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Living the Hispanic life Embedded in a “Bermuda Triangle” of Racial & Ethnic Identity

American Playwright William Saroyan once said, “A man’s [or woman’s] ethnic identity has more to do with a personal awareness than with geography”.  This is doubly true with Hispanics.  Unintentionally, by choosing the descriptor “Hispanic” in the title of this post, I am making a personal choice as well as a political statement, regardless of whether that was my intention.  By designating Hispanic as my descriptor, I am no doubt alienating the state of California, where use of the term (among those who consider themselves enlightened intellectuals dedicated to fighting the man – pretty much all of the San Francisco Bay Area) signals a willingness to accept the appellation applied by imperialists and colonial powers.  Little did I know that the self-description I used for most of my life was a tool of the oppressors. Certainly complicates things.  Depending where you are, you may use the term Hispanic and be faced with blank stares.  Where is this country Hispania?


I grew up Puerto Rican in the South Bronx of New York.  We called ourselves Hispanic and didn’t think twice about it. We often also non-ironically used the term “Spanish” as an ethnic description, although this rarely related directly to use of the Spanish language, since many barely spoke it.  As far as I’ve been able to discern, the terms Spanish and Hispanic as used in New York are interchangeable with the term “Latino”, frequently used elsewhere.  The word Latino was entirely foreign to me until I went to live in The People’s Republic of Berkeley, California (or “Berserkley” to insiders).  I was already in my 20’s, with a fairly established identity, or so I thought.  Imagine my surprise when I learned from Californian undergraduate students that I was in fact a “Latina”, and that my use of the term “Hispanic” as my ethnic identity was a sign of cultural incompetence.  Apparently when I thought of myself as Hispanic, I was being offensive and insensitive.  Imagine my distress at treating myself in a culturally incompetent manner!  That takes self-loathing to a new level.  After trying desperately not to point out that one must actually travel outside of California to understand the wide variety of ways in which people conceive of their ethnic identities, and then laughing hysterically, I did a little bit of reflection.  Latino is meaningful to Californians.  Hispanic is meaningful to New Yorkers.  Neither of the usages means anything when you’re trying to get your state identification at the Department of Motor Vehicles, and it requires a meeting of managers to determine that someone born in Puerto Rico is automatically an American citizen, as Puerto Rico is a U.S. Territory.  So much for being Latino.  I’d been downgraded to non-citizen for a little while.


While in California, it was time for me to complete the US census form. When I received the form I was quite perplexed. It was the first time that Americans could mark multiple races. I checked off Hispanic but had no idea what race to select. At the end of that long thought out process I selected “other.”  For the first time, I felt like an “other” and couldn’t quite describe what I was. I grew up being a Nuyorican.  Where was that boxed category on the census form? A few years later I moved back to the east coast to be part of an organization that advocates for the health needs of “Latinos.”  The word Latino was to become part of my everyday vocabulary but it still wasn’t me. That is, until I was taken to task for advocating in a public presentation for Latina-specific health programs. It was a rude awakening for my ethnic sensibilities. Overnight I became a Latina. Where had my Hispanic identity gone? Through my tenure, I learned about the different way Hispanics self-identify racially.  Those in the south, or new areas seeing a rapid increase in Hispanic population (such as South Carolina, which saw over 140% increase in the Hispanic population over the past decade) tended to identify as “other” and those that have lived in more traditional Hispanic areas (New York, California, Florida) tend to self-identify as “white”. Wow, they may be Latino ethnically, but those in California have taken on the racial identity of the “man.”


When I visited Cuba, which has had a history of segregation (pre-revolution), the concept of race and social determinants of health based on racial categories was an extremely foreign and insulting concept to them. While we were at the Cuban National School of Public Health we met with the faculty and the Director of the School. It was an interesting Q & A session where we asked them about various illnesses and how the public health system addresses them, and the Cubans also asked us questions – they were especially interested in the Affordable Care Act, its impact on the congressional elections, and Obama’s apparent setbacks. At one point a US delegate asked about social determinants of health and what the data looks like in Cuba. He provided as an example, the fact that African Americans have a shorter life span than other Americans. This question had to be repeated numerous times because the Cubans did not understand the question and because the answers they provided were not satisfying to the American who insisted on the universality of social determinants of health.  Finally, we had tested our Cuban hosts’ patience and one of the faculty members took to the microphone to yell “there is no such thing here. Race is not used as a social determinant of health. Because health care is free and accessible to all, race is not factored into health outcomes. They [meaning Cubans] came through the revolution together, thus they are one and race is a non-factor.” Data on race is collected somewhat there but its association with health outcomes is not a typical statistical analysis that is run.


Such an exchange illuminates how random the race concept can be and yet how much rides on it– from funding, to program development to general sense of community and pride. What is interesting is that for the most part when people in the US think of Cubans they think of the stereotypical White Hispanic.  Yet, on the island they were a rainbow of racial categories. Historically race was tied with class in Cuba.  And those with money escaped to the U.S.  Hence our mistaken perception of Cuban ethnic identity.


Soon after my Cuba trip, I had to complete the US census form again. I again looked at that racial category section and this time I had a confounding factor: my son.  I marked my son as white Hispanic and I was an “other” Hispanic.  A blended family indeed.


I am still an “other” on the US census and any other form that ask me to self-identify as a race, However, I’m a bit more nuanced now. I’m now a Latina in public professional presentations, a Hispanic in the northeastern parts of the US and New Mexico, a “gringa” in Puerto Rico, and an all-around American with a Nuryorican attitude and sensibility.


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