Census data hides the racial diversity of America’s ‘Hispanics’ – to the country’s detriment
As I opened a recent email from my local grocery chain announcing Hispanic Heritage Month – it runs from September 15 to October 15 each year – I was surprised to see it highlight recipes of four distinct regions: Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean. and South America.
The ad rightly noted that while corn and beans framed much of what in the United States is considered “Hispanic” foods, Latin America has a much greater diversity of foods. Its cuisine, which began long before the arrival of the Spaniards or other colonizers in the Americas, continues to thrive.
While many of us Latinos – an alternate term for Latinos or Latinx which I prefer – embrace our European heritage, we also embrace our indigenous and African heritage.
In recent decades, many Latin American countries have officially recognized their indigenous and Afro-descendant populations as distinct groups with unique histories, cultures, foods, and languages.
Countries in the Americas, including the United States, have revised their census questions to better understand their populations, enabling them to create more inclusive policies that really meet people’s needs – and to recognize the too often hidden achievements of these people. groups.
Census changes in Latin America
Some Latin American countries, such as Peru, have had their indigenous population for more than a century. But with the exception of Brazil and Cuba, countries in Latin America have generally excluded race from their national census, allowing economic and social inequalities to thrive without documentation.
The effort to better capture indigenous and Afro-descendant populations in Latin America began at the turn of the 21st century.
Uruguay, a small, prosperous country in South America, has long portrayed itself as white and European despite being home to Afro-Uruguayans who are descendants of enslaved Africans. In 1996, under pressure from activists of African descent, it added race to its national household survey. This census allowed census workers to identify the race of respondents and found the country to be 6% African-descended and revealed startling racial disparities in education, income and employment. When in 2006, Uruguayan enumerators began asking residents to declare their own racial identity, the population of African descent jumped to 10%. This shift in data had important implications when Uruguay implemented race-based affirmative action a few years later.
In Mexico, where indigenous identity was previously tied only to speakers of one of the country’s 68 indigenous languages, the census was modified in 2020 to ask whether respondents identified as indigenous or belonged to a community who identified as Aboriginal. The result was an increase of 7.1 million people to 23.2 million who identified as Indigenous. The same change targeting the Afro-Mexican population identified a previously unrecognized population of 2.5 million.
The United States added a question on Hispanic ancestry to the long form of the 1970 census and to the short form in 1980. The question asked: “Is this person of Hispanic/Spanish origin?” If the answer was Yes, the options were: Mexican or Mexican-American or Chicano; Puerto Rican; Cuban; Other Spanish/Hispanic.
Over the next few decades, small changes were made, such as the inclusion of the word “Latino” and the ability for those who choose “other” in the national origin category to write in an answer, along with suggestions from “Argentinian, Colombian, Dominican, Salvadoran, Spanish, etc.” In 2020, the census allowed respondents to self-identify as “multiracial”.
The US Census Bureau says its categories now adequately capture the heritage of the 62.6 million Hispanics who thrive in the United States “because all detailed Hispanic groups are included in the newly combined code list. “.
In fact, however, if your heritage comes from one of the hundreds of Indigenous or African-descendant groups in Latin America, those identities remain outside of how the United States captures race among Hispanic populations. This may explain why, according to the Census Bureau, “the vast majority (94%) of responses to the race question that are categorized as Some Other Race are from people of Hispanic or Latino origin.”
Overgeneralized and underrecognized
When the fixed categories of a census erase the diversity of a population, the resulting serious miscalculations can harm a country’s ability to respond appropriately to the needs of its population.
For example, the overgeneralization of Hispanic Americans harms the quality of American education and health care when these institutions assume that Latino communities speak Spanish. In addition to indigenous languages, populations of Afro-Latino ancestry may not speak Spanish, but rather French or Haitian Creole, Portuguese, or an indigenous language. If they come from the Miskito coast of Nicaragua, they can speak an English creole.
These language differences reflect unique cultures and histories that relate to how people interact with doctors, teachers, politicians, and more.
Failing to recognize the diversity of Hispanics also creates frequent election upsets in the United States. For example, pollsters got the Latino vote wrong in 2020 by lumping 32 million people with diverse political views and national backgrounds together as “Latino.” Democrats arguably made the same mistake in 2018.
By overgeneralizing Hispanics, the United States may also overlook – to its own detriment – the knowledge and experience of a culturally unique people who bring with them alternative understandings of the world, some of which I have studied as an anthropologist specializing in food security, migration and health in Latin America. These include agricultural practices that can help American farmers respond to the global climate crisis and Mesoamerican health strategies based on community care and traditional remedies.
A growing community with more to offer
Despite its limitations, US census data clearly shows that the Hispanic population continues to grow. While the overall US population grew by 7% between 2010 and 2020, the Hispanic population grew by 23%. Today, 1 in 5 people in the United States identify with Hispanic or Latino heritage.
This growth is especially notable in the South — in states like Georgia and North Carolina — and in rural areas. The Hispanic population became a demographic lifeline for parts of small town America that experienced significant population loss in the late 20th century.
Hispanic communities have also reinvigorated urban neighborhoods by opening small businesses.
Rebuilding cities, stabilizing rural counties, growing local economies – these are some of the group contributions made by the community of Americans celebrated each year during Hispanic Heritage Month.
The better we understand the nuances of this large population, the better we will understand who we are as a nation – and more fully benefit from our diversity.