© 2024 NPR Illinois
The Capital's Community & News Service
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

What defines Latino identity in the U.S.?

A voting sign written in Spanish and English is seen during the presidential primary in Austin, Texas on March 5, 2024. (Suzanne Cordeiro/AFP via Getty Images)
A voting sign written in Spanish and English is seen during the presidential primary in Austin, Texas on March 5, 2024. (Suzanne Cordeiro/AFP via Getty Images)

64 million Latinos live in the U.S.

It’s a population bigger than any Spanish-speaking country in the world except Mexico.

Today, On Point: What defines American-Latino identity?


Marie Arana, author of the new book “LatinoLand: A Portrait of America’s Largest and Least Understood Minority.” Former literary director of the Library of Congress.


Part I

MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI: What defines Latino identity in the United States?

KARLA MARQUEZ: Oh, this question of identity is a really complex and juicy subject of discussion. Growing up, I was told I wasn’t brown enough to be indigenous and that using Hispanic sounded more prestigious.

CHAKRABARTI: This is On Point listener Karla Marquez in Portland, Oregon.

MARQUEZ: I was told that using Mexican was a way of demonstrating my pride, but then it was also used to tell me I didn’t belong in this country. My high school counselor told me to use Mexican American because I grew up in the United States, but my history teacher told me that the American part is the only part that mattered.

I tried using Chicana because I was politically active. But then I was told that Latina was more acceptable. When I started using Latinx as a form of rebellion against gender norms, I was told that the X was a form of linguistic imperialism. Now, when I meet people that ask me how I identify, I just explain that I’m all of the above.

CHAKRABARTI: So it’s complicated, and understandably. There are 64 million Latino Americans in the United States, and together they form a population larger than any Spanish speaking country in the world except for Mexico. And they have roots in dozens of different countries, with distinct cultures. Cuba, Panama, the Dominican Republic, Peru, Ecuador, I could go on and on.

Now, if American Latinos were their own country, they’d have the fifth largest GDP on the planet. And given that immense diversity, is there any kind of unifying force that defines what it means to be a Latino American? Perhaps more importantly, does there even need to be a unifying, identifying force?

Those are some of the questions that Marie Arana tries to answer in her new book. It’s called “LatinoLand: A Portrait of America’s Largest and Least Understood Minority.” And Marie joins us now. Welcome to On Point.

MARIE ARANA: Thank you so much, Meghna. It’s such a pleasure to be here.

CHAKRABARTI: I would like to start just grappling with the central conundrum that you present in the book.

It’s how you open it with this quotation fromJosé Carlos Mariátegui from 1929, a Peruvian journalist. And you open the book with his quote where he says, “We are not a race, a nation, a state, a language, a culture. We are the simultaneous transcendence of all these things through something so modern, so unknown that we still have no name.”

So presumably, Marie, you believe this to be a suitable quotation even now in 2024, but why did you even try to take on a project where you’re seeking some sort of unifying factors in Latino identity?

ARANA: Yeah. Yeah. This is a project just that evolved from a lifelong project of writing that I have.

Which is to describe Latin Americans. And I got to the point where I had done seven books on Latin America in different forms, in history, in biography, in my own memoir, in fiction. And then I realized that one of the largest nations of Latinos was in this very country. It had grown from when I arrived in 1960, 2 million, which is what the U.S. Census was recording.

To, as you say, 64 million of us. And watching that sort of agglomeration of a population, that I had grown up in a town in New Jersey where … we were the only family that I could see. And my siblings were the only Latino children that I knew. A tremendous change in the course of my lifetime.

And I wanted to record not only what that change was and what that change meant but wonder why. Two things. Why are we, why do we remain so invisible to the rest of America and mystifying and invisible? And then how did I belong? How do we all belong to this thing that we call Latino or Latinx or Latine we’re now using or Hispanic, which is now used by very proud institutions still across the country.

We are, we have so many names and that comes from, Meghna, because the Latinos were an extraordinary experiment on this planet in the first place. We were a combination of many backgrounds and ethnicities. And so we have this mix to begin with, the Spanish had a very complicated mix to begin with, as well.

And when, of course, the conquistadors came to this hemisphere and mixed it up in a way that had never been done on Earth before. They created something even larger and even more complicated. So that’s who we are. And trying to get a grip on that, and trying to understand whether there is some unity in it, has been my project now for a while.

CHAKRABARTI: You know what I’d like to do? I’d like to actually just quickly go through some of the names, right? That you just went through. Some of the ways that this group of Americans have been identified over time. Just to quickly get some background on where those names came from, right?

