Carlos Mencia is well-known for his standup humor, which is slyly good-natured and often focuses on race and ethnicity. The 46 year-old Mencia has had a successful series on The Comedy Channel (Mind of Mencia) and draws huge crowds when he tours the country. When he was starting out in the business, he spent a lot of time on college campuses. And he learned pretty quickly that how he talked about the ethnicity he thought he shared with his audience could get him into trouble.
He told TV host Katie Couric about the scoldings he'd get as he thrashed around trying to find a name for the politicized students who'd come to see him.
"I said 'Latinos,' and they said, 'We're not Latin!' " he told Couric. "And then I said 'Chicano,' and they said, 'We're not of Mexican descent.' So I said 'I don't know what to say — Hispanic?' And they said, 'There's no such country as Hispania!' " He's chuckling now, but the memory was still clearly frustrating. "How am I supposed to describe us?" he wondered.
Those exchanges took place 20 years ago, and people — and institutions — are still trying to figure it out. The census used to ask people now commonly referred to as Latino or Hispanic to check the "Spanish-speaking" box, but that was too restrictive. What if you were Latino but didn't speak Spanish? Or if you were from the Iberian Peninsula and didn't speak English. ¡Ay!
Using One, Or The Other — Or Both
So in 1980, the Census Bureau switched to using the term "Hispanic," which had been chosen during the Nixon administration in the 1970s and up till then had been used on all government forms. But some people liked describing themselves as Latino — sometimes it indicated one's geographic origins, sometimes one's political leanings. Public figures decided to try to please everyone, and many use both Latino and Hispanic, sometimes interchangeably. Sometimes in the same sentence.
The president did this when he launched "Latinos for Obama 2012."
The Spanish-language news behemoth Univision also uses the term interchangeably, as do many Hispanic/Latino Americans. (And, as you might have guessed, so does NPR.)
NPR surveyed almost 1,500 randomly selected people to ask whether they would choose to describe themselves as Hispanic or Latino. We found a very slight preference for Hispanic, but not a terribly significant one. When Code Switch asked its followers on Facebook how they felt about this, we saw a kaleidoscope of responses:
Debbie Pastor wrote: "I find the term Latin@ more appropriate than Hispanic.... Latino includes all Spanish speakers regardless of country of origin, including spain."
Arturo Czares also said: "I prefer Latino but Hispanic is OK. Neither is perfect, but both are general terms that encompass a lot of people."
David Alejandro Haros commented: "I used to hate the term Hispanic, but now it doesn't matter. I use either interchangeably."
As with NPR's poll, the Pew Research Center's Hispanic Trends Project found the same thing in its latest Latino survey.
Mark Hugo Lopez, director of the Hispanic Trends Project, says this demographic identifies much more readily with its country of origin — or the country its parents or grandparents came from. While traveling through Latin America, Lopez said, "You'll find people aren't necessarily describing themselves as Hispanic first. They'll say they're Salvadoran or Peruvian when you go to those countries."
And there's a local equivalent of that here in the U.S.: Marketing specialist Mando Rayo says he's "part Mexican, part American, 100 percent Tejano!" Texas trumps everything, although Rayo said if forced to choose, he chooses Latino, because he feels it connects him more to his Latin American roots.
But, he said, everyone describes himself differently, which is why he tells clients wanting to capture part of the Latino market it's important to do some research first. "They're thinking about trying to sell something to the Latino community," Rayo said, "and I always say, well, which one?"
The Latino community?
Rayo is not kidding. There is no one Latino community. Variables like age, whether a person is born in the U.S. or has migrated here, level of education — all those things can be important. Even within people with the same ancestry: A sales pitch crafted to Mexican-Americans in Texas could be very different from one aimed at Mexican-Americans in California.
Different geography, different customs, different cuisines, all have to be taken into consideration. Which has corporate America and politicians eyeing this important demographic, while scrambling to try to figure things out.
"Welcome to multicultural America," said Angelo Falcon. "Reality is a very complex thing for everybody — including Hispanics." Falcon, who is Puerto Rican, heads the National Institute for Latino Policy and has been working with — and on — the census for years to develop a more accurate categorization for Latinos/Hispanics. Falcon says getting people to switch from Hispanic or Latino to a yet-to-be-devised descriptor is going to be a lot harder for Latino leaders than it was for Jesse Jackson to persuade people to switch from black to African-American in the 1980s.
Those descriptors had evolved over the years, from colored to Negro to black and most recently, African-American. Jackson and the people subscribing to African-American wanted to switch, Falcon says, because "they thought African-American was a more culturally-based, ethnic term that would identify more with the American experience." (Think about how different the perspective of an Oxford-educated Nigerian immigrant might be from a first-generation college graduate whose people have been in this country for 150 years. Both are black. Both are African-descended. But only one is African-American, with everything that history implies.)
Falcon believes the critical difference between getting "African-American" accepted and widely adopted was the salient fact that the term came from the community being urged to use it; it wasn't chosen by the government. (The government has since chosen to use it, though.)
