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Ethnicity in a Multi-cultural Society
What is Meant by "Hispanic" or "Latino" in the United States?

(Criteria For Determining Ethnicity)

Dr. Orville Boyd Jenkins

I am trying to find out which criteria is used to determine ethnicity.  My son is a senior in high school.  Some people have told him he should put down that he is "Hispanic" because I have a Spanish surname and my father is Cuban.  On the other hand, that would only make him 25% Latino.

My personal feeling is that this is not enough for him to qualify.  My son was born in the US and his father is American.  As much as I hope my son is able to get financial aid, I think it is important to be honest and forthright, and to do what is considered to be right.

What is race, ethnicity, culture?  I think there are still people who do not realize that one can be "Hispanic" or "Latino" and also white.  What criteria do universities and the government use to determine a person's ethnicity?

The question you have posed is more a matter of technical definition and protocol that is defined according to the guidelines of each school or scholarship program.

Each foundation or program gives more specific details and definitions for their purposes, which can be dealt with at the time your son and you are considering each option.  In general, his designation is a general categorization that might be helpful in finding designated programs for persons of "Hispanic" identity.

I was not familiar with the US government definitions, as I usually am working in an international perspective, drawing upon general academic and broader concepts of ethnicity.  I did some checking on the census web site.

I suspected, and found it confirmed, that the census guidelines do not give instructions on percentages or other objective criteria.  The deciding factor seems to be the individual's sense of self-identity.

The wording in the census guidelines are "those who classify themselves" as in the "Hispanic or Latino" category.  I have included below some sections defining the categories and terms below.  Note that the census says a person can choose more than one race on the census form.

It seems if your son feels mostly identified with his Hispanic background, that would be an appropriate choice.  Culture and language should be considered.  Does he speak Spanish?  Do you speak Spanish at home?  Perhaps bilingual?  What language does he speak with his Cuban grandfather?

On the other hand I know many Hispanic-surnamed people who no longer speak Spanish, but do relate at a broader level to Hispanic history and culture.  Perhaps they are Hispanic still.

Mexicans in Texas
One interesting factor.  I grew up in Texas, where we had many people called "Mexican" who were Texans and others called "Mexican" who were citizens of Mexico.  These might both call themselves Mexican, but the Texan Mexicans referred to the citizens of Mexico as "Nationals."  In general, the Texans had histories going back to Mexico before the independence of Texas.

In the metro areas, like Dallas, I later learned there were also Cubans, whose families came to Texas after the Communist revolution.  My recollection is that the term "Hispanic" was used for the "Mexicans" but the Cubans did not use this term for themselves, being simply "Cuban."

This illustrates how terminology changes.  It has seems in recent decades that the term "Hispanic" is used as a general cover term.  Certain communities still seem to prefer the term "Latino."

Undefined Working Terms
In general, the terms "race" and "ethnicity" are general working terms, and not defined technically within the academic disciplines.  They tend to change and new terms develop in reference to the social and political situation in each country.

Each country uses terms differently and divides people differently according to the customs or concepts dominant in that society, or under each particular political regime.  The same occurs in the US.

The US has a very liberal approach, attempting to capture the broadest self-identification while keeping these categories within manageable range with general designations.

I found interesting the US census explanations for the changes made in the last census, namely adding many more categories, and specifying more clearly what known designations might fall within those categories.

Mixed Background
Keep in mind that virtually all the population of the US is of mixed background, so it is largely a matter of personal feeling of cultural comfort or self-identity that determines what "ethnicity" or "race" one might claim to be.

Interestingly the largest population category is "white."  But what does that tell you?  Some of us just don't seem to fall anywhere except in this catch-all category.  We have some small percentage of several identifiable categories.

What is Hispanic?
In general for the designation Hispanic, this is a linguistic and cultural designation.  The census guidelines indicate a Hispanic person may be of any race.  There are separate questions in the census for race, ethnicity and ethnic origin.

Maybe this will be helpful in giving a sense of the breadth possible.  It seems to be up to the individual and the particular program for its stated purposes.

The following information has been taken from different pages of the census web site.

US Census guidelines:

How Should You Answer the Question on Race?

Select one or more of the categories listed on the Census 2000 questionnaire.  If you select American Indian or Alaska Native, use the write-in area to report your enrolled or principal tribe.  If you select Other Asian, Other Pacific Islander, or Some Other Race, use the write-in area to specify your race.

How Should Hispanics or Latinos Answer the Race Question?

People of Hispanic origin may be of any race and should answer the question on race by marking one or more race categories shown on the questionnaire, including White, Black or African American, American Indian or Alaska Native, Asian, Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander, and Some Other Race.  Hispanics are asked to indicate their origin in the question on Hispanic origin, not in the question on race, because in the federal statistical system ethnic origin is considered to be a separate concept from race.

Why does the Census Bureau collect information on Hispanic origin?

The 1970 decennial census was the first to have a question on Hispanic origin on the sample or "long" census form.  Since 1980, this question has appeared on the 100 percent or "short" form.  Hispanic origin data are needed for the implementation of a number of federal statutes such as the enforcement of bilingual election rules under the Voting Rights Act and the monitoring and enforcement of equal employment opportunities under the Civil Rights Act.

Additionally, information on people of Hispanic origin is needed by local governments to run programs and meet legislative requirements at the community level.  For example, these data are used to help identify segments of the population who may not be receiving medical services under the Public Health Act or to evaluate whether financial institutions are meeting credit needs of minority populations under the Community Reinvestment Act.

What does the term Hispanic or Latino origin mean?

For the Census 2000 and the American Community Survey (ACS): People who identify with the terms "Hispanic" or "Latino" are those who classify themselves in one of the specific Hispanic or Latino categories listed on the Census 2000 or ACS questionnaire-"Mexican," "Puerto Rican," or "Cuban"-as well as those who indicate that they are "other Spanish, Hispanic, or Latino."  Origin can be considered as the heritage, nationality group, lineage, or country of birth of the person or the person's parents or ancestors before their arrival in the United States.  People who identify their origin as Spanish, Hispanic, or Latino may be of any race.

Check these links for further info:
Questions and Answers for Census 2000 Data on Race
Questions on Race and Hispanic Origin 2006

Also related
Dialects, Languages and Ethnicity
Italians and Race
Italian and Caucasian
Latins, Italians and Mexicans
Models of Assimilation:  Evaluating Ethnic Characteristics
Multi-Level Ethnicity:  Illustrating Different Views of the Same Ethnic Group at Different Levels
Race and Ethnicity
What is a People Group
Ethnicity, Ancestors and Society:  Self-Identification in the US


Originally written January 2005, in an email reply to a query with the subject Criteria for Determining Ethnicity
Finalized as an article and posted on OJTR 31 May 2006
Last edited 27 November 2009

Copyright © 2006 Orville Boyd Jenkins
Permission granted for free download and transmission for personal or educational use.  Other rights reserved.

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