Because I’ll be honest, I did not know that until I read your book, that the term even Latin America was originally from the French in the Napoleonic era. Can you just tell me a little bit more about that?

ARANA: Absolutely. When Napoleon invaded Spain and occupied Spain and conquered Spain for a while, it was an extraordinary moment. Because France realized, Oh my goodness, Spain has all of these colonies. It’s very powerful in the new world. And so it was an opportunity in the beginning of the 19th century to actually appropriate all of that land and all of that culture and all those colonies.

And in order to persuade the hemisphere or the Latin American countries, I should say the Southern American countries, the Caribbean, the colonies, the Spanish colonies that they had something in common with them. Napoleon began to use the word Latin, because we are all Latin and that makes us, brothers and sisters.

So that’s where the Latin came from and Latinos. And then what happened, of course, is when Nixon came to power and he realized that although he felt a strong bond with Hispanics, because he had grown up in California, his father was a grocer, they worked, the family worked very closely with Mexican American workers and Central American workers who came up to California to work.

And he felt a strong bond to them and that he had grown up with them. He had, when he was 12 years old, he was loading trucks with Mexican American workers, laborers. So when he didn’t do well in the polls with them, he decided to be more aggressive and more assertive about his bonds with Mexican Americans and he coined pretty much the term Hispanics and he actually established Hispanic Heritage Day, which people don’t realize that was actually Nixon.

And in fact, when he went for reelection, the polls went up. And because he did pay attention, he put Hispanics into, and I call them Hispanics because that’s what Mexican Americans called themselves at the time. Put them into the White House, put them into jobs, put them into the military in a big way.

So he was a very strong supporter of Hispanics, and he gave us that name. And then, of course, Latinx comes along, and it’s an attempt to, for gender equity and all of the sort of LGBTQ issues, and that has pretty much been ignored and neglected by the Latino population.

And it’s seen really, as you mentioned earlier, as an imperialistic kind of label on us. The language is, it is a naturally gendered language as Japanese is, as Russian is or many. Nobody says Russianx. Nobody says Japanesex. Why say Latinx? So that has been imposed on us as well.

We have been imposed with many labels. And in truth, I think most of us see ourselves as wherever we came from, we’re Honduran Americans or Peruvian Americans as I am or Mexican Americans or Puerto Ricans. Who are citizens of this country, to a certain extent, three quarter citizens.

We haven’t, Puerto Ricans haven’t been given full citizenship to be able to vote, but they can be recruited into the army and to serve in wars as they have.

CHAKRABARTI: Marie, can I just, yeah, can I just jump in here. Because you’ve made a lot of good points and I want to be able to explore each of them in the ways that they deserve.

But to your point about language, actually, you write that the Spanish language, the use of gender in Spanish and those other languages you mentioned are grammatical, it’s not sociological or sexual, which is one of the reasons why you present this very compelling set of facts. That you say, of our accumulated ethnic population, only a third use Hispanic to identify themselves, a mere 14% use Latino and less than 2% recognize Latinx.

So as we head towards the end of this first segment here, Marie, on the one hand, I want to, I feel a little cautious in asking you, one person, in terms of what should, what is the term that is best used even in this conversation? Because there’s 63,999,999 other people who might have different opinions.

But I do want to ask you anyway What’s the identifier you prefer?

ARANA: The media has preferred Latino. And so that has, even for the population, which will register different gravitations toward the labels that the media has, flat across the board use the word Latino.

So I use that mostly, although in my book Latinoland, I use Latinx, I use Hispanic, I use Peruvian American, Mexican American because we do all have different opinions about what we call ourselves. And I think that in the main, we surrender to whatever people call us.

Part II

CHAKRABARTI: Marie, you summarize the findings in your book in one very revealing paragraph. And obviously your book is the result of a lot of research and conversation with many people in the Latino American community.

But I found this paragraph to be quite guiding. Let me put it that way, because you say, quote, “We may not have a single narrative, but we are united by a number of commonalities. By the fact that we are still considered newcomers, although our ancestors were the first inhabitants of this hemisphere, by being marginalized, virtually unseen, although we are a burgeoning, exuberant population, by being remarkably upwardly mobile.

Successful, yet trammeled by prejudice and poverty, by sharing our collective reverence for family, work, and joy. Wherever our origin or station, by being a mind-boggling labyrinth of contradictions that is joined by a single tongue, even if we don’t speak it well anymore.”

Now what I found so compelling about that paragraph is that any one of those characteristics that you described, none of them really have anything to do with specific locations of national origin.

