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A 'Spanish' Inquisition

Debate Over Use Of Ethnic ID

By John Moreno Gonzales

March 24, 2002
Copyright © 2002
Newsday Inc. All Rights Reserved.

BRENTWOOD is not Madrid.

But ask people there, or in any other largely Hispanic community on the East Coast where their cultural identity lies, and it seems many have Iberian roots.

"I'm half black and half Spanish," says Raynard Williams, 25, whose father is black and whose mother traces her roots to Puerto Rico.

The grocery clerk at a Pathmark supermarket on Wicks Road continued: "My mother is Spanish. My mother is Puerto Rican. You know, Spanish."

What Williams and many others mean is that they have roots in a Spanish-speaking country, not that any of their relatives are Spaniards. Though, if you go back far enough in time, a forefather surely will be.

Many who use the term "Spanish" when they actually mean "Hispanic," are well aware that they are committing a linguistic error. But they ask what difference does it make in everyday life, where words take on regional meanings that are better understood than what's offered in the dictionary?

Not just in Brentwood, but in all of New York and its neighboring states, people of Spanish-speaking backgrounds are dubbed "Spanish" in loose conversation.

Even non-Hispanics who use the term do so without being corrected by Hispanics because it is so widely accepted.

"I use that phrase a lot," said Jeff Mayes, 41, who works at a RadioShack near the supermarket.

Mayes, who is African-American, said: "We get a lot of Spanish- speaking customers. We get a lot of Spanish people who come in here. I guess on a technical level it's wrong, [to call them Spanish] but in living, I don't think so."

Store manager, Joe Bracero, 62, moved to the United States from Puerto Rico as a child and shares Mayes' interpretation and uses it in identifying himself.

"I've been in the country for 57 years and I've always referred to myself as Spanish," he said. However, Jennie Molina, 71, who shopped at a nearby shoe store with her granddaughter Amber, sharply disagreed.

She said the term is damaging to the concept of national and cultural identities, a shorthand that shows lack of geographic knowledge.

"I have nothing against people being from Spain, but I'm Puerto Rican," Molina said flatly. "I correct adults, I correct children, I'd correct a police officer if he called me Spanish. It's a whole different country."

The origin of the use, or misuse, of the term is hard to pin down. Molina said she can remember her elders using "Spanish" to describe Puerto Ricans and people of other groups.

Frank Graziano, department chair of Hispanic Studies at Connecticut College in New London said the usage began among whites who found it an all-too-easy way of distinguishing themselves from the Spanish-speaking groups moving into their neighborhoods.

"The use of Spanish is a misnomer that indexes our own cultural ignorance while at once lumping a diversity of cultures from some 25 countries into a single category based on stereotypes," he said.

"When I was growing up in Brooklyn and on Long Island in the 1960s, the Spanish-speaking people around us were referred to as 'the Spanish' while at once we knew they were Puerto Rican."

Anthony Rosalia, a Spanish-language translator for Suffolk County courts said Hispanics soon appropriated the term from whites. He believes they did so wrongly.

"I think they've been called something for so long they are giving in," said Rosalia, who is of Spanish, Italian and Swiss descent.

"They'll call themselves that so others will understand them. It's like when people are of the last name Garcia or Ramos, they go around saying they are Gar-za or Ray-mos [because that's how some non-Hispanics pronounce the names.]

"And it goes back to geography. Millions of people don't know where anything is, something that isn't so prevalent in other parts of the world," Rosalia added. "And that has to do with American isolationism."

The "Spanish" label has since branched out to other large Hispanic groups in the New York region, including Dominicans, Central Americans, South Americans and Mexicans.

Experts point out that widespread usage of a term that is not correct can lead to it being incorporated into the laws of language. And sometimes it is not the dominant society that initially uses the term in error.

David J. Weber, a professor of history at Southern Methodist University in Dallas said Hispanics prompted such a change when they referred to all whites as Anglo, which at one time referred to Americans with English birth or ancestry.

Webster's dictionary now includes that definition and one that says an Anglo is "a white U.S. citizen or inhabitant of non- Hispanic descent."

"So we have Czech, Italian, and even African-American Anglos," said Weber.

No matter how the use of the term "Spanish" is debated, it does not sit well with those who have roots in Spain.

"It's impressive to see the geographic ignorance when so many refer to everyone blanketly as Spanish," said an irked Andres Soler, a student from Colombia who is of Spanish descent and was visiting friend Rosalia.

The well-traveled Soler, 24, said the first time he ever heard such a usage was a trip to the United States several years ago. He said the phenomena seems to have grown and become solidified since then.

Reading the neon signs on the exterior of the Morazn Restaurant y Pupusera in Brentwood, his point is well taken.

In large block letters, one advertises "Spanish food." The menu consists of the seafoods and stuffed bread dishes of El Salvador, nothing from Spain.

Ana Perez, 20, a waitress there said: "We know that Spanish means something is from Spain and that's correct. But whatever people want to say is all right with me."

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