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Friday, February 17, 2006

Terms of Identity: Whats in a Name - A post from the gran guru of Chicano(a) literary criticism


By Felipe de Ortego y Gasca,

Dr. Felipe de Ortego y Gasca, emeritus professor of English, Texas State University System–Sul Ross, is currently Visiting Scholar and Lecturer in English and Bilingual Studies, Texas A&M University–Kingsville.

From Latino Suave Magazine, December/January 2005-06.

Everything in the world of language has a name. When we encounter something new in “our world” we seek to establish immediately its name. If there is no name in our lexicon for what we’ve encountered, then we label it–most often–with a term that embodies some essential characteristic of the item. For example, in French a “potato” is called a “pom­me de terre”–an “apple of the earth.” That’s the process of all languages. If we have trouble com­ing up with a name in our own language, then we simply borrow a word from the language where a term already exists for whatever we’ve encountered. In struggling with his theory of psy­choanalysis, Freud turned to Greek for many of his terms. “Psy­che”, for example, is the Greek term for “mind.” This syncretic process is what makes language so dynamic and so essential to the human experience. We can think of lan­guages in contact as “consenting adults”–the new words they engender reflect their parentage. In the United States, for instance, speak­ers of Spanish have created the word “troca” for “truck.” In a sense in the midst of that phenomena we’re experiencing a growth in lan­guage– present at the creation, so to speak. In like manner, speakers of English in the Southwest of the 19th century trans­formed the Spanish word “vaque­ro” into “bucke-roo.” The English lan­guage is enriched by the count­less terms bor­rowed from the Spanish lan­guage. In­deed from all the languages spoken in the United States. Thanks to Yiddish, Americans shlep things from here to there. Most often these terms endure. Some terms don’t. But all languages are en­riched by contact with each other.

What about terms of identity? Some terms that describe groups of people are pejorative, reflecting the depictive view of people who use those terms to describe specific groups. “Spic,” for example, was a term widely used until our time to describe Hispan­ics both in the United States and at large. There is a global lexicon of disparaging terms to describe pret­ty much all of the peoples of earth. Such terms are not specific to any single group. How did the term “His­panic” come to be used to describe such a di­verse spectrum of people who are thought to be link­ed to each other by language, ethnicity, and religion.

What is the term “Hispanic”? What does it mean? Where does it come from? Why is it used to identify particular peoples of the Americas? Is the term “Hispanic” the same as the term “Latino”? Both the terms “Hispanic” and “Latino” have been used for some time. More recently, however, the re­vivified term “Latino” has resonated with contempo­rary American Hispanics, many of whom perceive the term “Hispanic” as a label imposed on them by the bureaucracy of the U.S. Census Bureau. The term “Hispanic” actually cropped up in the early Span­ish colonial period in the Americas to designate persons with a biological tie to a Spaniard. In Span­ish the term was “Hispano.” Later the term evolved into “Hispano-Americano” to emphasize that Hispa­nos were also Americans since they were of the Amer­icas. Historically, the United States appropri­ated that term for its own identity, so that few Amer­icans realize that all the populations of the Americas are Americans.
The word "Hispanic" is one of those large ru­brics, like the word "Catholic" or "Protestant." By itself, the word refers to all Hispanics (persons whose cultural and/or linguistic heritage derive from historical origins in His­pania– Roman name for Spain), attesting to a common denominator, convey­ing information that the individual is an off-spring or descendent of a cultural, political or ethnic blending which included at its beginning at least one Spanish root either biological or linguistic or cultural.

Talking about people in terms of labels can be misleading. For example, a person may be an His­panic in terms of cultural, national, or ethnic roots. Nationally, Colon (Columbus) was a Span­iard, though born in Genoa; Werner Von Braun became an American national, though born in Ger­many. In Argentina there are Hispanics who have no "Spanish blood" but who, nevertheless, consider them­selves Hispanics, speak Argentine Spanish and are fluent in Italian or German, the languages of their immigrant forebears to the country. Put another way, the term "Hispanic" is comparable to the term "Jew" which describes the religious orientation of people who may be ethnically Russian, Polish, German, Italian, English, etc. There are also Chinese Jews, Ethiopian (Falashan) Jews, Indian Jews, et al. So too the term "Hispanic" describes a cultural-linguistic orientation of people who may be Mexicans, Nicaraguans, Cu­bans, Venezuelans, Chileans, Argentines, Spaniards. Additionally there are Afro Hispanics, White His­panics, Asian Hispanics, Indian Hispanics and a con­geries of other mixtures. There is an array of Chi­nese Hispanics, Lebanese Hispanics, Pakistan His­panics, Hindu Hispanics, Jewish Hispanics (Seph-ards), et al. This all points to the fact that Hispanics are far from a homogeneous group. In the main, though, their common characteristics are language (Spanish or a derivative version of Spanish as well as a distinctively derivative version of English often times called Spanglish), culture (His­panic), and reli­gion (most are Catholic, though there is a growing number of His­panic Protestants). There are large exceptions of course.