None of them have to do with race. There’s only one, very distantly at the bottom at the list, has to do with language. So what does that tell you about how we ought to see the 64 million people in this country that we’re talking about.

ARANA: It’s really interesting because historically, Spain tried to keep its colonies apart and it did that because it wanted to have complete control over each one.

So it was against Spanish law for the colonies to contact each other or for any trade to happen or for anybody to own anything. To defend from anybody else. So what happened is we didn’t know each other. Even though Peru was the viceroyalty of, Peru was next to the viceroyalty of Argentina.

We didn’t know each other. There was no communication. And there was this extremely powerful body of production that was being done out of South America, Caribbean. But no contact with each other. So we come to this country, we as immigrants and we don’t really, we have no affiliation with each other, except when we get here.

And this is the absolute wonder, I think, of the Latino experience. Is because when you come and you are, I remember when I came as a kid, I was a nine-year-old kid, people assumed I was Mexican, and they called me Mexican. And even when I said I’m actually from Peru, I’m not from Mexico.

And they would say, well it doesn’t matter? You speak Spanish, you’re Mexican. And in fact, Mexican was a label on the U.S. census that you could check. So we were all Mexican at one point. And then of course the different pockets began to come. What I think you’re getting at Meghna, which is really important.

Is this sense of community that is imposed on us in a way, and that we accept. It is a community that is very murky, very hard to define. But let me tell you, when anybody attacks any one of us, we rise to defend. When we were called rapists and criminals, the Mexicans were called that.

You better bet the Cubans and the Dominicans and the Peruvians and everybody else rose in defense. It is, I think, something that we finally recovered. It is something that Simón Bolívar the liberator of so many countries, six republics, always wanted to unite Latin America and get back that power of oneness, of unity.

And I think that is being approached in this country. It never was approached there. The wars of independence didn’t lead to any sort of big United States of Latin America, but it happens here and it really has been wondrous to see what it is that unites us. The biggest thing that unites us is our work ethic.

CHAKRABARTI: Oh, you went straight to where I wanted to go, Marie, because that was the most interesting chapter in your book, to be perfectly honest. So hang on just for a second, because one quick thing about the United States in various ways, wanting to impose a sense of blanket identity through language for the Latino community.

It’s still, it does interest me. Because we don’t do that for francophone countries, right? Like Quebecois in this country, we would never be like you’re French or someone from Benin and be like you’re French also. But yet somehow, we make this exception for people whose ancestry hails back to nations that spoke Spanish due to Spanish conquest in centuries past.

It was really interesting. We could spend the whole hour on that, but I won’t. I just wanted to note that we seem to uniquely do that for Spanish. But on this question of work, let me first play another clip from an On Point listener reflecting on their experience. And this is a listener who called us from rural Colorado.

She didn’t want us to use her name, but she told us she identifies as Chicana or Mexican American.

LISTENER: I’m a 64-year-old Chicana, never married, motherless, free, organic farmer, reporter, founded a news site 16 years ago. I’m a holder of a private pilot certificate, operate an animal sanctuary. Vegan. I would never hurt an animal.

My children and I have traveled and lived in 80 different countries together. My issue is when people try to describe my community as a minimalist, when children’s books talk about a farmer, my image is not there.

CHAKRABARTI: Interesting. We have many more reflections that we’ll hear throughout the hour. But, Marie, you have a whole chapter on mindset and work. So tell me more. Start with mindset. You found in the interviews you did, you found a commonality in mindset amongst people who consider themselves Latino American?

ARANA: There is a mindset I do believe, and it comes from, we have to realize that even if we’re not alike because we were kept apart, we still are children of colonialism and we are children of the Spanish way, in the Spanish way of thinking.

I think that what actually unites us is we’re kind of socially conservative. And we are in many ways liberal in the sense that we are mixed race. We have no problem with mixing across races. We are the most mixed-race ethnicity, and we continue to be in this country.

We are the most likely Americans to marry across ethnicities and races. So that mindset, which is, you can’t call it, you can’t say that we are natural Republicans or natural Democrats. Because we are, we meld the two in a way. We are very fluid in that sense of conservative and liberal.

We are much more nuanced, I think, than the red team, blue team, that would try to define us. That mindset is very real to me, and it comes from the Spanish background, from the Spanish colonialism, it comes from the Catholic Church, which is now being challenged. Because more and more of us are becoming evangelical Protestants.

Marie, can I just jump in here? I’m so sorry to interrupt, but just so that you, me, and all our listeners are on the same page here. When you talk about the mindset, can you just give us the definition of what do you define that mindset as being?

