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Latins, Italians and Mexicans
Dr. Orville Boyd Jenkins

One article on this resource site arose out of an initial query from a reader about the usages of terms Italian and Caucasian in the United States.  The reader asked a related question about the relationship of  Italians to Mexicans.  Various Hispanic groups in the United States are commonly referred to as "Latin."  This led to the question of whether the term "Latin" was ever used to refer to Italians as well as Hispanics.

A part-Italian correspondent from California contributed to this discussion.  After commenting on the historical setting of Italy and the Latin language, she continues with this comment:

"Yes, they are referred to as Caucasian, but they do have mixed race background as most do. Everyone can trace their roots back to Africa 150,000 years ago (scientists estimation). I have been to Italy, and have seen evidence of people from different races who settled there, making Italians very diverse. They can be called Caucasian, but clearly there is no set race for anyone as we are all from the same origin originally."

This reader emphasizes the point I make continually in my writings, that Italians have mixed background, like all other "nationalities" of Europe.  See my articles on genetic heritage:
Genetics out of Africa
Italians, Etruscans and Greeks:  Genetics and Ethnicity

We are all from the same ultimate origin, but we are all likewise mixed in recent millennia from various regional groups of humans with their own distinct characteristics, generated over generations (millennia) of separation from the original streams of humanity out of Africa.

Note that this is a genetic focus as well as cultural.  Any use of the term "Italian" references to some degree the original homeland now known as "Italy."  The name "Italy" was originally a geographical term, but is now also a political term and in some contexts a cultural or ethnic term.  The original question from a reader about the terms Caucasian and Italian was about the use of terminology in the United States.   is important to keep in mind that terms to represent any categorization must be considered tentative, as they change from generation to generation or region to region.

The term "Latin" may come up in the discussion and thus the relationship to others commonly called Latin.  Of course, we know that the term "Latin" in one context is associated with "Italians" (people who live in the Italian peninsula and in recent decades in the geo-political entity called "Italy").  The original question was dealing with how these terms are used in the US social and political context.  I deal with several aspects of the usage, noting much the same as you note.

I would not claim the Italians are NOT Latins, nor that they might not call themselves "Latins" in some contexts.  I try to focus on how terms are used.  One problem with Americans is that they tend to think the only context for meaning is the way words are used in their country.  Then you have the conflict of usages by government or academic circles, in contrast to general popular usage and the way terms are used by ethnic groups themselves.

At the end of this article, I link to related discussions.  I recommend these to readers for a broader context for this discussion.

Latin by Language
In this sense the term "Latin" would apply to anyone with a heritage linguistically or ethnically from the Romans, like the Romanians and Rhaeto-Romansch groups.  Yet these groups don't seem to be referred to by the term "Latin."

Many Americans, including many Italians, are not aware of the ethnic diversity and linguistic diversity in the Italian peninsula.  Roman is a quite different language from Sicilian.  But a standard form of speech called "Italian," based on Tuscan (the language around Florence), has been taught in the schools for several generations now, providing a standard inter-language that has also fostered a more general shift towards this standard speech.

Until about 150 years ago the term "Italy" was a geographical term.  Since then the term "Italian" has tended to be a political term.  My impression has been that Sicilians tend to think of themselves as Sicilian rather than "Italian."  But in the US, the cultural stereotype view of "Italian" usually refers to Sicilian.  In the US the term "Italian" came to be used as an ethnic term, as large groups of Sicilian and other Italian citizens migrated into the US in various waves.

In the 20th century, much of what is now "Italy" was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.  Most "Italians" from Rome and Northern Italy are actually of Germanic background, with many of the family names (eg Garibaldi) and place names (eg Lombardy) being Germanic.

Local Usage
Terms are used in different ways in different regions and at different levels of discourse.  All the terms in question apply to the Italians as to others -- in various contexts.  Various terms have different connotations indifferent levels of discourse.

The "Latino" and "Latin Americans" do not normal associate themselves ethnically with Italians, not that the reject them or refuse to associate with Italians.  It is just that Mexicans and Southwestern culture has been so dominant in that region and historically unrelated to Italian communities or culture.

There has not been the high concentration of Italians in the southwest as a discrete social community, such as one finds in New York City.  There is a great Spanish-Mexican Southwestern culture that has now spread to all states of the US, which adds another layer of connotation to the usage of these related terms.

New Kinship
My California correspondent provided a helpful perspective from her family background that helps to illustrate regional differences.

"Most people thought my mother growing up was Hispanic even though she was Italian, and my Mexican friend, I mentioned earlier, said people thought her mom was Italian and not Mexican. Most of my Mexican friends had Italian ancestry as well as when the Italians came over to California they mixed in with the Mexican farmers over in Southern California at the beginning of last century."

This provides helpful insight into a context different from the broader Southwestern pattern in Texas where I have lived and the states west to California.  In this California situation, physical similarity and proximity due to common working situations led to social and genetic merging of these two ethnic and cultural streams in southern California.

In this case, intermarriage of Mexicans and Italians would expectedly lead to a cross-identification, emphasizing the common heritage, their shared social and economic community and their new kinship.