To avoid confusion between Hispanics who are citizens of countries other than the United States and Hispanics who are U.S. citizens, we refer to the former as Hispanic Americans and the latter as American Hispanics, that is, Hispanics who are American citizens with roots in one or more of the Spanish-lan­guage countries of the Amer­ican hemisphere-and elsewhere. Another way to differen­tiate U.S. Hispanics from Hispanics in Spain and other Hispanic identified countries in the Americas and elsewhere is to keep in mind that American His­panics live and work legitimately in the Unit­ed States. Unfortunately, the public at large tends to use these terms synonymously, creating thus confusion.
The United States has the largest Hispanic popu­lation in the world exceeded only by Mexico,. Spain, Colombia, Argentina, and Peru. Who are these peo­ple whose presence in the Amer­ican population will have such a major force in the future? Essentially, American Hispanics may be grouped into five cate­gories: (1) Mexican Americans/Chicanos, (2) Puerto Ricans/Boricuas, (3) Hispanos (U.S. Hispanics who identify themselves as "Spanish"), (4) Cuban Ameri­cans, and (5) Latinos (Hispanics from countries other than those already mentioned in this matrix).

In the total mix of U.S. Hispanics (45 million counting the population of Puerto Rico), two-thirds (66%) of U.S. Hispanics are of Mexican American stock, many of whom identify them­selves as Chica­nos, an ideological designation that identifies their generation. All together, 18% of U.S. Hispanics are Puerto Ricans, many of whom identify themselves as Boricuas, an ideological term comparable to the term Chi­cano. Mexican Americans/Chicanos and Puerto Ricans/Boricuas make up almost 85% of the total U.S. Hispanic population. Hispanos comprise a sta­tistically small number of the U.S. Hispanic popula­tion; and Cuban Americans make up almost 5% of U.S. Hispanics. Latinos make up the remaining 8% of U.S. Hispanics. Surprisingly, most Americans tend to think of U.S. Hispanics as a loose aggrega­tion of "immigrants" who speak only Spanish, some­what aware that the largest number of them live in the Southwest, a fair number in the Upper Middle Atlantic states and New England, and a growing group in Flori­da.

In the 19th century, in two swift "actions" within 50 years of each other the United States "acquired" a sizable chunk of its Hispanic population, not count­ing the Hispanic Jews of New Amsterdam be­fore it became New York nor the acquisition of New Orleans (and its Hispanic residents) in 1803 from the French (who took it originally from the Span­iards) and Florida (and its Hispanic residents ) from Spain in 1819. The first "action" was the U.S. War with Mexico (1846-1848), out of which came the Mexi­can Americans of California, Nevada, Arizona, Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, Texas, parts of Oklahoma and Kansas. No one is sure of the num­bers of "Mexi­cans" who came with the wrest­ed territory (almost half of Mexico was dismembered), but figures range from 150,000 to as many as 3.5 million (including Hispaniciz­ed Indians). The second "action" was the U.S. war with Spain (1898), out of which came the Puer­to Ricans, Cubans, Filipinos, Guamani­ans, and others. A fair number of Cubans came to Florida with this "action" between 1898 and the First World War (Cuba gained independence from the United States in 1917). The population figures for these groups range variably as well. This history attests to the fact Amer­ican Hispanics are of the United States, but we've tended to confuse them with His­panic Amer­icans, the 300 million who populate the Spanish-language coun­tries of the American hemi­sphere.

The categories of Hispanicity I've proffered here are actually pretty easy to remember and they do help to pinpoint where we fit in the Hispanic taxon­omy. A Puerto Rican friend of mine explains that he's an Hispanic of mainland Puer­to Rican stock and subscribes to a Boricua perspective of life in the Unit­ed States. Another friend of mine tells me he's an American Scandinavian of Norwegian stock who is a registered Republican. I don't find that confusing at all. We're all Americans, rich in cultural, linguistic and ethnic diversity.

What's in a name? Everything. That's why my name is Felipe and my friend's name is Sean. Names help to tell us apart. They also reflect heritage and background. Unfortunately, many Americans tend to think the word Hispanic refers to a homogeneous group of people-which it does not, anymore than the word German, say, (as in German-American) refers to a homogeneous group of people. At best, the term His­panic is a convenient way to talk about a diverse group of people, much the way we use the term Amer­ican to talk about an equally diverse group of people.

Copyright © 2005 by the author. All rights reserved.

Published with permission by the author

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