ARANA: I define that mindset as being fluid. Much more fluid than and to admit the right left.


ARANA: We actually slide from one to the other, depending on the subject, on the theme at hand. I think we’re much more likely to vote for people rather than parties which is what makes this so-called swing vote so interesting because it’s going to be almost a person-to-person appeal.

That’s really the mindset. Is that we are socially conservative. We value family. We value community. We actually support communities in a very strong way, that other ethnicities don’t. And yet we are liberal in the way that we mix it up. So that is an unusual feature of us.

I think that represents us well. I think also, there is a mistaken notion that because we may be poor, that we are a sort of socialist, natural socialists and welfare oriented, which is not at all true. That’s a misconception, a misunderstanding. And I think this is where the Democratic Party has gone wrong. Because it tries to appeal to Latinos based on the diversity picture, the affirmative action picture.

And those things don’t really matter to Latinos. What really matters to Latinos is work, is the economy, is the ability to support a family. And so many of us have more than one job. It’s work is really the most important thing in our lives, the ability to make a living, to share a living, raise a family and be productive.

CHAKRABARTI: I want you to talk more about that, right?

Because again, I just thought that this was the chapter in the book where you’re saying something that I think many people would be nodding their heads to, but at the same time, it’s an interesting thing to say this one characteristic, in terms of a desire to have the opportunity to work, to support oneself, defines a certain group of Americans. You don’t say it defines them more than other Americans, but it’s a big factor here. So when you say work, tell me more, is it the ability to do a job that one wants or to work harder or to rely on oneself to take care of family? Tell me more.

What did the people you talked to say?

ARANA: I talked to 237 people, exactly, all across the spectrum.


ARANA: And from manual laborers to the agricultural workers, all the way up to CEOs and medical people, scientists. And this is the opportunity to work is the most important thing in their lives.

If they’re going to vote for anything, they’re going to vote for the economy first. And I think that’s not been completely appreciated and realized. When you look at, when you look at the new businesses in this country. The highest growth rate is among Latinos.

Latinos have businesses, small businesses have grown at 44%. The national average is 4%. This is the creating work. If you don’t have it is a characteristic of ours, as well. You will have people going out and setting up food trucks or whatever, but something that actually can, number one, support yourself, own a home.

Even the, and I think people don’t realize this, even the undocumented people, Latinos in this country, very often own their own homes. They pay their taxes. So that aspect, being a part of the working machine, is very important to Latinos.

I think we score higher on that, and it’s absolutely recordable and has been recorded by the Pew Research Center, which is a wonderful source of information on this, has recorded this amply.

CHAKRABARTI: Can I just jump in here? Because this is where the growth of the Latino American community since the 1960s, as you said, tenfold, essentially.

ARANA: Yeah.

CHAKRABARTI: Also, is on the same timeline as the growth of immigrants from Africa and Asia in this country following 1965, right?

And I’m wondering, is what you’re talking about more sort of a indicator of an immigrant? Of immigrants and what they bring to America. Because amongst immigrants as a whole, there’s a higher percentage of people who do exactly what you said, start small businesses, etc.

Is that what you’re talking about? Or is there something specific in terms of work for the Latino Americans?

ARANA: There’s a great deal of truth to what you say, Meghna. I think immigrants in general are completely devoted and enamored of the opportunities that America may give them in terms of work.

And so that’s, I think that’s very true. That’s a very subjective statement on my part. But I think that’s very true. You can see the immigrant contributions through history in this country. And they’re brought for work very often. The Latinos very famously have been brought across; my own father came during World War II.

He was brought to the States to fill a classroom at the time, because the colleges were empty. We’re often brought for work and then ejected later when we’re not needed. That is a very common pattern and has happened to many Latinos, particularly in the West and the Southwest.

But yes, yeah. The immigrant work ethic is huge. And I think that because this wave that has happened in my lifetime of Latinos arriving in this country, even though, I want to say, alongside the fact that so many Latinos have arrived, Latinos have always been here. They have been here since Manifest Destiny and Westward ho! when their lands were taken over.

The Spanish colonial lands in all the way up to Colorado, all the way up to Wyoming actually, were actually grabbed by the United States in that westward move. So the Mexican Americans who were there in the first place are still here. And they have been here for hundreds of years. I don’t want to portray the Latino population here as one that just has arrived.

We have fought in every American war. We have been here since the 1500s on this territory that we call North America. Even though we have this picture of people coming across the border and being new. No, we also have a great deal of history here on this land.