Eventually Hispanic/Latino or something else will probably be moot, if this demographic's experience reflects its predecessors. Succeeding generations will take pride in their ancestry, but they'll describe themselves as being New Yorkers or Louisianans — or "100 percent Tejano."
As Alejandro X Terrazas wrote on Facebook that he considers himself "American first, ethnically Hispanic."
And Karen Villatoro also commented: "I like to think of myself as American with Central American roots."
And that's a classically American thing to do.
MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
By 2040, Hispanics, or Latinos - at NPR we use the terms interchangeably - will be the largest ethnic minority in the United States. But it is at best imprecise to reduce such a diverse group to just one name. To better understand the views and experiences of Latino Americans, NPR conducted a poll with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard School of Public Health. All this week, we'll be sharing stories we found in the results.
Now, here's NPR's Karen Grigsby Bates with the Hispanic versus Latino debate and that old question: What's in a name?
KAREN GRIGSBY BATES, BYLINE: Born in Honduras and raised in East Los Angeles, comedian Carlos Mencia's work is filtered through the prisms of race and ethnicity. But in an interview with TV's Katie Couric, Mencia said the issue of what to call the mostly Latino audiences he drew early in his career got him in trouble.
CARLOS MENCIA: I said Latinos and they said: We're not Latin. And then I said Chicano and they said: Well, we're not of Mexican descent. And I said I don't know what to say. Hispanic? And they're: There's no such country as Hispania.
MENCIA: And I was like, well, how am I supposed to describe us?
BATES: He's not alone in that frustration. In the 1980s, the Census Bureau decided to switch from asking people who identified as Spanish-speaking to describe themselves as Hispanic or Latino. Since then, some public figures have gotten in the habit of using both terms, sometimes in the same sentence, like this guy.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: That determination has made the Latino community a driving force behind our national recovery. It's led Hispanic Americans to start small businesses at three times the national average.
BATES: Yep, that was President Barack Obama in 2012, urging a specific demographic to vote for cambio, or change. Many Spanish-language journalists use both terms, too. Here's Univision news anchor Maria Elena Salinas.
MARIA ELENA SALINAS: Hispanics were here before the Mayflower. Hispanics were here before Jamestown. You know, Latinos have roots, very deep roots in this country and they have had for a long time.
BATES: NPR's poll says of the almost 1,500 people surveyed, there was a very slight preference for Hispanic over Latino but not by much. And says Mark Hugo Lopez, of the Pew Research Center, there's a reason for that.
MARK HUGO LOPEZ: We are the country that's created this notion of a Pan-Hispanic or a Pan-Latino identity. That's really something that in many respects is unique to the United States.
BATES: Lopez coordinates Pew's annual Hispanic Trends Project's survey of Latino Communities. Pew also uses Hispanic and Latino interchangeably. Like the NPR poll, Lopez says the latest Pew Latino survey shows Latinos identify more readily by country of origin - or their parents' or grandparents' - than they do the terms used by the U.S. government.
LOPEZ: And if you travel in other parts of Latin America, you'll find, for example, people aren't necessarily calling themselves s Hispanic first. They're saying that they are Salvadoran or that they are Peruvian when you go to those countries.
BATES: But it's important to point out that not everybody prefers to identify by nationality.
MANDO RAYO: I'm part Mexican, part American, 100 percent Tejano.
BATES: In Austin, Texas, Mando Rayo helps nonprofits, businesses and politicians connect to Latino communities. He says if forced to choose, he prefers to use Latino. He believes it connects him more to his Latin American roots. But, Rayo warns clients, it's not the same for everyone.
RAYO: When you're thinking about, you know, you're trying to sell something to the Latino community, and whoa, I always say well, which one?
BATES: Good question. A lot of variables like age, whether one is U.S.-born or born elsewhere, level of education, mean a one-size-fits-all marketing strategy can easily flop. Then Rayo says there are regional differences. Mexican-Americans in Texas might respond far differently to a pitch designed for Mexican-Americans in California.
RAYO: Once you start going more into that localization of understanding communities, understanding Latinos, then you kind of have to dig deeper into those layers.
BATES: Confusing, right?
ANGELO FALCON: Welcome to multicultural America. Reality is a very complex thing for everybody, including Hispanics.
BATES: Angelo Falcon is executive director of the National Institute for Latino Policy. Falcon, who has Puerto Rican roots, says in the '90s, black leaders like Jesse Jackson had an easier job convincing many black Americans to begin to identify as African-American.
FALCON: They thought African-American was a more culturally based, ethnic term and would also identify more with the American experience.
BATES: The critical difference between using African-American and Latino-Hispanic, Falcon says, is that African-American was a term chosen by that community; where Hispanic-Latino was the government's choice. Demographers and sociologists say that as time goes on, the designation of Hispanic-Latino will begin to matter less and less. Younger generations will acknowledge their roots while proclaiming themselves American, just as most other ethnic groups have done before them. And that's very much in keeping with the evolution of American identity.
Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.