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What's In A Name? What Can Divide


Jan. 26, 2003
Copyright © 2003
THE MIAMI HERALD. All rights reserved. 

In the end, as postmodern thinkers have been telling us for decades, it's all about language. ''Hispanics have surpassed blacks as the nation's largest minority group,'' reads the wire story. And then the next word is ``Latinos . . .''

''Hispanics,'' ''blacks,'' ''Latinos.'' You say potato, and Quayle spelled it potatoe. Oh let's call the whole thing off. But we can't. We are prisoners of language, all of us -- Hispanics or Latinos, blacks or African Americans, Anglos . . . Anglos? What a concept. What an insult when a Hispanic/Latino uses the term for, say, the Irish. Are African Americans Anglos? Well, one Hispanic definition of the word Anglo is for folk who speak English, which, come to think of it, is what a lot of us Hispanics (which can mean folk who speak Spanish) do.


It's claimed that African Americans speak Ebonics, but thanks to the hegemony of rap, that's what young America speaks. Ah, language plays dominatrix to us all.

Latino is more politically correct than Hispanic because, its advocates argue, it includes all Latin American races, not just whites from Spain. Mmmm. Latino -- from Latium, an Italian province that once ruled the Eurocentric world (including Spain, home of Hispanics and the Spanish language) -- is a kind of pidgin Latin. That empire, Rome, spread toward Africa as well, including Egypt -- so prominent in African-American mythos.

Empire begat empire and, once upon a time, two of them, the English and the Spanish, slugged it out. I know who won because I'm using its language right now, because in the most powerful nation on Earth, the children of the losing empire are now the majority minority. And the two imperial languages are still embattled.


The United States, despite many efforts, still has no official language. Better that way. Language is messy; officializing just gets her -- can't help using gender because my first language is Spanish -- riled. Let sleeping dogs lie.

Roughly half of the majority minority is more fluent in Spanish than English, while the other half is vice versa. Language dominance would be curving toward English were it not for a constant flow of immigration -- of various degrees of documentation, including, yes, white-collar (and white-skinned) illegals.

And another curious factoid: Spanish is the most taught foreign-language in the United States. Which means that if I suddenly break into Spanish, a great many of you putative Anglos entienden todo lo que escribo.

But what about ''blacks,'' as the census unpolitically correct-like calls African Americans? I suspect that this choice of words comes from the fact that not all blacks living in the United States are African American, in the narrow sense of ''American.'' Many Hispanics/Latinos are black, as are West Indians, Haitians and, of course, immigrants from mother Africa. So here's a quandary: Is a black Cuban more like an African American or like a white Cuban?

It takes all races to tangle, and language is the most twisted tangle of all. Cuban Americans don't like being called Cuban Americans and Hispanics/Latinos don't like being called Hispanics or Latinos. All those stiff, square words trip up on the tongue, which is perhaps why rappers, charged with the sacrosanct duty of really getting across to their audience, choose the ugliest word from the street for ID purposes. And why ''gringo'' is the only accurate word for a Latin American naming the northern Other. And why, if you want to test the commonplace about how Hispanic groups don't ever coalesce, try yelling ''Spic!'' in a crowded room of the above-mentioned.

So we're now the majority minority. Not that we ever set out to be anything, other than working people who didn't have to fear la migra. We were not groping for identity. But we've been drop-kicked into it. We were not looking for a name; we were looking for a job. And we're still not sure what language to use. Still. We're not stupid, and we've learned that if we can use both, that job quest gets easier.

You all might learn that lesson as well, all of you, regardless of what box you checked in the census form. Perhaps all of us need to pay less attention to identity and more to language. We need to tango in the tangle. We need to jam. We need to start talking to one another. If we're smart, in more than one language.

Enrique Fernández is The Herald's features editor.

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