The generic Latino

“Latino” or “Hispanic” are generic terms that are used to lump a variety of national origin groups into one category. They’re used a lot, especially in the media. But their popularity notwithstanding, generic Latino-ness doesn’t trump national origin for most people who, to some degree or another, fit the category. In other words, a person of Peruvian ancestry is likely to see himself as a Peruvian American first and as a Latino second. His links to the culture, stories and food of his or her family’s country of origin tend to be stronger than those that tie him to Latinos of different national origins. Think of the distinction between being French or being European. The former is more deeply lived and felt than the latter.

A 2002 Pew Hispanic Center survey found that, when asked what terms they would use first to describe themselves, “Hispanics were much more likely to identify themselves by country of origin than as a ‘Latino/Hispanic.’ ” Likewise, “when asked whether Latinos from different countries have separate and distinct cultures or share one Hispanic or Latino culture, respondents overwhelmingly (85%) say Latinos from different countries had different cultures, and only 14% say Latinos share one Hispanic/Latino culture.” Latino unity was also elusive when politics was brought into the mix. When the Pew Center asked whether Latinos from different countries work together politically, 43% said yes but 49% said no…

Frank del Olmo, the Los Angeles Times columnist and associate editor, put it more squarely than most when he called the adoption of the catchall term “shortsighted” and “self-defeating.” Del Olmo was instrumental in establishing which term the newspaper would adopt — “Latino” — but he also argued, in these very pages, that because Mexican Americans made up 65% of all Latinos (compared with 10% Puerto Rican and 4% Cuban), the generic term was more advantageous to non-Mexicans than it was to Mexican Americans.