“You don’t look Latina” and “You’re not Latina” were common phrases I heard growing up.
For many, my brown skin and super-curly hair didn’t match up with their image of what a Latina was supposed to look like. It didn’t matter that half my family was from the Dominican Republic, and that I was proud to represent my Dominican side—to them, I didn’t make sense. I could not be both black and Latina at the same time.
Several years and identity crises later, and I’m still working through my racial and ethnic identity and trying to decide. Whenever someone says Latino, I know they do not mean me. I know they mean someone who looks like Sofia Vergara or Alex Rodriguez. And while the term Latinx increasingly feels less relevant to me as I grow and become more critical about my identity, it is also something to think about frequently. Should I fight for representation within the Latinx community? Or do I accept my identity as one solely within the black community?
It’s not just me. Identifying as Latinx or Hispanic (a term with which I never fully felt comfortable) has never fully encapsulated the diversity of Latin America, and it’s an ongoing issue in the United States. Some people forget that “Latinx” and “Hispanic” are terms to define an ethnicity and not a race. Even Latinos themselves forget this, often self-identifying as Hispanic or Latinx and ignoring the race question. Census officials are currently in the midst of trying to remedy this problem by changing the way in which Census questions are framed. In a 2015 test Census, they noticed that more self-identifying Hispanics would answer with a combined race-and-ethnicity question and a write-in area where others would indicate their national origin.
Both Latinx and Hispanic are relatively new terms in the grand scheme of racial and ethnic identification within the United States. “Identity” is one that is constantly evolving and changing as new names are created and modified. But to first understand how these terms fail to capture this Latin American identity, it’s important to understand their etymological origins.
The origin of the term “Hispanic” can be traced back to 1970. It was created after Latinx activists lobbied for a broad category to name the Spanish-speaking population that was growing within the United States, according to Latino USA. Prior to that, Latinxs, who were mainly Puerto Rican and Mexican, were being thrown into a broad racial group of whiteness. Mexicans were defined as Mexican in the 1930 census, but this left out those who were not white or white passing. Some notable examples are Piri Thomas, who writes about his experiences as a black Puerto Rican in New York City in his memoir Down These Mean Streets, or Miguel Algarín, a Puerto Rican poet and co-founder of the Nuyorican Poets Cafe.