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Cultural Identity Can Be a Hot Spot in the Melting Pot

Some issues flare up like sunspots, recurring periodically and emitting intense heat. Here’s a hot one that’s been debated for decades: What’s the best term to use when referring to Latinos, that melting pot of racial groups and nationalities?

The latest eruption came Nov. 2 when the question flamed through the e-mail system used by reporters and editors at The Times. Some 15 staffers piled up three dozen messages in as many minutes, covering broad concerns about oversimplified and inaccurate usage.

How can people from such disparate places as Mexico, Cuba and El Salvador be lumped together under the catchall term “Latino?” Why is the word so overused in headlines, even on stories that are not specifically or solely about Latinos? And why did the paper change the stage name of a local impersonator known as El Vez, the Mexican Elvis, redubbing him in a photo caption as the “Latino Elvis”?

The lively debate caught the attention of Times Editor Michael Parks, who alerted Frank del Olmo, associate editor in charge of what the paper calls its Latino Initiative, a push to improve coverage of the region’s growing population with roots in Latin America.

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“Boy, I turn off my PC for an hour, then sign back on to learn that a major encounter group has been going on [about] our overuse of [the] term ‘Latino,’ ” Del Olmo wrote the message group.

In the New World, the controversy over ethnic terminology goes back to the moment original Americans were called Indians just because the Spaniards didn’t know where they had landed. The issue is charged with emotion because it touches the tension between racial bias and the assertion of cultural identities.

During the 1960s we learned not to call people Negroes or Orientals because the terms are so ethnocentric. As U.S. society became more inclusive, it became more important to listen to what people called themselves.

There are those who object to the whole notion of categorizing people by ethnic group. We’re all Americans, they say. Yet, writers need precise words to describe the world we live in, not the one we wish for.

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It’s not just an insider issue. By their choice of language, journalists not only describe people, they define them for others.

Finding an acceptable and accurate name for Latinos, though, has always been tricky because we hail from so many countries and mixed gene pools. In the 1970s, federal head counters landed on “Hispanic” as the umbrella term for 1980 census reports. But critics objected since that name stresses Spanish roots to the exclusion of indigenous and African lineage. For similar reasons, most Mexicans can’t call themselves pure Aztecs any more.

In a 1981 column, Del Olmo wrote that he had helped persuade Times editors to avoid using “Hispanic,” “that ugly and imprecise word.” “Latino” was preferable because it was less bureaucratic and because, he noted, nobody actually calls themselves Hispanic.

Nowadays, people are more relaxed about the dueling terms, often used interchangeably. Today, it’s more a matter of finessing references. The debate at The Times has produced proposed rules to identify people by specific nationalities whenever possible.

Yet, even that requirement may change as Latino immigrants become more acculturated. A comment from one of my colleagues struck me as particularly revealing about this process. It came while the message group was discussing whether the Day of the Dead should be identified as a Latino custom, since it’s normally practiced in Mexico, not Cuba, Puerto Rico or elsewhere.

“I’m Guatemalan and I’ve celebrated Dia de los Muertos many times, even though I didn’t grow up with the tradition,” wrote national reporter Hector Tobar. “It’s sort of become a Pan-Latino thing here in L.A.”

Southern California exerts a unifying force on Latinos, shaping a common identity distinct from individual nationalities. Living here, Latinos from across the continent interact for the first time and create cultural bridges.

The more Latinos come together, the less national origins matter, and the less sense it makes to label them anything other than “Latino.”

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How else to identify my own son, product of a California union, half Mexican and half Peruvian?

Simply as American, you say? He’s almost there, the inevitable and irresistible result of assimilation’s homogenizing impact. By the third generation, notes Harry Pachon of the Tomas Rivera Policy Institute, 57% of Latinos marry outside their group.

“That’s good for the nation too, because you start forming an American identity,” says Pachon. “At some point, ‘them’ is going to be ‘us.’ ”

That’s why newspapers always need to update their stylebooks.

Agustin Gurza’s column appears Tuesday and Saturday. Readers can reach Gurza at (714) 966-7712 or online at agustin.gurza@latimes.com


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