Who is a Latino? According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word “Latino,” as used in North America, means, “a person of Latin American origin or descent.” That seems pretty straightforward. So, if you’re looking for a simple answer to a seemingly simple question, there it is. If, on the other hand, it strikes you as too neat and you’d like to know why that is, read on.
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In order to use the OED definition to determine who is a Latino, one must first take out an atlas and determine exactly where Latin America is. While this may seem like hair-splitting, it’s not. The boundaries of Latin America and the parameters of the definition are inextricably intertwined. For example, if my grandfather was born in, say, Cuba, am I a Latino? Yes? How about Haiti? OK. Jamaica?
The first line that can be drawn is along the southern border of the US. While some suggest that it should be drawn considerably farther north to include the territory the US took from Mexico, for the moment, there is general agreement that Latin America is composed only of lands south of what may one day be called Trump’s Wall.
There is also some disagreement about which of the lands south of the US should be considered part of Latin America. While the United Nations takes the broad view, considering all of the nations and territories in the Western Hemisphere south of the US to be part of “Latin America and the Caribbean,” intentionally overlooking all historical and linguistic differences, the people who actually live in the Americas are more selective. While they generally agree that nations whose primary language is Spanish are part of Latin America and that those whose primary language is either English or Dutch are not, there is a difference of opinion regarding the inclusion of those whose primary language is either Portuguese or French.
Just because a person is of Latin American origin or descent does not mean that he speaks a language directly descended from Latin.
A circumnavigation of the blogosphere gives a fairly clear picture of the dispute. The majority opinion seems to be that because Portuguese and French are, like Spanish, directly descended from Latin, nations that speak one of these languages should be considered part of Latin America. Support for the inclusion of Portuguese was stronger than for French, perhaps because Portuguese and Spanish are more alike. That there are about 400 million Spanish, 200 million Portuguese, and around 11 million French speakers in the region may have had something to do with it as well. (Interestingly, the OED joined the minority in this case and chose to exclude francophone countries in its definition of Latin America.)
In any case, this is the map of Latin America, with all the Romance speaking countries in and all the Germanic speaking countries out, as confirmed by the collective wisdom of Wikipedia. In South America, by this reckoning, only Surinam (once Dutch Guyana) and Guyana (once British Guyana) are not part of Latin America, while in Central America the only country that is excluded is Belize (once British Honduras). In the Caribbean, all the English and Dutch speaking islands are excluded, including Jamaica, Barbados, Aruba, Curaçao, and all the others. The rule is simple, really: English and Dutch need not apply. (The island that in English is called Saint Martin has been divided since 1648 between France and the Netherlands. The French side is in Latin America, the Dutch side is not.)
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Does it follow that because a nation must speak a Romance language to be part of Latin America, a person must speak a Romance language to be considered a Latino? It does not. Just because a person is of Latin American origin or descent does not mean that he speaks a language directly descended from Latin.
For instance, consider a child born in Peru of Peruvian parents who is raised to speak only Quechua, the language of the Incas. That the child does not speak Spanish, or any other Romance language, does not alter the fact that he is of Latin American origin and is, therefore, a Latino.
This is not a hypothetical case. There are millions of people in Latin America who speak Quechua, Guarani, Kekchi, and Nahua, to name the most widely spoken of the hundreds of indigenous languages still in use. In 2007, Richard Baldauf, in Language Planning and Policy in Latin America, estimated that 17% of the 40 million or so indigenous language speakers in Latin America were monolingual, which means that there are something like seven million people in the region who not only don’t speak a Romance language but don’t speak any Indo-European language at all, who are, nonetheless, Latinos.
Whatever their numbers are, the millions of people of Latin American origin or descent in the US who speak only English are also Latinos.
Neither is it hypothetical that monolingual speakers of indigenous languages from Latin American countries migrate to the US. In 2014, the New York Times reported on a Mixtec speaker from Mexico who arrived in East Harlem without Spanish or English. An estimated 25 to 30 thousand Mixtec speakers live in New York City alone, and there are about 500,000 Latin Americans in the US who speak indigenous languages. They are all Latinos.
