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Census' Race Question Not A Simple One For Hispanics

by Maria T. Padilla

April 2, 2000
Copyright © 2000 THE ORLANDO SENTINEL. All Rights Reserved.

Alfredo Baena has noticed that Hispanics are drawing a blank on the census question about race.

Instead of checking the races that are indicated on the form, Baena said many Hispanics are choosing the category "Some other race" and filling in a host of answers in the space provided for explanation.

Baena is with the Farmworkers Association of Florida, which is helping many Mexican workers fill out the forms. He said some people are jotting down "people of color." On his own questionnaire Baena wrote that he is "brown."

Mexicans aren't the only ones improvising. Other Hispanic groups are, too. Some people are writing "Hispanic" in the blank space, others are repeating their ethnic group and still others aren't answering the question at all.

It wasn't supposed to be this way. This is the first time the census has allowed people to mark one or more races as a way to accommodate people of mixed race.

But the mark-all-that-apply remedy has fallen short with many Hispanics.

Confusion over race is a phenomenon that has occurred since the Hispanic question was first inserted into some census questionnaires in 1970. Hispanics historically have reported the highest percentage of "other" replies when it comes to race, according to the census.

"Question 8 is the race question, and that's where the problem is coming in," said Blanca Hernandez, president of the Volusia County Hispanic Association in Deltona, which has volunteered to assist Hispanics there.

Many Hispanics resist identifying themselves along rigid racial lines, in part because of the broad racial mixing that has occurred in many cultures, and because their own countries of origin do not force the issue.

In Mexico, for example, the government identifies Indian tribes based on language and geography, said Martin Torres, head of the Mexican Consulate in Orlando. Native tribes may not speak Spanish, and tribes are specific to certain regions.

In Puerto Rico, a United States territory, the census has not included a race question since 1950. But that changed with this year's census, generating similar confusion.

Because race is downplayed, many Hispanics have developed a stronger sense of nationality as Puerto Ricans, Cubans, Mexicans or Dominicans, and a lesser identification with race.

"Hispanics are asking, 'Where do we fall? Do we fall under white, black? Do we have to answer that question?' " said Ada Rodriguez who serves on a census committee formed to boost the Hispanic response. Rodriguez said she has received multiple calls on the question.

"People don't like the question," said Roberto Thimann, a census recruiter who is focusing on the Kissimmee area, which has a large Hispanic population.

Many Hispanics believe their ethnicity also is their race, which is not the case in the United States. The census definition states that Hispanic is an ethnicity, and Hispanics can be of any race.

That hasn't prevented people such as Hernandez from listing Puerto Rican as her race or Beatrice Ginebra of Orlando from writing Dominican under race.

Others, such as Frank Denis, originally from Panama, stated he is Hispanic.

"If you're born in a Hispanic country, that's your race," Denis said.

Still others have identified their race as white but did so reluctantly.

Dan Garcia,a Puerto Rican who lives in Orlando, put down white, although "I'm not the typical white," he said.

All of which means that the Census Bureau hasn't resolved issues stemming from the race question that were brought to light by mixed-race families before the 2000 census.

Advocates for mixed-race children didn't want their offspring to choose between the race of their mother and father, as previous censuses required.

Certain groups lobbied for the category "multiracial," but lost out to "mark one or more races."

A multiracial category might have helped Hispanics. A 1996 census survey showed that a multiracial category followed by a Hispanic origin question reduced the number of people reporting "other race."

For Susan Graham, spokeswoman for the Association of Multiethnic Americans based in California, that means the quest for a multiracial category continues.

"They're missing the boat with those of us who are mixed," she said.

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