The Latin American community is not a single monolithic group; instead, it reflects the diversity of the continent’s colonization and is part of our past and present. Today in the United States, the Latin community demonstrates racial diversity and distinctive heritages. The native population is still strong with their traditions and language, Afro-descendants are reclaiming their narrative and struggles, and Euro- descendants take advantage of a white supremacist society to move ahead.
In understanding the Latin American Community, we need to be aware that we are talking about populations first under Spanish rule and later under the U.S. (English) control either through conquest or purchase. In this expansion driven by the ideas of Manifest Destiny, many indigenous populations were subsumed under new colonizers.
According to the historian Dr. Cristina Mora who wrote “Making Hispanics,” previously disparate groups, including Puerto Ricans, Mexicans, and Cubans were categorized under the racial group as “white” or “Black.” However, due to their segmentation, the groups lacked any political representation for individuals whose first language was Spanish. A group of influential leaders from the community realized that combining the groups could lead to significant economic and political power. They decided that the term “Hispanic,” a descendant of Spanish, could reflect the entire community’s name. The U.S. government first used the term Hispanic in the 1970s. Notably, this occurred under the administration of Republican President Richard Nixon.
Creating the term “Hispanics” was an effort to consolidate a diverse community into a single label. Thus, several inroads were made to expand their base with the group of “Spanish Speakers” that were also diverse and fast-growing. After the 1990s, the term “Latin/Latino” became more heavily utilized in recognition that not all people are considered descendants of Spanish.
White, Black, and Brown?
“Brown people” or “la raza” has become a coded way to identify the Latin community. However, as should be abundantly clear, the Latin community does not reflect just a one-color group. Regardless, colorism is still at work in silence and benefits the group in power. The darker you are, the more invisible you will be. The Latin community is not immune to white supremacy; color matters. Let’s look at the primary news anchors, social media, or entertainment. This group of Latinos is in the majority of positions of power and prestige. This is because in the rules of the white society, they are the ones who are welcome.
But what about the indigenous and Afro descendants who are also part of the Latin community? They are foundational to the community and are often the least visible when it comes to leadership positions. However, indigenous and Afro descendants are the first mentioned when it comes to economic problems, migrations, and criminality. They suffer double discrimination from white Anglos and the white Latinos. Indigenous people are forced into silence from their suffering through colonization, stolen land, and impoverishment. Afro-descendants are forced to be silent about their ancestors’ enslavement when Europeans robbed and enslaved them in Latin America.
English, Spanish, or Náhuatl?
The question arises about what language represents the Latin Community. The recognition that Spanish or English are European languages clarifies that speaking one or both does not mean we are European descendants. Instead, the consequences of colonization are still present in our societies today. For many and new generations, the language is not a reference to ethnicity because indigenous languages and cultures were forcibly removed and not taught by the school system; for example, indigenous people from the United States who speak English are not considered English descendants. Why is it that indigenous people who speak Spanish are considered Latin? The term is another mechanism to put everyone in a box without understanding who we are. Individuals who migrated here also speak Nahuatl, K’iche, Qichwa, Aimara, or other native American languages and subsequently raised their children in bicultural homes.
Does this story surprise you regarding the Latin community? We all need to read more about Latin American history and colonization to unpack what some labels have aimed to hide.
Yenny Delgado-Qullaw (she/her/ella) Social psychologist and contextual theologian. She writes about the intersections between politics and faith.