Jun 21 2012

Latino or Hispanic – What’s the Difference?

A recent story on our local NPR station about Latino and Hispanics included a short interview with me. You can find it here (the story is from the Fronteras Desk, which is a cooperative effort between several NPR stations in the Southwest to provide coverage of issues relevant to the Southwest and border states – their stories are heard on the NPR stations in San Diego, Phoenix, Las Vegas, Alburque, El Paso, and San Antonio).

As the story indicates, their impetus for doing the story was a letter that I wrote to my local NPR station, KJZZ. I wrote the letter in response to a story they did about whether people in the United States with origins in Latin America prefer the term “Hispanic” or “Latino.” You can read that story here. This is the letter I wrote to them:

First, I want to compliment you on the excellent and comprehensive reporting coming from your Fronteras stories. I take issue, however, with your recent story about preferences for the use of the terms “Hispanic” and “Latino” (“Study: ‘Latino’ and ‘Hispanic’ Not The Preferred Labels” by Nadine Arroyo Rodriguez, April 4, 2012).

It is unfortunate that in a story about the labels Latinos and Hispanics apply to themselves, you carelessly used as synonyms two labels that are not interchangeable. Ms. Rodriguez used the terms Hispanic and Latino as equivalent terms referring exclusively to persons of Spanish-speaking origin. While these terms have sometimes been erroneously conflated in US government census documents and by the Pew Hispanic Center, it is not proper general English usage to treat them as synonyms. Moreover, the lead to your story erroneously referred to “people of Latin American descent,” even though the survey at issue in the story ignored the one-third of Latin Americans who speak Portuguese.

Recognized authorities on the English language, such as the American Heritage Dictionary, point out that the terms Hispanic and Latino are not synonymous. The term “Hispanic” refers exclusively to those whose ethnic origins trace back to Spanish-speaking countries. The term “Latino,” however, is not limited only to Spanish speakers, but is also frequently used to refer to persons whose ethnic origins trace back to Latin America. Latin America includes Brazil, which as I’m sure you know, is a Portuguese-speaking country. Indeed, there are more Portuguese speakers in South America than Spanish speakers.

Brazilian-Americans commonly use the term “Latino” to identify themselves. The AP Stylebook makes a distinction between the terms Hispanic and Latino; it recognizes that Latino includes not just those of Spanish-speaking origin but also more generally includes those from Latin America (including Brazilians). There are nearly 400,000 Americans of Brazilian ancestry in the United States (including me) and 200 million people in Brazil. It appears careless to me to use terms that ignore Brazilians’ significant presence in our country and hemisphere.

I realize that your story was based on the results of the Pew survey and was perhaps mirroring Pew’s usage of the terms. But previous KJZZ stories have also made this same error. Additionally, even if Ms. Rodriguez was repeating the terminology used by the Pew Center, repeating such specialized non-standard usages without explanation is confusing to listeners. I suggest that in the future, your usually careful and insightful reporters more clearly delineate the difference between the terms Hispanic and Latino in their reporting. KJZZ would do well to follow the recommendations from the AP Stylebook and use more care and precision when choosing whether to use the term Hispanic or Latino.

James Rogers

I wrote the letter not expecting much of a response. To my surprise, I received a response indicating that my letter had ignited a debate in their newsroom and asking if they could interview me for a story about terminology and self-identity.

The interview was a new experience for me. We talked for about 15 minutes, but only 10 seconds of our interview ended up in the story. If you listen to the audio for the story, you’ll notice that it is slightly different than the written version. The main difference is that the written version says said I “fancy” myself a Latino – to me, that seemed to carry an mocking tone, as if I’m portraying myself as something I’m not. Well, I really am half-Brazilian. My mom grew up poor in a little town in the middle of nowhere in Brazil (she even lived in a house with dirt floors and no running water for a few years as a kid). Her parents were born and raised in Brazil. And so were her grandparents. And so were her great grandparents. As far as we can tell, all of my Brazilian ancestors go back into the mid- to early 1800s, and probably further back. I wonder if because my last name is Rogers and because I’m pale-faced and blue-eyed, they didn’t think I can really claim Latin American heritage.