To be clear, monolingual speakers of indigenous languages born in countries south of the US border where the primary language spoken is Germanic, meaning English or Dutch, would, of course, not be considered Latinos. This restriction would apply, for example, to Guyana (the former British Guyana), and to Surinam (the former Dutch Guiana), but not to French Guiana, which is, curiously, part of the European Union.
Next, consider the case of Mexican migrants living in the United States with a child who has been raised to speak only English. Is he a Latino? The answer has already been given. As he is of Latin American descent, he is a Latino.
Although neither the US Census Bureau nor the Pew Research Center seems to know how many English-only Latinos there are in the US, their stories abound on the internet and polling by the Pew Research Center shows that with each successive generation, the descendants of Latin American migrants are less likely to rely on the primary language of their antecedents. A 1999 Stanford report on the linguistic isolation of Hispanics of age 60 and older showed that more than 10% of the 125,000 polled spoke only English. Whatever their numbers are, the millions of people of Latin American origin or descent in the US who speak only English are also Latinos.
(As an aside, according to 2015 American Community Survey of the US Census Bureau, 3.4 million Spanish speakers in the US who were asked how well they spoke English responded “Not at all.” The question, presumably, was asked and answered in Spanish. They, too, are Latinos.)
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Is it possible for a person who is not of Latin American descent and who was born outside of Latin America to be considered a Latino? Well, no, at least not according to the OED.
Before us is a Spanish child, born in Spain, of Spanish parents, raised and educated in a Spanish speaking home, then brought to the US at ten. Listen carefully. Just because a person is of Romance language country origin and descent does not mean he is a Latino. This child is not, and can never be, a Latino. It is simple, really. He is not of Latin American origin or descent.
But then there is Enrique Iglesias. His father, the singer Julio Iglesias, is from Spain, and his mother, the journalist Isabel Preysler, is from the Philippines. Enrique was born in Madrid, raised speaking Spanish, and currently lives in Miami. In 2010 he was named the King of Latino Pop by Latin Gossip magazine.
Just because a person is of Romance language country origin and descent does not mean he is a Latino.
While I will grant that the editors of this journal know far more about the scuttlebutt in the Vatican cafeteria than I could ever hope to, bestowing that title on Enrique makes as much sense as awarding the Nobel Prize for Literature to Bob Dylan. Unless, of course, the folks at Latin Gossip know more about the word “Latino” than the contributors to the Oxford English Dictionary.
Or consider Carmen Miranda. She was born in Portugal of Portuguese parents. She was taken to Brazil as a child, became a great singer, and then took America by storm, singing such hits as “Chica Chica Boom Chica,” and starring in such films as “Copacabana” before dying tragically in 1955. She is viewed as a latina icon by Literanista, a wonderfully eclectic blog that covers such matters. A quick review of feminist, Latino, and multicultural blogs confirms that Ms. Miranda has been universally designated and welcomed as a latina icon.
But hold on. Latin American origin? Well, no. Latin American descent? Again, no, not really. Far be it from me to second-guess the creator of Literanista, who undoubtedly knows far more about the life of Ste. Bernadette of Lourdes than is absolutely necessary, but to beatify she-of-the-fruit-hat as a “latina icon” makes no more sense than the coronation of Enrique. To be fair, it could be that the editor of Literanista hadn’t consulted her copy of the OED while researching the piece.
The case of New Mexico is trickier. About half of the people of the State of New Mexico are Spanish speaking, to one degree or another. Many of them have their roots in Mexico, but most of them, particularly those in the northern part of the state, are the direct descendants of the original Spanish settlers. (Santa Fe, the current capital, was founded in 1610, ten years before the Mayflower dropped anchor in Plymouth Harbor.) Often called Hispanos, many of them speak a sort of Old World Spanish. That the New Mexicans who are of Mexican descent are Latinos is clear, but are the Hispanos, who are direct descendants of Spanish settlers, Latinos?
