "Arturo Alfonso Schomburg: Our Forgotten Scholar,"
Castillo Jr., and Valerie Sandoval Mwalilino, EPIC/NECCA.
This article describes the accomplishments of Arturo
Schomburg and his efforts to afford `blacks" respect.
1. Microsoft Encarta. Online Encyclopedia 2000,
2. Gimenez, Martha. (1998) "Latinos/Hispanic. What's next!
Some reflections on the politics of identity in the U.S. "
Department of Sociology, University of Colorado at Boulder
3. Oboler, Suzane (195) Ethnic Labels, Latino Lives. Identity and the Politics of
(Re)Presentation in the United States University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, pg. 25
I am using this term interchangeably with
Spanish-speaking peoples as a writing style only.
4. Oboler, Ethnic Labels
5. Oboler, Ethnic Labels, pg. 9
6. Perl, Lila, (1979) Puerto Rico: Island Between Two
Worlds, William Morrow and Company, New York
7. Pearl, ibd. Pg. 145.
8. Santiago, Roberto ed. (1995)Boricuas: Influential Puerto
Rican Writings An Anthology, Ballantine Books, New York
9. Flores, "The Insular Vision: Pedreira and
the Puerto Rican Misere," Divided Borders.
10. Turner, Faythe, ed., (1991). Puerto Rican Writers at home in the USA .
An anthology, One Hand Publishing, Seattle , Washington
11. Luis, William (1997). Dance Between Two Cultures: Latino Caribbean
Literature Written in the United States . Vanderbilt University Press
12. Smedley, Audrey (1998). "Race and the Construction of
Human Identity," American Anthropologist. Vol 100 no. 3
13. Jaffe, A.J., Cullen and Thomas D. Boswell (1980)
The Changing Demographic of Spanish Americans Academic Press, New York
14. Luis, Dance Between Two Cultures.
(© 2006 by the Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute)