What is a Latino (Latin American), exactly? Democrats and Republicans in the U.S. seem alarmed suddenly by their inability to answer that question.
All they know is that people of Latin American descent turned out in a tidal wave for last year’s election.
Their numbers accounted for the very narrow majorities that gave Georgia to Joe Biden and Florida to Trump.
Both candidates had courted these voters more aggressively than any presidential contender before.
“Who are they?” remains an urgent question across the political spectrum, since it leads to an obvious reciprocal: “What do they desire?”
Until around 1980, Latin Americans comprised not more than seven percent of the U.S. population. They were widely regarded as an ethnic enclave of the southwest.
Since then, their numbers have roughly quadrupled, as a result of immigration and high birth rates.
Latin Americans have distributed themselves more widely and rapidly than any immigrant group in U.S. history.
That certainly hasn’t escaped notice in rural quarters of the U.S., where the new influx has been credited with shoring up a dwindling population, keeping storefronts open and job vacancies filled.
The national political class, on the other hand, seems to have remained somewhat behind the trend.
It isn’t that Latin Americans have been ignored. On the contrary, Republicans have succeeded in Florida for years by appealing to Cubans with tough talk on Fidel Castro, while Democrats have prevailed among Mexican voters with promises regarding immigration and workers’ rights.
Beyond that, however, neither party seems to have shown much interest in Latin Americans, who in fact represent a diverse array of nationalities and ethnicities. After all, historically they occupied mostly lower socio-economic strata and exhibited relatively low voting rates.
Nowadays, they make up nearly 20 percent of the population. They span the socio-economic ladder. They live in every region of the country. To wonder who they are, then, is to ask who they’ve become. Latin Americans may be asking themselves the same thing.
So, what’s in a label? That’s usually where conversations about ethnicity revolve in the U.S., for better or worse.
In 1980, the U.S. Census included for the first time the category “Hispanic”, a term whose limitation would soon be apparent, however, as Latin Americans tend to regard themselves more so by their own nationalities, and Portuguese-speaking Brazilians never identified with the term, in the first place.
The Census of 2000 added the term “Latino”. By then, however, Brazilians seemed to no longer identify with a word that has become indelibly linked to hispanophone people.
Unanswered still, were all questions regarding “race”, that scientifically discredited concept that still forms the bedrock of self-identity in the U.S. and is a factor of domestic policy at every level.
Traditionally, people classified as “Hispanic” were also automatically seen as “white”, reflecting the habit among many in the U.S. of viewing race along a black-white binary, something that complicates efforts to better describe Latin Americans (to say the least of their ability to describe themselves).
Dominicans, for example -according to numerous scholarly articles and anecdotal accounts- traditionally observe fine distinctions among individuals who, in the U.S., would likely be described as simply “black”.
To avoid precisely that kind of confusion, the Census Bureau in 1960 decided for the first time to invite responders to identify their own ethnicities. Since then, intriguingly, the number of people in the U.S. who indicate “Native American” ancestry has increased at a rate that exceeds what can be measured by births and immigration alone, according to Pew Research.
Indeed, the concept of ethnicity in the U.S. is practically a matter of personal discretion.
“Multiracial” has become the country’s fastest-growing population category, a trend that has significant ramifications for descendants of ethnically heterogeneous Latin Americans, especially since they marry individuals of other ethnicities at a rate much higher than any other group.
What’s more, the farther they get, in a generational sense, from the experience of immigration, the less likely they are to have been raised speaking a language other than English, or to have observed ethnic traditions, or to identify with the term “Latino.”
Three-quarters of all Latin-American descendants in the U.S. nowadays are naturally born citizens. Their voting and consumption habits seem to mirror those of their Caucasian socio-economic peers.
On the campaign trail last year, Trump’s speeches to working-class Latin Americans were essentially identical to those with which he addressed the working class elsewhere.
As it happens, he secured more votes from Latin Americans than any Republican presidential candidate since George W. Bush, a fact that has Democrats rethinking everything they thought they knew about their base.
Ironically, their curiosity arrives at a moment when “Latinos” (Latin Americans) seem more and more to resemble the rest of us, whatever that is, exactly.