In her book Gathering Moss: A Natural and Cultural History of Mosses, author, scientist and member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation Robin Wall Kimmerer says about the importance of naming: "The names we give ourselves are a powerful form of self-determination, of declaring ourselves sovereign territory." She goes on to say: "With words at your disposal, you can see more clearly. Finding the words is another step in learning to see."
At a time when communities who have long been silenced in the U.S. are finding their voices and learning to see themselves, the language of identity has become an important part of the conversation around social justice. This debate over naming and identity and what to call oneself is, in many ways, a generational rite of passage on the path to gaining greater political power.
What's in a name?
As we reflect on Hispanic Heritage Month (observed from September 15 to October 15), the Latino community—like many other historically marginalized groups in the U.S.—is engaged in a similar debate about names and identity as it grapples with the varying terms used to define it over the course of our nation's history including Hispanic, Latino, and now the more gender neutral terms, Latinx or Latinae.
Choosing a name is a personal and political process. As we discuss in our newest podcast episode, Black people have also been redefining their name for as long as they have been fighting for social and political power in America, from "colored" to "Black" to "African American." Within the LGBTQ+ community as well, younger generations of queer people are considering inclusive forms of self identification that allow greater access to a shared language as concepts around gender and sexuality expand. Likewise, gender, ancestry and indigeneity are at the forefront of the evolving forms of identity within the Latino community.
In this episode, Melissa Morales, executive director of Somos Votantes, a national voter mobilization effort focused on increasing Latino voter turnout, joins us to talk about names, heritage and identity. We discuss the political factors beneath the surface that are driving this conversation around naming within the Latino community, and Melissa shares her insights on the impact of the Latino vote in 2020 and beyond.
Hispanic heritage, Latino vote
Before "Hispanic" entered mainstream lexicon, most Latinos identified (and still continue to identify) themselves based on their country of origin such as Mexican, Puerto Rican, and Cuban. But as the government attempted to quantify the Latino population in America, various methods of counting were introduced over time. From 1940-1960, the census used language such as "persons of Spanish mother tongue" and "persons of Spanish surname" to count the Latino population, according to a 1993 Census Bureau report called "We the American...Hispanics." In 1980, the term Hispanic appeared on the census as a way to categorize individuals from over 30 different origin groups, and by 2000, the census added the term "Latino" to describe the descendants of the countries of Latin America.
As the "Latino vote" continues to gain political and cultural significance, it makes sense that the growing social, political, and economic power of this group would result in a necessary and important debate about language and identity. Based on 2020 Census data, Latinos now make up 18.7% of the U.S. population and accounted for just over half (51.1%) of our nation’s population growth since 2010.
To give you a sense of the Latino vote potential in red and purple (and "recently blue") states, consider this: According to the 2020 Census, Latinos make up 39.3% of Texas' population, which is nearly the same as the state’s percentage of whites (39.75%). In Arizona, Latinos make up the second largest demographic group at 31%. (Whites are the largest group, at 53%.)
While terms like "Hispanic" or "Latino" may not perfectly capture the breadth of diversity within the group, the introduction of a unified identity revolutionized the ability to collect and analyze data on the newly aggregated population, from the group's average educational attainment to its economic buying power. Such unity opened the door for this cohort to make demands of its country based on lived experiences grounded in facts and data.
There are no easy answers, and that's OK
The debate over name and identity is one of the many iterative steps on the path to seeing and claiming one's power. That's what this episode is about: the growing political power of the Latino community as it seeks to know and define itself. What do Latinos care about? How do their unique histories and shared experiences shape their political identity and civic engagement? What does it mean, politically, socially, and economically to be a Latino in America? What motivates them to turn out to vote?
None of these are easy questions with clear-cut answers. Especially because this group is not a monolith. From Hispanic to Latinae, each word has its own historical implications for the individuals within those broad umbrella terms, and the power and meaning of a name changes with each generation's experience. That’s why people like Melissa, who are doing the work year-round to understand this demographic and build its power are more focused on the social and political implications of unity than on perfect terminology. Because, in a few generations, how we define ourselves might change again, but the goal of self-determination and justice will remain.
We hope you'll listen to this episode and share it with a friend.
In Solidarity and Love,
Fola and the Democracy in Color Team
Latest Podcast Episode
Executive Director of Somos Votantes Melissa Morales joins us to share her view on the current debate over Hispanic/Latino Heritage Month and why she thinks Latinos working together is more important than choosing any one name.
She also shares how she came to understand that the challenges in her childhood were the result of bad policy and not "bad luck," the role Latinos played in Joe Biden's 2020 presidential victory, and the secret power of Latina women in helping to drive voter turnout in each election cycle, including the upcoming ones in 2022.
October 2, 2021