I have trouble whenever I have to fill out those demographics boxes on forms. I never quite know what to answer and still be truthful. I know I’m not alone in this, as the Mulligan Stew that is America is flavored with its demographic blends.
For me, stating race is easy—I’m unmistakably Caucasian. My genome, overwhelmingly, is from Europe: Spain, England, Switzerland, Ireland, and others as well. So, that part’s easy. At least it is when the race section on a form is actually demoing race, and not some race/ethnicity amalgam…but we’ll try to sort that out later.
Ethnicity is definitely a stumbling block. While my dad’s stock is non-Iberian European, my mom’s ancestors come overwhelmingly from Spain. So, confusing mix there. Complicating matters is the fact that my father’s family can trace its presence in America to 1776, in the newly declared United States, and my mom’s family can safely count back to about 1800 (likely much earlier) in New Spain — continuously living in what is now New Mexico.
From my dad’s side, I’m white European. But from my mom’s…well, I’m of Spanish decent — with an Englander and a few American Indians thrown in. Even so, am I Hispanic? I don’t look Hispanic, and I don’t speak Spanish to any degree of fluency. Even so, my home fires heat not bangers & mash or sauerbraten, but instead warm my heart and stomach with tortillas, frijoles, and chile.
The way most forms are phrased, the implication is that Hispanos/Latinos are immigrants to the U.S. My family is in the odd position of the U.S. absorbing us…we never moved. First we were Spanish, then Mexican, then American…all while planted on the same soil. While my mom’s family is largely Spanish-speaking, I am not (and neither are many of my cousins). Even so, I’ve spent more than half my life in the land of my maternal ancestors, and have been surrounded by the culture since I was born. Overall, though, it’s enough of a semantic and genetic muddle, that the forms make it difficult for me to choose.
After much consideration, I’ve decided to do what the forms allow me to do, even if it results in some inconsistency when comparing one form to another. If the forms clearly separate race from ethnicity, I put myself down as white for race and Hispanic/Latino for ethnicity. That’s about as accurate as I can get. On the other hand, if Hispanic is listed on the race section, and there is no clarifying ethnic section, I can really only put down White as Hispanic is not a race. It’s not really an accurate definition, but I feel that it’s as accurate as I can make it.
I can’t help but wonder: how much of a problem this is across the country? Just among celebrities, there’s certainly some curious situations. Jessica Alba has stated that with her mix she never really felt like a part of any specific ethnic group. Alexis Bledel, about as “white bread” as most could imagine, is of Argentine and Mexican parents; her first language was Spanish and didn’t learn English until she began school. Then there is our greatest fake president: Martin Sheen (née Ramón Gerardo Antonio Estévez) and his brood who aren’t immediately thought of as being especially “ethnic”. I was recently asked by a relative why there weren’t more Hispanics on TV or the movies. I told her that they were there, it’s just that you don’t see them unless they have an obviously Spanish surname…and sometimes not even then (witness Cameron Diaz or Joanna Garcia).
Actually, I’d just as soon be able to simply check a box that says “American Mix” and have done with it. At this point, just about everyone who’s been in this country for more than a couple generations will likely get to check that box. We’re a land of mutts, and I think that is fantastic. We should be celebrating that instead of trying to segregate us by arbitrary demographics. At the very least, form writers need to have a “check all that apply” instruction, instead of having to make us label ourselves as only an aspect of our background.