8.22.2007

Who is a Latino?

Who is a Latino? (by Ruth Kunstadter - July 2007)

L.A. Law actress Michele Greene.

Supermodel Christy Turlington.

Wonder Woman Lynda Carter.

Baseball legend Ted Williams.

New Mexico Governor – and presidential candidate – Bill Richardson.

What do these individuals have in common?

Their American-sounding last names – and their Latino cultural heritage.

I call them "Latinos incognitos," because at first glance, they might not easily be recognized as Hispanic. With Anglo fathers and Latina mothers, the institution of marriage automatically hid the Latino heritage of all these individuals – at least on paper.

As a result, they certainly don’t “sound” Latino. They may not even “look” Latino, either. So are they really Latinos?

Because of his name and his part-Anglo heritage, Bill Richardson has been accused of being “not Latino enough.” But at the same time, he is also accused of being “too Latino,” trying to leverage his Hispanic heritage for political gain.

The reality, of course, is that Bill Richardson is Latino, and he is Anglo. The two cultures are not mutually exclusive – although they are often treated as such. When was the last time you saw a box for “multicultural” on any official form? Our society does not easily accept the middle ground between two heritages.

On official forms, as in life, bicultural Latinos are pressured to choose. And inevitably, they will receive criticism for their choices. Kevin Johnson (another Latino incognito), in his memoir, How Did You Get to Be Mexican?, recalls being accused in college of “checking the box” as a Latino to get preferential treatment, but not being “Latino enough” to back it up with political activism.

Even Latinos with two Latino parents can have their Latinidad challenged. A dear friend of mine, who proudly describes herself as Puerto Rican, was often made to feel less so by her native Puerto Rican peers in New Jersey, because she wasn’t “born on the island.” Another friend who doesn't "look" Latina recalls that the only way she could convince her Hispanic classmates that she was indeed Latina was to tell them she watched Walter Mercado's horoscopes with her grandmother.

But who is a Latino, anyway?

Is it someone who is born in this country, a descendant of the original Spanish settlers?

Is a Latino someone whose family immigrated from a Spanish-speaking country and created a home here?

Can you be a Latino without a Hispanic name? Without speaking Spanish? Without a direct connection to your heritage?

What makes someone a Latino?

It’s certainly not just the name, despite the U.S. Census’ original method of counting Latinos by using the category “Hispanic surname.” Where does that leave Governor Bill Richardson or Michele Greene (who, as a bilingual singer/songwriter, recently released her second CD in both English and Spanish)?

Language helps – but you don’t even have to speak Spanish to be a Latino (and a growing number of Latinos don’t). The reverse, however, can be true – you can start to feel Latino just by speaking Spanish. There is something in the sound of the language, the words themselves, that bring Latinidad to those who choose to celebrate its beauty, its richness, and its innate poetry.

Those who learn Spanish in order to bark orders at employees or simply to fulfill a foreign language requirement are not likely to feel it, though. Here, intention is everything.

Being a Latino is more than just a language or a last name, or even what country you came from or can trace your roots to. Being a Latino is about a feeling, an attitude, a connection to life and culture and family and music, and a desire to experience it all to its fullest.

Being a Latino means living life with sabor, and taking the time to appreciate and enjoy everything – and everyone – that makes life worth living.

And we can all use a little bit of that Latinidad.