Again, I emphasize that viewpoints and terminology vary by region and social context.  I grew up in Texas, learning Spanish as a child and feeling a warm association with our Texas Spanish and Mexican heritage.  I have maintained contacts with my Hispanic cultural backgrounds over my years of living mostly in other countries, and recently moved back to Texas.

We Texans realize that there are differences between our experience and perspectives and those in California, especially in the last 30-50 years.  Puerto Ricans, usually associated with New York and the Eastern seaboard, are also quite different in perspectives from either of the other two major blocks.

There are no universal usages that will be right or wrong.  The usage and meaning of these terms will vary with the community.  Any generalization is applicable only to certain limits.  It is these caveats of limitation and the fluid nature of self-identity and other-group identity that encourage a humility in the claims we might want to make.

My Californian reader likewise indicates that Italians do not as a whole identify themselves as "Latins."  She comments that a "Mexican-American friend was even asking me why Italians don't call themselves Latin."  From her background, however, she suggests a positive association of Italians with the term "Latin."

This is a good example of the differences or changes in terminology and self-identification within the Italian community in the last generation or so.  These changes indicate a process of developing or reasserting an identity in the new multi-cultural situation.  What we note here is that there is not one "Italian" community.

There is no one "correct" perspective or self-name.  These are always changing, and in such a multi-cultural context as the US or Europe, multi-cultural identity is the norm, not the exception.  I suggest again that you look further into my other essays on aspects of ethnicity to help put this particular question into the broader context I address.

Multiple Heritages
Most Americans do not feel compelled to choose one of their many heritages and limit themselves to some past stereotype of that, or to match current imposed stereotypes.  This is one the frustrating and confusing and exciting things about the changes going on in our world.

Fast changes are going on in the current move to reemphasize historical cultural heritage, and various different groups with a similar heritage choose to establish that recovery of identity by focusing on different aspects of their identity.  Not all "Italians" will have the same attitude or come to the same conclusions about how to reclaim or emphasize their "Italian" heritage.

My California correspondent affirms this:

"I am an California-Italian but my mom is a New York City-Italian and her father was a New Orleans-Italian, who grew up around Cajuns/Creoles so enjoyed their food more, so I understand when you say there is a difference of Italian-Americans across the US."

This same variety is found in the "Hispanic" or Latino communities of the US.  Some prefer the term Mexican, in contrast to Hispanic, but at some level, or to some degree, these various terms are all positive and applicable.  Keep in mind that California is not the whole United States, as I try to remember New Mexico and Texas are not either!

We are all somewhere on a continuum in the conglomerate ethnic mix that is American.  Political currents are strong forces here, and discussions of any term may reflect the varying political as well as social climate in a certain region or social sphere.

There are various groups and individuals that have some Italian genetic or cultural heritage, just as most other American in our time can point to various heritages in different contexts.

I, for instance, can claim to be Irish, from my grandmother, a Terry.  And our family all have this family tradition that we are Irish.  Yet we know that our family name is Welsh.  An I have discovered Cherokee heritage in several of our family lines.  So I can relate to different individual ethnic heritages and communities as well as the lands they originally came from.

Most peoples of the world share multiple cultural and genetic streams, to which you allude in your first message.  I know several families in various countries of Italian heritage, and the change is what is in focused, balanced against maintaining an ongoing identification at some level with their Italian heritage.

Latin Connections
My correspondent from California found a very interesting article about the connection between Italian and Mexican musical roots in Rhythm and Blues music in the US.

I know all these music names mentioned in the article, too, since I grew up in the radio business, and worked many years as a disk jockey.  Ritchie Valens' actual name was Ricardo Valenzuela, and if I remember correctly, he was from LA.  But I was not familiar with the term brown-eyed soul.  I found, also, that in this article they use the term "Latin" as a synonym for Hispanic or Latino as one side of the Latin-Italian streams.

I found that a general Internet search on the term "Latin" with the term "Italian" turned up only sites related to the languages called by these names and their relationship.

Here are some other sources dealing with the intersection and distinctions between Italian and Hispanic Americans.
"Latino" – Wikipedia
Latin in the US refers to Hispanic, used more broadly in some European and technical contexts

Latino & Hispanic – Global Politician
The writer of this article wants to "correct" the usages from an abstract rational point of view.  Unfortunately you don't just legislate or decree how people must use terms and what the terms must mean or how consistently the terms must apply.  Meanings arise out of usages.  This is why meanings of words change generation to generation.  As usage changes, the meaning has already changed.

Also related:
The Amhara People of Ethiopia
Ethnicity in a Multi-cultural Society:  What is Meant by "Hispanic" or "Latino" in the United States?
Genetics out of Africa
Italians, Etruscans and Greeks:  Genetics and Ethnicity
Italian and Caucasian
Italians and Race

Related on the Internet:
Latin and Italian Soul Music
Latin Lover – Mexican Wrestler
"Latino" – Wikipedia
Latino & Hispanic – Global Politician


Developed out of email correspondence in November 2009
Article prepared and posted 27 November 2009

Orville Boyd Jenkins, EdD, PhD
Copyright © 2009 Orville Boyd Jenkins
Permission granted for free download and transmission for personal or educational use.  Other rights reserved.

Email:  orville@jenkins.nu
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