BY ESTHER J. CEPEDA, Washington Post Writers Group
CHICAGO — Here’s an issue that few within the Hispanic community would have me weigh in on: Whether the census should designate Hispanics as a separate race.
Why? Because I see myself as an American first and someone with Hispanic ancestry second. In the eyes of some, this makes me a fringe radical.
Of course my relatives in both Ecuador and Mexico would get a good laugh at this because just to look at me, or hear me speak, it’s as plain as day to them that I’m a gringa.
Stateside, it’s not so cut and dried.
Last Spring, when The Pew Hispanic Center published "When Labels Don’t Fit: Hispanics and Their Views of Identity," I made waves across the social media sphere by simply observing that I’m a minority-within-a-minority; I happen to identify with the just one-in-five people of Latin American descent who say they use the term "American" most often to describe their identity.
Imagine that: I melted in to the melting pot. The nerve!
Based on this — and my previous columns bemoaning the tiresome back and forth about whether "Hispanic" should be used versus "Latino" (according to Pew, more prefer the term "Hispanic," as I do) — I’m probably the wrong person to speak about how dumb it would be to create a Hispanic race on paper.
Don’t worry, that won’t stop me.
A few years ago I would have used this space to lament the lack of cohesion within the extremely diverse Latino community. But it’s no longer worth the bother because the perennial Latino identity divisions have been eclipsed by society’s general obsession with being "themselves."
Forget about the reflexive teeth-gnashing that follows any discussion about whether Brazilians, with their Portuguese mother tongue, can be considered Hispanic, or Spaniards, with their European conqueror history, should be allowed into the Latino category. These days the desire to be separate, unique, and oh-so-special practically calls for a separate census form for everyone.
As a point of fact, one of the biggest reasons that the census even opened up the topic of how Latinos identify themselves on the decennial forms is because so many answered last time in strange and mystifying ways.
For instance, the number of Amerindians — a blanket term for indigenous people of the Americas, North and South — who also identify themselves as Hispanic has tripled since 2000, to 1.2 million from 400,000, according to The New York Times.
Now, you need only look at pictures of my Ecuadorian father and grandparents to see there’s probably some indigenous Quitu in my blood — and hooray for that. But to claim myself as Native American on the census — the main tool used by the government to set policy and determine investments in infrastructure — wouldn’t be very helpful or particularly accurate.
Such thinking is anathema to those who, during college or even high school, got a full dose of ethnic studies indoctrination about Anglo imperialism and colonialism keeping La Raza down. But I take no issue with claiming my race as "white." Why not — I’m not black, Asian, Alaska Native or bent on making a political statement, so what’s the big deal?
I’ll tell you who else doesn’t make a big deal about such things: Tony Mendez.
Yes, the guy who was played by Ben Affleck in the hit movie "Argo." After the movie hit big, he bore witness to a Hispanic uproar because Affleck had the audacity to cast himself as the hero instead of finding a Latino to play the role.
Last week Mendez spoke out on the controversy, shocking many by telling a journalist that his family has been in the U.S., in Nevada, since the 1900s and "I don’t think of myself as a Hispanic. I think of myself as a person who grew up in the desert."
But, I’ve digressed — this identity issue isn’t just a Hispanic thing.
If all Americans could change the census’ identity designations, you’d see a form where you could mark yourself as a Trekkie or Star Wars fan, vegan versus omnivore, or a dog/cat person.
For this you can thank the mantra which every person under 35 has been hearing from every adult throughout the entirety of their lives: You’re unique and special — everyone is!
Copyright 2013 Washington Post Writers Group estherjcepeda (at) washpost.com