NY Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez

The complicated history and identity of Latinos in the United States

“Latino” describes nearly a fifth of the US population — and yet, the term only caught on in the 1980s.

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Democrat Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who won her bid for a seat in the House of Representatives in New York's 14th Congressional District, at the Kennedy School's Institute of Politics at Harvard University, December 6, 2018.

Charles Krupa/AP/File photo

On the 2020 US census, Americans faced five options: white, Black or African American, American Indian or Alaska Native, Asian and Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander. These might have reflected a broad swath of the population, but for citizens from any of the dozens of countries south of the United States, there was a pretty obvious choice missing: Latino.

Laura Gómez, a law professor at UCLA and the author of “Inventing Latinos: A New Story of American Racism,” argues that Latinos — both the word and the ethnic categories — are pretty recent inventions. The government only officially recognized it in the 1980s, and acknowledging people from Central and South America as a distinct ethnic group was a paradigm shift with real social and political impacts. The question of Latinos’ race has affected issues from marriage laws, to access to education and beyond.

Main Takeaways

  • According to Gómez, who does and doesn’t count as Latino depends on “layers of discretion.” In the past, that discretion was up to judges in court cases that dealt with race. But today, the decision about which box to check is largely your own. That doesn’t mean it’s always a clear-cut decision though. Since the 1980s, as much as 40% of Latinos choose “other” as their race on the census. Many others choose white, but one study found that only 2% of Latinos who choose white agreed that other people actually see them as white. This shows a gap between the categories we officially have available, and the way that we see ourselves or others.
  • The relatively recent invention of the term “Latino” is evidence that our racial and ethnic categories are social constructions, Gómez explains, and that they change over time and only find meaning in the context in which they’re created. For instance, designating someone as Latino in a country like Argentina is meaningless, and “white” has grown to include Italians, Jewish people and Eastern Europeans who were all previously excluded. This doesn’t mean that our racial and ethnic categories, nor the term “Latino,” are going anywhere anytime soon, though. Now, younger generations are embracing both Latino and Latinx (a gender-neutral variant) as terms to identify with and use, Gómez said.
  • Ana Navarro-Cárdenas, a political strategist and commentator, said that Latinos are not only changing as an identity, but also as a voting bloc. Latino is a term used to describe as many as 60 million people from dozens of places and a multitude of ways of becoming American. Some have been on US soil for generations, some crossed the border, and some had the border cross them. Just as in any other large, diverse group, there is a full spectrum of political identities, so to court, the so-called “Latino vote” is a big ask, she said.