CHAKRABARTI: Guests, previous guests we’ve had on the show have frequently said that they or their families didn’t move. The border is what moved.

ARANA: Yes. The border. Yes. The border crossed us. We didn’t cross the border.

CHAKRABARTI: Exactly. Exactly. Marie, stand by for just a minute. We’ll have a lot more to talk about when we come back.

Specifically, what the rest of the country loses when we don’t have an accurate and complex understanding of the lives and contributions of these 64 million Americans that we’re talking about. So that’s when we come back. This is On Point.

Part III

CHAKRABARTI: Maria, as I said, we heard from a lot of listeners who wanted to share their reflections on the questions that you ask and explore in the book.

Here’s another one. This is Giovanni Rosado. Now, he describes himself as a Latino Puerto Rican, I should say, living in Boston. And he told us he recently got promoted to vice president at a communications firm. And that led him to think about what it took him to get to that point. He says he joined the U.S. Navy for many years to help get his education paid for, and he felt he sometimes had to hide part of his identity.

GIOVANNI ROSADO: I really had conflicting identities. It was this idea of wanting to fit in, especially in the military and the military culture, and setting aside or leaving behind what really made my Latino identity and hiding that just like I could fit in and start to blend in, into this new world, that was full of opportunities for me.

It wasn’t until recent months and recent years after I had already left the military, went to school, graduated and started diving into my professional career in public relations that I really started embracing my own identity again and growing my hair again, even if it’s very Afro Latino, speaking Spanish in public more to just really adapt that. And it is a little wild to me to think that that’s something that I put aside for so long.

CHAKRABARTI: That’s listener Giovanni Rosado. Marie, earlier in the show you talked about invisibility. I want to explore that more because, here’s Giovanni saying maybe perhaps part of that in invisibility was self imposed out of necessity.

ARANA: Yeah. Boy, do I recognize that. I really sympathize with Giovanni because I did the same thing. You get to a point where you just wanna blend in. This is, and it’s a natural human response, right? All kids wanna blend in and there was a point when nobody asked where I was born, or cared if I said I was born in Lima, Peru, it was like, I’m gonna move on.

There was no sense of interest in where I was from. And so you learn, I think, as Latino to just get along, get by, get along. And for many years, it wasn’t really until I came to work as a journalist at the Washington Post that I was asked, and I was well into middle age by then, that I was asked, do you speak Spanish?

Do you, could you report on this population? And it was then, I was almost 40 years old when I began to wonder about that little girl that had arrived at the age of nine and who was she. And to recover in the way that Giovanni just described, to recover that sense of identity because, we lose it in the process.

And there’s something very real called linguistic attrition that happens in generations, which is that people try to speak English at home, even though their dominant language is all of them, then the whole family is Spanish. So that the kids will rise and do better in school, et cetera.

And so you lose even your language and generations lose that identity.

CHAKRABARTI: I lived the same story South Asian version of that, but we, we only spoke English at home.


CHAKRABARTI: But Marie, can I just ask you something here? Because this is a point of confusion for me because you said that you identified with Giovanni’s story because of the desire to want to fit in, right?

Completely feel what you’re saying. But at the same time, then there’s this question of like also wanting to be able to live your identity. But again, in past shows we’ve had these conversations where, but then when someone comes up to you and says do you speak Spanish?

It’s almost taken as an offense. Like, why? You just think because I’m Peruvian American, I would speak Spanish. So it becomes offensive for someone to ask you questions about your identity. But I also think that perhaps fitting in is perhaps, it’s not an erasure. I don’t think assimilation should actually be looked at terribly, in a purely negative light.

So these things go, they’re in conflict sometimes. Help me sort that out on how you think about it.

ARANA: They’re very complicated, aren’t they? And it depends, it’s highly subjective. It depends on each person’s experience and how they’re challenged. I think, you get different force fields, don’t you?

You get somebody saying why didn’t you teach your children Spanish? You should have done that. And then on the other hand, it’s why didn’t you, why didn’t you give your children the opportunity to speak better English? So all sorts of challenges coming from every side.

And I think that’s natural. I’m sure that happened to German Americans or Scandinavian Americans as well. But here because the numbers are so strong and because there is this support system. I say that we are invisible even though there’s every evidence around you, right?

You go to a bank and there’s an option to speak Spanish. You go to your credit card and there’s an option to do it in Spanish. So the evidence is there that the population is so large, but very often, when I say we are invisible, it’s that nobody’s interested in the Latino population, even though we’re huge, even though we are growing, and the projections are that one in three Americans will have some sort of Latino heritage by the time we get to 2050 or 2060.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.