US Catholic Faith in Real Life

Redefining la raza

Father Tom Joyce CMF | Print this pagePrint | Email this pageShare

There use to be an unspoken pattern to Hispanic migration to the United States: Mexicans drifted to Los Angeles or South Texas, Puerto Ricans—soon followed by Dominicans—to New York City. Cubans stayed in Miami for a quick return to Havana that never came. Mexicans and Puerto Ricans shared Chicago—Mexicans on the Southwest side and Puerto Ricans on the Northwest. Over the years Central Americans drifted into Florida and the nation’s capital, and Mexicans followed meatpacking into the plains states.

The recent plague of xenophobic nastiness in state laws aren’t confined to Arizona and Utah, who have long known Hispanics, but are now popping up in Georgia, Indiana, and Alabama. The latest census confirms the spread of the 50 million-plus Latino population across the entire nation. Our largest minority, they are now on the way to being the majority in the latter part of the 21st century, according to projections.

But a funny thing is happening on the way to that majority: It’s getting more diverse every day. The most recent census gave respondents more choice when selecting their racial identity—mostly to accommodate the growing number of mixed race individuals. We have long had black Hispanics—look at any major league baseball team—and they have usually identified as Hispanics first. They are unmindful of color or that racial prejudice has a long nasty history in their homelands.

The result of the 2010 census of New York City has added another twist to those identifying as Latino or Hispanic. Out of the 57,000 who identified themselves as American Indian in New York City, 40,000 were Latino from Mexico; the rest were from Latin America. Even families long established in the United States check American Indian and Hispanic on their census forms.

Why are these Latino indigenous suddenly popping up in the nation’s tally? Well, in part they were always there, only now they can declare their true identity. (I remember having helped some Dominican Sisters in Florida organize Guatemalan Indians set up a sewing co-op to make and market black clerical shirts in the 1970s.) But it also reflects that their numbers are growing.

The New York Times suggests it's one of the unintended consequences of the North American Trade Agreements. NAFTA weaken the ejido system whereby Indians cooperatively held land—the legacy of Emiliano Zapata. Within weeks of its passage, Indians in Chiapas rebelled. That started a drift of Indians, often poor Spanish speakers, into Mexican cities and then on to El Norte. Now they are being joined by their Central and South American brothers and sisters.

While they make up but a sliver of the 54 million who identified themselves as Hispanic/Latino in the census, the Latino community is taking notice, especially if you are to judge from the number of Indian dances local Mexican folkloric groups are integrating into their ensembles. It all cautions us to recognize there is no single Hispanic experience but a very diverse and ever changing new reality in our national life.