To beatify she-of-the-fruit-hat as a “latina icon” makes no more sense than the coronation of Enrique.
Let’s say that the family tree of a Hispano man named Juan is populated exclusively by Spaniards who came directly from Spain to settle in New Mexico. As in the case of the “King of Latino Pop,” Juan was not born in Latin America and his ancestors were not Latin American. Is Juan a Latino? Well, no.
Let’s try this: New Mexico itself was once part of Mexico. If Juan’s ancestors were born in New Mexico at that time, they could be said to be of Latin American origin, which would mean that all of their descendants, including Juan, could be said to be Latinos.
Then there are the genizaros. During colonial times, the Spanish colonists of New Mexico snatched Native American children away from their tribes and forced them to work as domestic servants and, tragically, slaves. By 1776, a third of the people in what would become New Mexico were genizaros. According to some sources, the practice continued into the early 20th century. Today, there are about 300,000 direct descendants of genizaros in New Mexico, most of them Spanish-speaking.
(The word “genizaros” comes from the Turkish word “yeniceri” that translates into English as “janissary.” The Janissaries were Christian children captured by the Ottomans and then trained and compelled to serve in their military as shock troops.)
Are the genizaros Latinos? The same reasoning that could make it possible for Juan to be considered to be a Latino could also apply to the genizaros. If their ancestors were born in New Mexico when it was a part of Mexico, then those ancestors could be said to be Latinos. As direct descendants of those ancestors, the genizaros could be said to be Latinos, too.
If that line of reasoning is accepted, however, then the descendants of the children of American settlers in Texas who were born in Texas when it was a part of Mexico would have to be considered Latinos, too.
For example, the older children of Samuel May Williams, a close associate of Stephen F. Austin, were born in Texas when it was part of Mexico. Under the broad interpretation of “origin” used with the genizaros, any descendants of these children would have to be considered Latinos as well. It sounds rather Talmudic, but it could be viewed as heartless to deny the genizaros a place at the Latino table. If the only price that would have to be paid would be to make a little room at the table for a few Anglos whose patriarch acquired the 125-ton schooner Invincible, credited with depriving Santa Anna of much-needed supplies and reinforcements, thereby (arguably) ensuring Sam Houston’s victory at San Jacinto and the independence of Texas, it might be a good deal. After all, seven Tejanos died defending the Alamo.
That’s right, even the Inuit of Baffin Island would have to be considered Latinos. The same would probably have to apply to New France.
One more Talmudic twist: genetic tests have proven that many of the Hispanos of New Mexico were Jews from Spain who had either converted to Catholicism or feigned conversion to avoid the Inquisition. Their descendants, sometimes called conversos or marranos, could be considered Latinos, in the same way that Juan could. In fact, Juan may be a converso. (In Judaic scholarship, they are called the “anusim,” or “the forced ones.”)
There may be a problem. If the boundaries of Mexico prior to the creation of the Republic of Texas and the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo are allowed to define Latin America, then the window of opportunity for a birth to convey latinidad to subsequent generations is small. While Mexico gained its independence from Spain in 1821, in 1836 Texas won its independence, and in 1848 the rest of the American Southwest became part of the US, so New Mexico was only part of Mexico for 27 years. Unless an ancestor of Juan gave birth to another of his ancestors during that interval, Juan might have no ancestor who was of Latin American origin, which would mean that Juan could not be a considered a Latino.
A possible solution hinges on the fact that, prior to becoming part of Mexico, New Mexico was part of the Spanish Empire. It would be tempting simply to stipulate that anyone who has an ancestor within the borders of Spanish America is, under the OED definition, a Latino. The sticking point is that Mexico is a Latin American country and Spain is not. If this exception were allowed, there would be people calling themselves Latinos who were not of Latin American origin or descent. This “Hispano exception” will be considered further, if only to see where the twisted path leads.
In 1494, Spain and Portugal signed the Treaty of Tordesillas, which divided the Americas with a single line, drawn north to south. Spain got everything to the west of the line; Portugal got everything to the east. The Pope gave the treaty his blessing, with the proviso that only non-Christian lands were fair game for conversion and conquest.