I frequently encounter this kind of ignorance in Americans’ conceptions about Latin America. Latin America has significant populations of just about every racial background. Just in Brazil there are large populations of people tracing their ancestry to Europe (all parts – north and south, east and west), Africa, the Middle East (there is a large number – 7 to 10 million – of Brazilians descended from Lebanese Christians who came to Brazil in the first half of the 20th century; in fact, one of the biggest fast food chains in Brazil is a place that makes Middle Eastern fast food), and Asia (Brazil has the largest population of ethnic Japanese people outside of Japan). There is even a large community of descendants of Confederate Americans who went to Brazil following the south’s loss in the American Civil War. They are known as the “Confederados” and still have annual get-togethers where they dress up in Confederate uniforms and sing American folk songs (in badly-accented English).

Brazil especially is a real melting pot of racial and ethnic backgrounds. As I’ve mentioned before, my 23andMe results indicate that my direct maternal ancestor is of African origin, probably from Mozambique. The rudimentary analysis available on 23andme estimated that I have about 1 percent African ancestry and 3 percent indigenous ancestry. More detailed analysis indicates that I am about 1.7% African and about 4% Asian (which in my case would really be Amerindian, since Amerindians show up on genetic tests as Asian because their ancestors came to the New World across the Bering Strait from Asia). I show up as being about 10% Middle Eastern / North African (my guess is that this comes from the Moors who occupied the Iberian Peninsula), 29% Mediterranean, and 53% European (42% west and 11% East) (numbers don’t add up to 100% because of rounding).

The way they have it in the NPR story, they seem to imply that I am improperly putting myself out as being Latino. The reality is that I am uncomfortable with the whole concept of asking people to identify themselves by race or ethnicity. I am especially uncomfortable with the way that our society conflates the two distinct concepts of ethnicity (such as Jewish or Latino) with race (such as black or white). I do not really self-identity as Latino. I love Brazil, my Brazilian relatives, and my Brazilian heritage, but I identify as an American.

To prepare for the interview, I asked my Brazilian family and friends on Facebook about what they thought about the terms “Latino” and “Hispanic” and whether the terms apply to people of Brazilian ancestry. The pattern that I noticed in the responses (though admittedly from a small sample size) was that people born and raised in Brazil – whether they have immigrated to the United States or whether they still live in the United States – did not seem to identify with the term Latino at all. People of Brazilian ancestry who were born in the United States, or younger Brazilians who have spent time overseas seemed to be more comfortable with the term Latino but didn’t feel that it was a perfect descriptor.

What I told the reporter was that I almost always mark “other” on forms (my only exception is if it seems like an official government form that appears to require full disclosure, like a juror questionnaire). I really consciously started making a point of marking “other” on forms when I was filing out my law school applications. I wanted to know for myself that, at whatever law school I ended up, I got in there on merit and not because of affirmative action or any special advantage from my ancestral background. The reporter asked me directly, though, if I would qualify as a Latino. In response to that direct question I said that I believe I would qualify since my mother is Latin American. This is where the quote from the story came from.

My main point in writing the original letter to the radio station was because I get frustrated when people incorrectly assume that all Latin Americans are speak Spanish (I cannot count the number of times when I was growing up that people assumed that my mother speaks Spanish because she is from Brazil). If the journalists involved remember in their reporting that Latin America is not all Spanish-speaking and if the story educates a few more people, then I think my letter was worth it.

Jul 13 2011

Why Don’t Brazilians Emigrate?

