Latino, Si--Hispanic, No

<i> Frank del Olmo is a Times editorial writer</i>

For several years now I have waged a personal campaign against the growing use of the ugly and imprecise word “Hispanic” as the term to describe all United States residents of Latin American extraction. It seems to be a losing battle because the U.S. government and corporate America, including my colleagues in the news media, persist in using the word.

But I have not changed my mind. In fact, I am rapidly coming to the conclusion that we must not only do away with the word “Hispanic,” but the whole artificial concept behind its use. For, contrary to what some self-serving Latino activists would have us believe, there is no ethnic group, or voting bloc, in this country that can accurately be called “Hispanic.”

To explain why, I must restate my objections to the word itself:


First, it is not what Latinos normally call themselves. Walk into a Latin American barrio, from East L.A. to Miami’s Calle Ocho, and ask people what they are. You’ll get all kinds of answers, including Latino, Chicano, Boricua, Cubano, Mexicano. But unless you wander into the offices of some government-funded poverty program, you won’t hear people call themselves “Hispanic.” The closest you’ll come--in New Mexico, where some residents trace their ancestry to the state’s Spanish settlers--is Hispano. But note that they use the original Spanish word, not a translation.

Second, the word has become bureaucratized. Census officials, under pressure to get a more accurate count in 1980 of persons of Latin American extraction living in this country, needed one word that would cover Mexican-Americans, Puerto Ricans and Cuban-Americans, as well as immigrants from everyplace south of the Rio Grande. They picked “Hispanic” out of the dictionary, where it is defined as an adjective referring to Spanish, or Spanish and Portuguese. A better choice would have been Latino, which the dictionary defines as a noun referring to a Latin American. The word is widely used by Latinos already, as noted above.

This pressure for a categorical word to define an ethnic grouping was put on the Census Bureau by Latino activists who argued, with some merit, that the consistent under-count of Latinos in this country was depriving them, and the states and cities where they lived, of their fair share of government funds and services. But once it was used by government, the word “Hispanic” began to be applied far too loosely.

Corporations and the media picked it up. When the Census Bureau announced that it had, indeed, under-counted the number of Latinos in this country, and that they were, in fact, one of the fastest-growing segments of the national population, every political interest group that could claim even tenuous ties to the Latino community organized a “Hispanic caucus.”

True, the various Latin American groups in this country share ties of commonality. Most are members of the Roman Catholic Church or other Christian religions, so they work together quite effectively on religious issues. Most speak some Spanish, so Cuban-Americans from Florida work with Chicanos from California to fight laws that limit the use of Spanish in this country, and to promote bilingual education programs for Spanish-speaking youngsters.

But beyond language and religion--and especially in politics--there is little commonality among U.S. Latinos. When they vote as a bloc, it is in local elections as a Chicano bloc, a Cuban bloc or a Puerto Rican bloc. They have never done it as a “Hispanic” bloc in a national vote. My views on this were reinforced last week at a University of Texas conference on “Ignored Voices: Public Opinion Polls and the Latino Community.”

Representatives of several polling organizations, including the Gallup Poll, the New York Times-CBS Poll and the Los Angeles Times Poll, attended. And all of them explained how hard it is for them to get a precise fix on what the Latinos think about national issues, and even how they may have voted in a national election.

In the 1984 presidential vote, for example, the three major broadcast networks varied--from 32% to 46%--in their estimates of President Reagan’s Latino support. The best explanation for this uncomfortably wide margin was offered by a polling specialist for the Southwest Voter Registration and Education Project, which has run hundreds of voter registration drives in Latino communities across the nation and keeps a careful tab on Latino voting tendencies. Their breakdown of Reagan’s Latino support focused on national-origin groups in different parts of the country. Project analysts found that Reagan’s support ranged from 93% among Miami’s Cubans to 18% among Mexican-Americans in the Midwest. What political professional in his right mind would lump two such disparate groups into a single voting bloc?

Even Rep. Bill Richardson (D-N.M.), the chairman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, admitted in his keynote speech that this year the caucus (which is made up of 17 congressmen of Mexican, Puerto Rican and Portuguese descent) has not voted as a bloc on such “Hispanic” issues as immigration reform and aid to the contras in Nicaragua.

These realities should dispel the myth that all Latinos in this country fit into a single-interest group. At the very least, they should force all the “Hispanic” promoters to be precise about which people they are referring to.