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Chicago Tribune

Hispanics Outgrow Labels

By Achy Obejas

September 10, 2001
Copyright © 2001 Chicago Tribune. All Rights Reserved.

CHICAGO -- Ever since the U.S. census began in 1970 to count Hispanics, the results have yielded a certain 1-2-3 order: People of Mexican descent had the greatest numbers, then Puerto Ricans, then Cubans.

But not in 2000, when the second-biggest group of Hispanics in the census were the people who chose not to identify a national origin at all.

Some observers think that group -- more than 6 million of the nation's 35 million Hispanics-- may be the first significant sign of a new kind of identity: the American Hispanic.

Instead of relying on national origin, language, cuisine or religion as cultural markers, these Hispanics tend to draw on their sense of shared experience as a minority in the United States.

Until now, most public-opinion surveys have consistently indicated a weak sense of ethnic Hispanic identity and a strong sense of nationality. Simply put, people have traditionally opted to identify as Mexican-American, Puerto Rican or other specific national origin instead of Hispanic.

But as cultures mix and new generations mature, that may be changing.

"For most Latinos these days, nationality doesn't come into play as much unless they just got here," said Tanya Saracho of the Teatro Luna theater company.

There could be other explanations for why so many Hispanics indicated no national origin. This is the first time the census left a blank space for respondents to write in that information, instead of providing choices to mark.

Some think a good hunk of the 6 million had legitimately good reasons to skip the question, most the result of Hispanic intramarriages.

For many, the notion of a Hispanic from nowhere in particular remains new and strange.

"When somebody says they're Hispanic, I always ask them, 'Where are you from?' " said Domingo Composto, who came from Chile 30 years ago. "But if someone tells me they're Latino but from here, I just think they're confused. To me, they're American."

The next generation may see things differently. Composto's partner, Cesar Maza, who came from Peru 30 years ago, has three children with his Mexican-American wife.

"They're 50 percent Peruvian, 25 percent Mexican and 25 percent American -- they're Latinos," Maza said. "But they're also American because they were born here and their lives are here. They see themselves as Americans with a Latin heritage."

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