What is the most commonly-spoken language in South America? If you said Spanish, you’re wrong. It’s Portuguese. Portuguese is the unexpected winner (unexpected, at least, in most Americans’ minds) because Brazil is such a big country (bigger than the continental United States). Brazil is the fifth most populous country in the world, with a population of nearly 200 million (only China, India, the United States, and Indonesia have bigger populations).1 In 2007 the U.S. Census Bureau estimated, however, that only about 250,000 Brazilians were living in the United States.2

This means that about .13% of Brazilians have emigrated to the United States. Compared to other similar countries, this is a small number. For example, there are about 135,000 Argentines living in the United States,3 out of a total Argentine population of about 40 million4 and there are about 70,000 Chileans living in the United States,5 out of a total Chilean population of 17 million.6 This means that about .34% of Argentines and about .41% of Chileans live in the United States. The proportion of Argentines in the United States is thus over two and a half times greater than the proportion of Brazilians and the proportion of Chileans in the United States is more than three times greater. So why don’t Brazilians emigrate as much as other Latin Americans? This post gives my completely anecdotal explanations.

My observations are based on my family background and personal experience. My mother is Brazilian and immigrated to the United States when she was in her 20s. Out of the eight children in her family, she and only one sister have come to the U.S., while the other six siblings have stayed in Brazil. In my own personal experience, I have lived in Brazil as an adult, speak Portuguese, and minored in Latin American studies as an undergraduate. Here are my explanations for the relative rarity of Brazilian migration to the United States:

1. Internal migration. Brazil is a large continental country with a growing economy and increasing opportunities. The big cities of in the relatively wealthy state of São Paulo (it it were its own country, the state of São Paulo would be the 16th-largest economy in the world7) are inundated with immigrants from the Northeast of Brazil seeking jobs and better opportunities. It is far easier to migrate within your own country (and thus avoid the necessity of learning another language and adapting to a new culture).

2. Opportunities are available for the ambitious. My mother’s family was relatively poor when she was a child (they even lived in a dirt-floor house for a while). Even though Brazil’s growth has been inconsistent over the last 40 years, the general trend has been upward over that time. For those who are ambitious and smart, there are good opportunities for a prosperous life in Brazil. It is not as easy for the poor in Brazil to escape their poverty, but it is possible. In spite of their humble background, all of my mom’s siblings are solidly middle class and enjoy good lives in Brazil. I don’t think any of my Brazilian aunts and uncles or cousins would ever consider leaving — they have everything they need in their own country.

3. Sentimentality. Brazilians are much more openly affectionate and devoted to their relationships with friends and family than most Americans and they would see the separation as a huge drawback.

4. Patriotism and national pride. Brazilians are proud of their country, its potential for greatness, and its achievements (just ask a Brazilian who invented the airplane — they will vehemently deny that it was the Wright brothers, but instead insist that it was a Brazilian named Santos Dumont). They don’t want to leave and give up something to which they feel so much attachment and pride.

5. The lack of a large Brazilian diaspora. It is easier to emigrate when you are going to a place that already has living there a large group of your fellow countryman who speak your language and can help you adapt to your new country. The lack of many large Brazilian migrant communities in the United States makes it more difficult to immigrate. In the places where there is an established Brazilian community — Massachusetts (which has its roots in early-20th century Portuguese cod fisherman who immigrated there first), New Jersey, and Miami — there are plenty of new Brazilian immigrants.

(As an interesting aside: there was a 2005 Brazilian novela (daily nighttime serialized TV show) which was set in Florida and dramatized the plight of immigrants in Brazil. The novela was called “América.” Even though the novela portrayed a generally negative view of illegal immigration and of life in the United States, illegal immigration from Brazil to the United States temporarily skyrocketed as a result of the novela. Perhaps another explanation is that the lack of immigration is because of a lack of general knowledge about potential options to immigrate. The United States is close to Mexico and Central America, so knowledge about options for migration is easier for citizens of those countries, and the cultural and linguistic ties they have with Spanish speaking countries in South America perhaps makes that knowledge more widespread in places like Argentina and Chile than in Brazil.)

This post was based on a comment I left here.