The US Census Bureau Is Making "Latino" a Race, Muddying the Waters of Latinidad

For the first time in 27 years, the US Census Bureau announced it would make a major change to the "race" and "ethnicity" questions in its upcoming 2030 survey. While some Middle Eastern and North African communities were grateful that the survey would finally include an official check box for them, the inclusion of our own check box for "Latino" is complicated.

While in previous censuses, respondents were asked to identify whether they are of "Hispanic, Latino, or Spanish origin" independently of their race, the 2030 census combines "race" and "ethnicity" into a single question with the option to select specific regional ethnicities (Puerto Rican, Dominican, Mexican, etc.) under the main category of "Hispanic or Latino." But there's one problem: Hispanic/Latino is not a race.

The word Latino was coined by activists looking to replace the eurocentric term "Hispanic," which had previously been created by the US government in the 1980s to collect data on people of Spanish-speaking backgrounds living in the country. It also helped address the lack of federal funding and resources these communities received. However, by the time the 1990s rolled around, consensus on the term had begun to shift. Not only was it limiting — for example, Brazilians wouldn't be considered Hispanic because they speak Portuguese — but it also reinforced the connection to a colonial power many Spanish-speaking countries had evolved independently of in the decades following the colonial collapse.

Furthermore, even during colonization, traditional Spanish culture was far from the only influence on Latin American and Caribbean peoples. We have such a rich history of Indigenous and African heritage, which the word Hispanic simply did not do justice to. Latino proved to be more inclusive and allowed for a truer dialogue to emerge, both nationally and within the community.

As our language and identities continue to evolve, so does the way in which we describe ourselves. I've watched as Latinos evolved into Latinx and now Latines, eschewing the gendered norms of the Spanish language for something less gendered (something Spanish actually allows for very easily — e.g., eso/esa becomes ese).

But for all the heavy lifting it does, the term Latino has its limits. It can't differentiate between specific regions in Latin America. While it's a beautiful thing that a single word can be the source of so much pride and instantly create connection among people from such disparate parts of the world, I often find myself leaning on words that speak more specifically to my identity, such as Caribbean and Antillean (anyone with heritage stemming from the Greater or Lesser Antilles). Where the term Latino might connect people separated by thousands of miles who share a language, the latter terms connect peoples who, while sometimes separated by language, share a home region, culture, and history that is equally as important if not more so to our identity.

Latino As a Race and the Issue of Erasure

Even if we agree that Latino is a more all-encompassing term that attempts to classify a group of people of similar origins broadly, one might ask: what's the issue with making it a race? After all, white, Black, and Asian are all broad descriptors used to categorize people with sometimes widely different cultures and even different languages. Respondents are also now allowed to select multiple categories under the "race and ethnicity" question. The issue of "Latino," though, is one rooted in a history of erasure and opposing perspectives on race dating back hundreds of years.

Under Spanish Colonial rule, the Spanish crown implemented the casta system — a system of racial categorization that essentially stratified colonial society with drastic socioeconomic implications for individuals of African, Indigenous, or mixed-race heritage. These categorizations were accompanied by stereotypes and determined the level of respect and importance members of colonial Spanish society were to be treated with. The closer an individual was to the Spanish ideal, the greater their standing in society. However, one of the unique tenets of the casta system was the aspect of social mobility relative to other caste systems at the time. Not only was intermarriage between different races standard throughout Spanish America, but the act of "gracias al sacar," the ability to purchase degrees of whiteness and move up through the casta system and Spanish society, meant that race was a fluid concept, albeit one that heavily favored whiteness and incentivized the erasure of Black and Indigenous heritage.

Even though a formal casta system no longer exists, its impact can still be seen today in terms of endearment such as negra, mulato, moreno, y china (china/o refers to a specific degree of mixed African and European ancestry, not Asian ancestry). We can also see it in the negative perception of Blackness many Latines, including myself, were raised with.

As a child, I often heard phrases like "pelo malo" ("bad hair"), "Te sale lo de negro" ("your black is showing"), and "Por que te pones tan moreno?" ("Why are you getting so dark?") And for many years, I hid myself beneath a veil of general "Latinidad" while struggling to embrace the truth of my African ancestry. I am sure it is similar for many other modern-day Latines, despite the overwhelming presence of African contributions in many of our cultures — from the foods that we eat to the music we dance to and the instruments we play. The inclusion of Latino as both a race and an ethnicity only muddles the waters of an already complicated matter of identity, allowing individuals to lay claim to the African contributions to our culture while distancing themselves from any negative stereotypes associated with Blackness and approximating whiteness in the process.

The One-Drop Rule and Race in the US

Make no mistake, in a country where the one-drop rule was a legally enforceable principle well into the 20th century, any move away from Blackness is a move towards whiteness. The one-drop rule meant that a person with one relation of African ancestry (one drop of Black blood) could be legally considered Black. It determined where they could work and live, what schools they could attend, and who they could marry. In this context, the term Latino could be seen as continuing the tradition of the historical third option or "passing," where Blacks who were lighter and could "pass" would often claim Arab or Spanish ancestry to avoid racial persecution. While these ethnicities weren't considered equal to native whites of "Anglo-Saxon" ancestry, neither were they considered Black. Instead, they occupied a space in between Black and white, belonging to neither.

This is the opposite for Latines, however. We should not represent a space between Black and white. We have varying degrees of both, and that needs to be acknowledged. Many of us also have Indigenous ancestry, something the US makes it incredibly hard to claim unless you can claim your tribe. For some of us, it's not possible to claim that heritage meaningfully. Sure, we can mark down "American Indian" as one of our options on the census, but, for example, the Taino-Arawak tribe of the Caribbean, which many Spanish and English-speaking Caribbeans trace some of their ancestry from, is not officially recognized by the US.

So, even as the US Census Bureau makes this latest change to promote greater inclusion and simplify some of the nagging questions surrounding identity, the concept of Latinidad remains incredibly complicated for many people. And because of that my fear is that — while the Census Bureau seems to believe a combined question will lead to people checking multiple race and ethnicity boxes — it will lead to Latines checking just one. And that's not only inaccurate, it's arbitrary. To understand why, let's look at another group of racially mixed people: Cape Verdeans.

Cape Verdeans share a mix of African, Arab, and European ancestry. Yet, despite their mixed heritage, despite speaking Portuguese, they are not considered Latines (yet Brazilians are). This is most likely due to the fact that they hail from a region outside of Latin America. They're considered African by ethnicity, and the islands are geographically closer to West Africa than North Africa. Yet, in the US census, there is no single African ethnicity box (only MENA and Black or African American). So what are light-skinned Cape Verdeans supposed to check?

The conundrum is similar for Latines. Contrary to the American one-drop rule, we experience race in a continuous way rather than a categorical one. I think one solution could be to keep the questions split but clarify what they stand for through qualifiers like "geographic ethnicity" and "racial ancestry." I think this better acknowledges the need for specificity in the census and clarifies what the categories mean without infringing on the concept of a continuous racial identity. We can acknowledge our past of colonialism and slavery, the black "agüelitas" many of us have, while also acknowledging that these are only two factors that impact how we perceive ourselves and how we are perceived.

Miguel Machado is a journalist with expertise in the intersection of Latine identity and culture. He does everything from exclusive interviews with Latin music artists to opinion pieces on issues that are relevant to the community, personal essays tied to his Latinidad, and thought pieces and features relating to Puerto Rico and Puerto Rican culture.