does not describe me fully
it is where to start

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Puerto Rican Identity – The U.S. Census and Race

Filled the census form
and was left shaking my head.
I don’t know my race.

Hispanics carry
the gene pool of the planet.
Europe Africa Asia ….

I marked three boxes
proclaiming my race to be

Marking three boxes, incidentally, is permissible. However imperfect their designations are, I salute the Census Bureau for at least recognizing that some of us do not fit into the old either-or categories. Indeed, they go to great lengths to accommodate the question of Hispanic origin, with question 8 asking whether the Hispanic origins were Mexican, Puerto Rican, Cuban et al. That said, how does an Hispanic then answer the next question about race? Here are the options:

Question 9. What is Person 1’s race? Mark one or more boxes.

· White
· Black, African Am., or Negro
· American Indian or Alaska Native
· Asian Indian
· Japanese
· Native Hawaiian
· Chinese
· Korean
· Guamanian or Chamorro
· Filipino
· Vietnamese
· Samoan
· Other Asian
· Other Pacific Islander
· Some other race

I’ll stick with the question of Hispanic racial origin and not address why Asians got so many variants, and whites and blacks so few; or even why Koreans, for example, are now considered a race. At least the Bureau was trying to accommodate racial diversity. The problem for me is that because Hispanic racial mixture took place over centuries, identifying racial origin with certainty is difficult. My racial identification has always been problematic. Most people looking at me would instantly identify me as white. A careful look at my features, though, gives evidence that somewhere in my gene pool also existed the Africans and Amerindians who contributed to the genealogy of those now identified as Puerto Ricans.

I marked all three boxes, albeit with a lingering uncertainty about whether I was answering properly. I am not sure, for example, whether the decidedly Asian cast of some of my relatives' features has its origins in Puerto Rico's Taíno Indians or whether it is the result of cross fertilization occurring in the Canary Islands from which some of my ancestors came. The racial mix is there. Where it came from, I really can't say.

Responding to the Census question also made me uneasy because it prompted me to think of the shortfalls we Hispanics still have in our own racial self identification. Hispanics, who have been called The Cosmic Race because of our racial inclusivity, should glory in our broad racial heritage. We are in the vanguard, after all, in a world with increasingly permeable cultural and racial boundaries. Yet, if one looks at the race of actors appearing in popular telenovelas, arguably a substitute for prevailing attitudes, the preponderance of the Caucasian Hispanic is striking. Sometimes when I look at Spanish-speaking television, I feel as if I am in a time warp because the lack of racial diversity resembles what existed in English-speaking media back in the 1970s or earlier. Maybe by forcing a discussion among Hispanics about racial identity, the Census Bureau will have done us a great service.


Nevine said...

Judy, I'm not sure what to say, except this... I know where you're coming from. I'm a newly naturalized American (well, not so new, it's been three years) and my classification as an Arab is "White". That's how we are classified in America. And this is funny, because where I come from originally, we don't have these classifications. Everyone is Egyptian and that's that. We've had our mixes in our history because just about every country on the face of this earth has colonized us at some point or the other, so we're all mixed with something. But there are no racial classifications. Imagine my inner turmoil when I mark my form "White" and think, "But I've never thought of myself in that way... white or black or anything else."

As to why Asians get many variants, I'm not sure about this, either. It's true that Hispanics have those differences, too. Puerto Ricans, Mexicans, Guatemalans... and what about those of South American origin? And the varieties of Native Americans? It's endless. I, for one, think they should do away with the entire racial and ethnic classification thing. All it does is makes people think of themselves as something outside of being an American, and also, sometimes, something outside of being a human.

Interesting post, Judy. And that's not unusual for you, now, is it?


Judith Mercado said...

Welcome to America, Nevine. Your provenance is in keeping with the more recent history of this country. Though a bit bewildered by the Census’ distinctions, I want to acknowledge the baby steps toward full acceptance of difference that the new Census form represents. We obviously have a ways to go in perfecting it.

Sun Singer said...

I have an easy time with that question because my Scots, English and French ancestry distills simply to white. Having a little German or a little Italian wouldn't change things either, and to some extent that's odd since Germans and Italians have in the past been noticeable ethnic groups in the U.S.

Were I Hispanic on a celestial day when I felt like cooperating, I would probably answer the questions as you did unless I was from Spain and began wondering if that meant white or what?

On a bad day, I would remind myself that from the Constitution's point of view, all they're allowed to do is count us, not create demographics.


Judith Mercado said...

Malcolm, like you, my husband's race was easy to state since his background is Welsh and his American ancestors pretty much stayed within the WASP clan. Since I filled the form for both of us, I experienced first hand the difference in being able to check off a box. No surprise there; I don't fit in a box! Of course, my husband would be offended if I told him he fit easily in a box. I guess no one is satisfied.

Elizabeth Mahlou said...

And as time goes on and there are more and more interracial marriages, it is going to get even more complicated. Maybe we should just forget about identifying race at all! In any event, I dropped by to wish you a happy Easter.

Judith Mercado said...

Elizabeth, thanks for wishing me a Happy Easter. I hope yours was magnificent. I so agree with you about the changing racial landscape. It'll be interesting to see what they do in ten years.

A Cuban In London said...

If I told what I've sometimes put in these equal ops forms, you wouldn't believe it. Just going through blogs at the moment. Still in Malaysia.

Greetings from Kuala Lumpur.

Judith Mercado said...

Cuban,I'm honored that you would read my blog while on holiday. I've never been to Malaysia so I'm a bit envious. I hope you're having a wonderful time.

Maricela said...

As a fellow Puerto Rican, I too marked all three boxes but was kinda of unsure whether that was the right thing to do. Having nationalities, Korean, Vietnamese, as races makes no sense but neither does the distinction of race either. I like representing myself as a Puerto Rican for survey purposes but to distill it into race antiquated. We Puerto Ricans, along with most Latinos, are an amalgamation of European, African, and Native American blood. Perhaps I don't have any European blood in me, or ever African; that can only be tested genetically. It doesn't matter and for the Census to question that shouldn't matter either.

Judith Mercado said...

Maricela, your comment is spot on. I suspect we are in an historical juncture where the old racial paradigms are failing but new ones have not yet been well established. It will be interesting to see how this process manifests itself in the 2020 census, not to mention real life. Thanks for stopping by, and I hope you will visit again. I'd love to know how you found my blog.