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Ethnic Terms Can Cause Confusion
Article first published in Vol. 17, 1998.
By Yvonne Puentes
Less than 500 years ago, a new nationality was born as a direct result of the Spanish conquest of Mexico - the mestizo - a mixture of Indian and Spanish blood. Over time, many ethnic groups have emerged from the rapidly growing Hispanic culture. These groups identify themselves by various terms, the misuse of which can cause confusion and misunderstanding.
When Columbus encountered the natives during his first voyage to the Americans, he called them "Indians," believing he had found his way to India. Although the world soon realized that Columbus was wrong, the name would endure.
Following the fall of Aztec Empire to Cortes and his men in 1521, the Spanish dominated all of Central Mexico. Cortes fathered a son with Malinali, his Aztecan interpreter and mistress better known as "La Malinche." The lack of Spanish women led other Spaniards and Indians to intermarry, establishing the roots of the Mexican nationality.
On a wall in the plaza of the Three Cultures at Tlateloco in Mexico City can be found this poignant historical account: On this spot on August 13, 1521, the Aztec force, bravely led by Cuauhtemoc, fell to the power of Hernan Cortes and the Spanish army. It was neither a defeat nor a victory, but rather the painful birth of the mestizo people who are Mexico.
Today, the term "mestizo" is also used to describe Indians who have taken up the European culture.
A variety of racial combinations existed long before the Spanish conquest of Mexico, however. For example, the Spanish occasionally intermarried with the Moors, or Arabs, located in North Africa. Therefore, before they began to intermarry with the Mexican Indians, some Spaniards were already of mixed race.
In his book The Mexican-American Heritage, Carlos M. Jimenez says that when the Indians began to die form diseases brought by the Spanish, black slaves were introduced into Mexico, outnumbering the Spanish for three centuries (1521-1821). This led to other racial combinations.
Through the years, an extensive terminology has emerged as a result of these racial combinations and the desire for U.S. government agencies to label citizens for civil rights purposes.
"Hispanic" was coined in the early 1970s by the United States government to classify diverse people with a relationship to the Spanish language or culture. The term is used to describe people who were born in any Spanish-speaking country of the Americans, or those who can trace their lineage to Spain or Spanish territories. This includes a vast number of people of diverse countries and ethnic groups. Many Hispanics would rather view themselves according to their distinct identity, in contrast to the broader label of Hispanic.
The term "Mexican" previously referred to those who spoke the Mexican language before Mexican Independence during 1821. After that period, the word was used to describe citizens of Mexico or certain ones in the United States. Many of the so-called "Mexicans" in the United States are American citizens of Mexican descent, but as much as Italian Americans are called Italians, so are these people referred to as Mexicans. However, this practice is sometimes considered offensive because it can be perceived as denying American heritage to Mexican Americans.
A more exact ethnic term is "Mexican-American," a citizen of the United States who is of Mexican descent. Many in the Hispanic community do not use this tem because they identify themselves by their residency and consider themselves just "Americans." However, in New Mexico, especially in the northern part of the state, the term "Mexican American" is inaccurate because families with only Spanish blood still exist.
The term "Chicano" has become popularized since its political movement in the 1960s, yet its exact origin is unknown. Writer Santiago Rodriguez explains one theory of the origin of the word.
A written symbol for the sound "esh" did not exist in the Spanish vocabulary before the conquest. Consequently, the sound was written with an "x" as seen in "Mexicano," which was pronounced "Meshicano." A possibility is that the shortening of the word created the term "Chicano."
According to Matt Meier and Feliciano Rivera, authors of the Dictionary of Mexican-American History, upper-class Mexicans used the term "Chicano" to refer to lower-class Mexicans in the late 19th century. The term also was used derogatorily for Mexicans who were newcomers to the U.S. However, since the 1960s, many Hispanics use the word with dignity. Meier and Rivera say, "In its narrowest meaning, it signifies a proud militant ethnicity with connotations of self-determination, rejecting accommodation and assimilation, and favoring confrontation strategies."
Over the years, terms like "Spanish speaking" and "Spanish-surnamed" have been used by government agencies, causing further confusion. Not all Hispanics speak Spanish, not all Hispanics have a Spanish last name and not all people with Spanish surnames are Hispanic. Rodriguez says that some Hispanics would rather not be closely associated with Spain. Some feel that the brutal colonial period is not a thing of pride. Others have a mixed racial background of Native American or African origin.
Another term popularized during the late 1970s as a designation for Spanish speaking or having a Spanish surname was "Latino." Technically, "Latino" includes nationalities whose aboriginal dialect came from Latin, linking such nationalities as the French, Italian and Spanish together because language is the criterion. However, the term refers to the roots of the citizenry in Latin America, and is used as an overall or umbrella term like "Hispanic."
The list of terms used to describe Hispanics also includes "Tejanos," referring to Texans of Mexican heritage. Basques, from the northern Pyrenees in Spain and France, also might be considered "Hispanic," although their language is not related to Latin. Inevitably, other terms for Hispanic, formal and informal, exist.
Perhaps the focus should be on the individual's preference. In 1995, the Bureau of Labor Statistics surveyed 60,000 homes about their ethnic term of preference. They developed five categories: Black, American Indian, White, Hispanic, and Multiracial. Each category was treated as a whole. Of the households considered Hispanic by the government, 57.9% preferred "Hispanic"; 12.3% liked "of Spanish origin"; 11.7% stated "Latino"; 7.9% wanted "some other term"; and the remaining 10.2% had "no preference."
Terms used to identify the diverse nationalities and ethnic groups within the Hispanic community have led to many controversies because of inaccuracies. Some people are offended by particular terms. Some observers assume ethnicity by color of skin or other physical features. Many people use the terms as common names, but have no clue what they mean.
But the terms can be more than mere labels. College scholarships and even jobs sometimes are dependent on ethnic categories. Other critical issues include elections. In March 1998, the El Paso Times ran a story entitled "Anglo Candidates Lose in Most Races," in which some Hispanic voters were quoted as basing their choices solely on the surnames of the candidates.
No one answer exists to the confusion, conflict or even mistreatment which arises from racial or ethnic labels. But especially in a multi-cultural community like El Paso, it behooves people to learn more about the nationalities and ethnic groups and terms used for them.