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Hispanic-American Families

The Hispanics/latinos And Group Definition

The Hispanic ethnic group was created on May 4, 1978, when the U.S. Office of Management and Budget published the following regulation in the Federal Register: "Directive 15: Race and Ethnic Standards for Federal Statistics and Administrative Reporting" that defined a Hispanic to be "a person of Mexican, Puerto Rican, Cuban, Central or South American, or other Spanish culture or origin, regardless of race" (p. 19269). This definition (refined, with minor adjustments, in 1997) largely focuses on the countries of origin (which may be generations in the past) and assumes that peoples in these countries share a common "Spanish culture" that is also shared by some people living in the United States.

According to this definition, Hispanics (or after 1997, Hispanic/Latino/Spanish) derive from twenty-six nations that differ in languages, economic resources, educational systems, status structures, and customs. In addition, individual countries are often ethnically diverse. For example, the native language of the majority of Bolivians is either Quechua (the language of the Incas) or Aymara. Parana is spoken by millions of Paraguayans; Mayan dialects by the majority of Guatemalans; and Garifuna—a Creole language derived from English, Native American, and African languages—in the coastal areas of Honduras, Guatemala, and Belize. There are a myriad of Native American dialects spoken in Mexico—itself a huge, diverse nation stretching almost 4,000 miles from Tijuana to the Yucatan. English is the official language in Belize and Guyana, French in French Guiana, and Dutch in Suriname.

These language differences are not trivial among Latinos in the United States. There may be hundreds of thousands of native Mayan speakers in the United States, for example, and certainly substantial numbers of Quechua speakers. Garifuna immigrants (comprising perhaps more than 100,000 persons in New York City—they are not differentiated in the census tabulations) stage a large parade in Brooklyn each year.

The U.S. government, however, characterizes Latinos as members of an ethnic group, explicitly noting that "Hispanics may be of any race." In this the Hispanics are not unique. Since its creation, the U.S. government has mandated legal definitions of Native American tribes and the legal ascription of membership in a tribal group. If one is to negotiate and carry out treaties, for example, then the nature of the entity with whom one negotiates (e.g., Cherokee Nation) must be defined and the individuals entitled to services required by the treaty must be identified. For example, who is a Cherokee? Likewise, formal, legal racial definitions date to the Colonial era (Enloe 1981).

If one equates ethnicity and ethnic-group identity with cultural traits shared among a population (as few contemporary anthropologists do), then the Hispanic ascription may be confusing; Hispanics are culturally diverse and they did not tend to regard themselves as a collective entity until Regulation 15 was published in 1978. Most contemporary anthropological theorists, however, regard ethnic identity as being established through interactions of groups with other groups or social institutions as government bureaucracies or the military. The interaction establishes a we and a they, an us and a them. Ethnic identity is expressed in a dynamic process among a number of groups (Fredrik Barth [1969]; Abner Cohen [1974]; and Joan Vincent [1974] were pioneers in the rigorous development of this perspective). An entire shared culture is not necessary to define group membership: Sometimes a particular cultural trait may be sufficient. Tragically, religion alone—Roman Catholic versus Eastern Orthodox—defines the ethnic difference between Serbians and Croatians, yet this difference led to war and the establishment of separate nation states.

The Hispanic/Latino as an ethnic group does have a social validity, however, if only because one is required to so identify oneself to many of the society's institutions to receive services and legal protection against discrimination. Furthermore, if the larger society sees one as a member of a group, then persons so ascribed tend to react reinforce common bonds for protection and to achieve common ends.

All too often, Latinos have had to confront stereotyping, discrimination, and oppression from the moment of their first step on U.S. soil (even if as a toddler). Common oppression has thus reinforced the rapid acceptance of the Hispanic/Latino identity following the U.S. government's 1978 ascription. Latino ethnicity is thus a real and valid social category that profoundly affects on the lives of Latinos; this ethnicity should never, however, be regarded as the manifestation of a nearly universal suite of cultural traits. Although Latinos may hold much in common, common traits are rarely universal nor are most sufficient to define an individual as Hispanic, although a Spanish accent would be a sufficient social marker. Persons seeking information about and understanding of the Latino family solely by reference to a list of common traits and behaviors may find themselves doomed to a misunderstanding and misdirection of effort.

In 1978, many newly minted Hispanics found this common assumption of cultural/ethnic identity at first confusing, not only because the term Hispanic had not previously been used. (If there were any term in common usage for the group as a whole, it was Latino.) At that time, most Latinos would have first identified themselves in terms of a nationality, such as Colombian, Dominican, or Argentinian. Exceptions would have included the Spanish of New Mexico and the Chicanos, who were mainly of Mexican derivation, although that ancestry might be traced back as far as the eighteenth century missions of California and Arizona. Eventually, the Hispanic identifier became more popularly accepted, and the sense of group identity was greatly strengthened once the U.S. government added Latino and Spanish to be used by those who preferred to use these names.


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Marriage and Family EncyclopediaMarriage: Cultural AspectsHispanic-American Families - The Hispanics/latinos And Group Definition, Hispanic/latino Families: Demographic And Social Indices