Latinos: Re-Thinking Identity and Leadership

By Patricia Foxen, Deputy Director of Research, NCLR

girl with momFor the past few years, the Pew Research Center’s Hispanic Trends Project (previously the PEW Hispanic Center) has released survey data showing how Latinos around the country think about questions of identity and leadership within the Hispanic community.  PEW’s latest release on the subject echoes previous years’ findings that most Latinos (54 percent) identify more in terms of their family’s Hispanic origin term (such as Mexican or Cuban) over any shared national or panethnic identity, that a significant portion feels that they share few or no basic values (19 percent) with other Latinos, and that Latinos are roughly equally divided about whether they think of themselves as “typical Americans” or not.

Highlighted in media headlines, however, was the finding that a full 62 percent of respondents could not name “the most important Hispanic leader in the country today” and that 9 percent said there is no such leader—even as three-quarters felt that it is “extremely” or “very” important to have such a national leader.  Unfortunately, the image conveyed through this story line is one of a rather fragmented, leaderless ethnic group—over 52 million people nationwide—who share little in common. 

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There is no question that the Latino population in the U.S. is large, diverse, and constantly changing.  Volumes of papers have been written by academics dissecting the social construction of Latino ethnic identity.  How to define and count our growing community has been the subject of long-term discussion and research at the U.S Census Bureau, which is currently considering an alternative race/ethnicity measurement for Latinos.  Even within our communities, the labels used are up for grabs, with some of us insisting that “Hispanic” is correct, many vigorously defending “Latino,” while most, when asked, say they do not care one way or the other.

Hands on a globeIn fact, the beauty of the Latino population lies in its very complexity:  it is dynamic and hybrid, concepts that counter old-school, static notions of what it means to belong to a particular social or ethnic group.  “Latino-ness” encompasses a range of countries of origin, races, social classes, cultures, languages, religions, and generations, among other attributes.  Not only different ancestries and histories, but regional variations within the U.S. shape our identities.  Many of us identify as bilingual and bi-cultural—able to balance differing languages, cultures, and perspectives—while others might describe their identity as a merging of core U.S. values with a particular Latino (or Colombian or Puerto Rican, etc.) legacy or sensibility.

These tendencies shift through time, changing with each new generation and as immigrants become more integrated.  Clearly, the attitudes and perspectives of a fifth generation, English-dominant Texan of Mexican ancestry will differ from those of a Spanish-dominant Honduran agricultural worker who arrived in North Carolina in the past decade or from a Puerto Rican in the Bronx whose relatives moved from the island with different migratory waves.

Despite these variations, both long-standing and emerging Latino communities throughout the country are increasingly coming together to revitalize social, economic, and political dynamics both locally and nationally.  Rather than viewing this diversity as fragmentation, it is more like a multicolored yarn contributing its own hues to the vibrant fabric of our nation.  Latinos may come in different strands, but as a whole we desire what most commonsense Americans want:  the opportunity to work and live within a healthy, safe, and dignified environment that is conducive to the well-being of our families and communities.

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Janet Murguía, NCLR President and CEO

Given this richness, it stands to reason that similar to the Latino population itself, Hispanic leaders are also abundant and diverse.  Rather than iconic or all-encompassing—as the notion of a single national leader suggests—our leaders tend to be firmly and organically grounded in diverse local communities and their needs.  Latino leaders head community-based organizations, advocate for immigrants and workers, teach children, serve on state legislatures, and start businesses; indeed, while most survey respondents could not name “the most important Hispanic leader in the country,” they most likely would be able to name influential Latinos who are making a difference in their communities and states.  Moreover, not being able to name one leader can, in fact, be interpreted as a positive development, indicating the integration of the Hispanic community within the national texture, as well as the fact that Latino leaders are to be found throughout the country.

In today’s environment, a strong national Latino voice, which has clearly resounded at key moments, such as the 2012 presidential election, is taking shape from the bottom up, arising from a multitude of voices.  This upstream movement includes diversity and dialogue and represents a dynamic process of collective transformation and empowerment.  This is a good thing for Latinos and for our American democracy.  Furthermore, as the 2012 election demonstrated that when Latinos do share strong views on a leader, or agenda, they can be a powerful force for change.<

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