What Race Are Hispanics?

"What race are Hispanics?" This, along with "Mexican stereotypes" is one of the phrases that generate a more-than-decent amount of traffic to my blog. Looking at it from the inside out, it is a somewhat nonsensical question, but if I put myself in the shoes of the average non-Hispanic American, I can somewhat understand where they are coming from. It is a somewhat intricate, not a black or white (pun intended) matter.

So what race are Hispanics? They can be Asian, Black, Pacific Islander, White, Native American, or any combination of two or more of these. The Latino community is nothing short of a genetic kaleidoscope. The answer to the question is, "Any of the above." Even the Census Bureau has stated that "Hispanics can be of any race, any ancestry, any country of origin."

Each one of the racial categories mentioned above "shares certain distinctive physical traits." When you begin to look closely at the Latino community as a whole, you begin to notice that you simply can't organize it by race; there's just too many of us who don't fit the finite number of races. Most of us fit in the last category, "a combination of two or more races." Yes, many of us are "mestizos" or of mixed racial ancestry. Still, there are some pure bred White, Black or Asian individuals who identify themselves as Latinos.



So the question now is, what are Hispanics? The best way to categorize them is as an ethnic group. An ethnic group is defined as "a group of those who hold in common a set of traditions that distinguish them from others ... such as a sense of historical continuity, a common ancestry, place of origin, religious beliefs and practices, and language." Please note that when defining an ethnic group, it is done not by a rigidly defined set of characteristics that you can't move away from, but as a combination of several traditions, which at the end of the day define a particular outlook in life, a state of mind, a way to interpret and respond to outside situations and stimuli.

Let's see how some of the characteristics of the Latino ethnicity intertwine.

  • Most Latinos can trace back in time an ancestor who came from México, Central or South America (I always include Brazil here), or the Spanish-speaking Caribbean; in many cases they came from there themselves.
  • Some who perfectly fit within the "Hispanic ethnicity," genealogically descend from Spain or Portugal as well. It all goes back to the conquering and colonization of the New World by the Spanish and Portuguese empires. They settled in America (yes, North America as well), bringing their culture, customs, religion, language, etc., and through cultural and racial cross-pollinating, started a brand new ethnicity and a distinct culture.
  • People from elsewhere migrated -- by free will or not -- to Latin America from all corners of the world as well; we can clearly identify people with Italian, Russian, Chinese, Japanese, and German heritage, as well as those from different parts of Africa, just to name a few. Through time, all the latter, although some still maintain most of their genealogical traits, have assimilated/acculturated into their host nations.
  • Individuals from Latin America who migrate to the United States have a shared connection to the history of their country of heritage, which in turn has many similarities with the history of the other Latin American countries. Then they share all these with their American-born offspring.
  • Without going into a religious debate, and looking only at the customs as well as the interpretation of outside stimuli, we can observe that Latin Americans through centuries of Spaniard/Portuguese colonization have a well-ingrained Catholic outlook, independently of the faith they profess.

With all this in mind, I'm sure you are now asking, "Who is Hispanic?" A recent Pew Hispanic Center report that emerged around the commotion about whether or not Sonia Sotomayor was the nation's first Hispanic nominated to the Supreme Court put it quite clearly: "You are if you say so."

Through my years living in the U.S. I've met and befriended many persons who neither physically or through heritage fit the "Latino stereotype," yet their state of mind, their outlook in life is much more Hispanic than that others I've met who "genetically" look Latino. The former, to me, are Hispanics.

6 comments about "What Race Are Hispanics? ".
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  1. Mayrah Rocafort-mercado from Hispanic DM Solutions, August 6, 2009 at 1:24 p.m.

    As always, your articles are concise, relevant and quite accurate.

  2. Lauri Jordana from Conexion Marketing, August 6, 2009 at 4:02 p.m.

    Juan, what great timing to read your article today, after spending the past several days in conversations with several people about Hispanic being a culture versus a race.

    One of the things I have found, however, is something you've touched on here: That many Hispanics would require the "2 or more races box" but I think *that's* even a "if you say so" area. I know several Latinos that see themselves as Caucasian (if for example they were filling out a U.S. government form and couldn't check "Hispanic/Latino") although perhaps in their ancestry somewhere there was indigenous or other race(s) represented. I think this becomes not a question of race only but of socioeconomic AND cultural background.

    One more item here: What do the Nahautl or Quechua people check when they come to the U.S.? American Indian or Native American, perhaps? They aren't considered Hispanic and don't speak Spanish. Sounds like you may agree that these "checklists" should be more inclusive.

    ¡Mil gracias, Juan!

  3. Louis Pagan, August 7, 2009 at 2:20 a.m.

    Many blame the census for the limiting race categorization of Hispanics, and forget that scientifically Hispanics do not constitute a race, but an ethnic group. Consequently, by accepting this as true this in turn entitles Hispanics to claim Diversity as their stronghold.

  4. Monica Vila from The Online Mom, LLC, August 9, 2009 at 4:21 p.m.

    Great article. I do agree that Hispanic may be a state of mind. I was born and raised in Mexico and my entire family still lives there. I have lived in the US for 25 years and I have constantly struggled with the explanation of what constitutes a Hispanic. In my early years, people used to advice me to hide my ethnicity...because I am light skinned and have green eyes - they told me " no one would ever know and this will be better for you". I never took the advice, I was a proud Mexican and have always checked Hispanic in any box that will offer it. I am also thrilled that my US born daughter considers herself Hispanic.

  5. Frank Gomez, August 10, 2009 at 8:14 a.m.

    Juan Guillermo:
    A very well-written, thought-provoking piece. Whereas you describe what a Hispanic is -- to counter the stereotype -- you do not describe the stereotype. It would be interesting to ask Hispanics and non-Hispanics to define what the stereotype is.
    I recall an opinion survey of perhaps 15 years ago in which Americans were asked to rank ethnic groups. Hispanics ranked way down on a list of 40 or so, just above Haitians, if memory serves, and below a fictitious ethnic group inserted by the polling company.
    The most common adjectives ascribed to Hispanics were lazy, ignorant and foreign. I wonder what a similar poll would yield today! Thanks for the great commentary.

  6. Teresa Cottrell from PBE, March 27, 2012 at 1:05 p.m.

    As someone who loves to write about race and ethnicity, I was happy I stumbled upon this blog today. I must preface my comments that I am one of many who believes there is no such thing as race - it is purely a social construct. There really are no common features among the so called races. Facial features can be thin, broad or somewhere in between. Complexion color varies from white to ebony.

    An Hispanic law professor friend told me years ago that there was actually a court case years ago that ruled that the race of Hispanics was white. My friend, Raul, said at the time, the race of Hispanic was officially "colored." Hispanics objected to this and hence, the lawsuit. In my somewhat cynical view, I think this is why the "lump them all together" category "Hispanic" came into vogue. Though I are neither Latino nor Hispanic, I find the category insulting. It's as if someone, somewhere decided that if the native tongue was Spanish, let's lump them together. I much prefer the identification of ethnicity. There is so much diversity in language, idioms, foods, traditions, etc.

    As a Native/African American, I also have Caucasian ancestry. What is my race? Some now are identifying as "New Mulattoes," a term with which I am uncomfortable given its historic meaning and origin.

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