Is it correct to infer, from the fact that the OED definition of “Latino” makes no mention of the construct of race, that a person of any racial identity can be a Latino? Yes, it is.
An inescapable consequence of using the boundaries of Spanish America to determine “Latin American origin or descent” is that every Native American from Tierra del Fuego to Point Barrow would have to be considered a Latino. That’s right, even the Inuit of Baffin Island would have to be considered Latinos. (The same would probably have to apply to New France. Everyone with an ancestor who lived within its boundaries would also be a Latino.)
All of which illustrates the difficulties that can crop up when the OED guidelines are ignored. The line has to be drawn somewhere, and adherence to the OED parameters ensures consistency and clarity. “Hispano,” after all, means “Spanish,” not “Latin American,” and the Inuit probably have no wish to be Latinos, anyway.
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Is it correct to infer, from the fact that the OED definition of “Latino” makes no mention of the construct of race, that a person of any racial identity can be a Latino? Yes, it is. Over the past 500-plus years, millions of migrants traveled from Europe, Africa, and Asia to join the millions of Native Americans already in Latin America. They are all Latinos.
A few examples will help underscore the point.
There are at least 17 million Latinos of German descent living in Latin America, of whom at least a million speak German. A handful of them are descendants of Nazis who fled Allied justice after Word War II.
Because of differing methods of determining race, estimates range from 19 to 67 million Latinos of African descent in South America alone, a fraction of whom are descendants of the thousands of runaway slaves, or maroons (from the Spanish cimarrónes), who created their own free communities, called palenques by the Spanish andmocambosorquilombos by the Portuguese.
if you’re riding on the city bus in Des Moines and a stranger sits next to you, you cannot know from his appearance or his language whether he is a Latino or not.
There are at least 2 million Latinos of Japanese descent living in Latin America, a few of whom who may be descended from the samurai recruited by the Spanish crown and brought from Manila harbor to protect the mule trains filled with Asian treasure being carried from Acapulco to Veracruz.
There are also thousands of Latinos who are descendants of the “Confederados” who fled Yankee occupation at the end of the Civil War and settled in southern Brazil.
All these people are Latinos.
In addition, there are many millions of people living in Latin America whose genes reflect the endless combinations that such diverse ancestors make possible. In colonial times, there was a peculiar and intricate system of classification called “las castas” that assigned names, some of them quite exotic sounding, to a multitude of the combinations. Some of the names are still in use today. The bearers of these names, too, are all Latinos.
In the US, there are Latinos of many racial identities as well. In the 2010 US Census, the more than 50 million who marked the box for “Hispanic, Latino, or Spanish,” went on to identify their “Race,” by indicating one of the following categories: “White, Black or African American, American Indian and Alaska Native, Asian, Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander, Some Other Race, or Two or More Races.” In excess of 26 million, or 53% of the respondents, identified themselves as “White.” Latinos, all.
Further proof is unnecessary: Latino is not a race.
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- Latin America comprises all the Romance language speaking countries in the Western Hemisphere south of the United States.
- A person born in Latin America is a Latino.
- A person born outside of Latin America who has Latin American antecedents is a Latino.
- A Latino does not have to speak any particular language.
- A Latino does not have to have any particular racial identity.
In other words, if you’re riding on the city bus in Des Moines and a stranger sits next to you, you cannot know from his appearance or his language whether he is a Latino or not. Two examples will make this point.
A dark-skinned man with the distinctive profile of a Mayan aristocrat takes his seat and starts to talk with the man in front of him in Spanish. Is he a Latino? No. He is from Belize.
A blonde-haired, blue-eyed man sits next to you and starts talking to his friend across the aisle in German, but with a soft accent that you can’t quite place. Intrigued, you gather up your courage and say, “Excuse me, I hope you don’t mind my asking, but, are you by any chance Swiss?”
He quickly purses his lips in suppressed amusement before answering, “Nein, ich bin ein Latino.”