Finding Cultural Identity In Modern America

Navigating the maze of one's identity is always tricky. Adding ethnicity to the layout brings even more twists, turns and blind alleys. The result is a course that can seem impossible to complete.

Hispanics are divided over question of identity, according to the results of a 2011 study by the Pew Hispanic Center. Nearly half of respondents polled believe they are "very different" from typical Americans, and less than one-quarter of respondents would use the word "American" to describe their identity, according to the center, which is part of the Pew Research Center.

The report also states half the study's respondents have no preference between the terms "Hispanic" or "Latino" to describe themselves, and that half of the respondents prefer to use their family's country of origin to describe their identity.

Hispanics living in the United States: view on identity labels



The Pew Hispanic Center's study also found that 70% of respondents "do not see a shared common culture" among Hispanics living in the United States, preferring instead the idea that there are many different cultures.

The varied answers show many people are uncomfortable with the idea of being labeled. That view is understandable, as America is portrayed as a land where individualism is encouraged. Many immigrants come to the country seeking freedoms, be they political, religious or financial. Being boxed inside an identity can seem incompatible with the idea of personal liberty.

And for ethnic groups, identity labels can be restrictive in other ways. Ethnic groups often have behaviors and preferences unique to themselves. People who are not a part of that ethnicity may observe these behaviors and preferences and use them as an easy way to describe the group. Some ethnic groups avoid identity labels out of a desire not to spend time fighting stereotyping.

Identity labels can lead to a sense of isolation as well. A person or groups may shy away from interacting with other persons of groups out of fear their identity is too different and therefore too difficult to overcome when trying to find common ground. Or, those outside the group may decide they have nothing in common with that particular identity and refuse to engage in relationships of any kind.

And with many Hispanics divided on issues such as language, political views and even religious faith (according to the Pew Hispanic Center study), the idea of forging a common ethnic identity can seem like it is not worth the trouble.

The inherent often times hidden benefits of labels 

There are benefits to labels for people who are not a homogenized group, however. As the saying goes: There is strength in numbers. Hispanics as a group can use their growing numbers to gain the attention of the nation's leaders and place a spotlight on Hispanic issues.

With political and financial leaders' attention, smaller groups, such as Mexican-Americans or Cuban-Americans, can then highlight any issues or needs they may have that stand separate from the overall Hispanic identity.

And uniting under a powerful identity can help to ease ethnic and racial tensions. Hispanics' growing numbers put them in close proximity with other ethnic and racial groups. The closeness often leads to understanding that even though a large group of people may have one label, there is a mix of cultures inside.

Cultural identity in modern America may seem like a difficult maze to master. With a large, united and powerful group to help navigate the course, it can be that much easier for individuals to make it to the finish line – if there’s one to cross! 

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Read also: A Conversation About Identity, by Janet Murguía [Source: Pew Hispanic Center].

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