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.

Jun 02 2011

Learning to Speak a Language Correctly and Respectfully

Category: linguistics,multiculturalismJames @ 5:45 pm

I heard a story on NPR last week about Brazil.1 Whenever I hear a news story about Brazil, I get interested for obvious reasons: I am half Brazilian, I lived in Brazil for two years as a young adult, I speak fluent Portuguese, and I minored in Latin American studies in college. But this post isn’t about the subject matter of the NPR story, but rather about some common linguistic mistakes made by the reporter. Whenever the reported said any word in Portuguese, he made a point to not use standard American English pronunciations of the word. But he didn’t use the correct Portuguese pronunciation either. Instead, he pronounced every Portuguese word he said as if it were Spanish. Even though he spoke unaccented English, it was clear to me from hearing his pronunciation of Portugese that he as a native Spanish speaker, and obviously had a poor command (if any) of Portuguese. This was confirmed to me when, at the the end of the report, he signed off with a clearly Hispanic name, Juan Forero. A quick check of his bio revealed that he is originally from Columbia.2

Aside from grating on my ears and stoking my pet peeve with people who assume that Portuguese and Spanish are identical and interchangeable (they’re not, for example, Brazilian Portuguese has a whole slew of vowel sounds not found in Spanish), the reporter’s habit of trying to inject foreign pronunciations into his English was a bad habit that far too many people intentionally adopt as if it were a virtue. I can think of several reasons people develop this practice: 1) national/linguistic pride – some bilingual people think that it is an insult to their native language or culture to adopt foreign pronunciations of words from their native language, even when they are using those words while speaking another language; 2) cultural sensitivity: some people think that, in order to show respect for other languages and cultures, they must pronounce words from a foreign culture or language using a pronunciation correct for a speaker of that foreign language, even when they are using those words while speaking a separate language.

There are several reasons why it is a bad idea to incorporate foreign pronunciations into your speech:

Language Learning

This is the biggest reason, in my mind, to avoid mixing foreign pronunciations (or foreign words) into your native language conversation is that it interferes with language learning. My personal experience with many American English speakers in Brazil who were learning Portuguese was that the people who never learned to speak Portuguese very well would usually quickly develop two bad habits: 1) they would mix up words from the two languages (for example, getting in the habit of using Portuguese nouns when speaking English, even though there was a perfectly good English equivalent available – saying arroz e feijão to refer to Brazilian-style rice and beans, for example), and 2) when they were speaking English, they would try to pronounce Portuguese words with a Portuguese accent, and when they were speaking Portuguese, they would pronounce English words with their native American accents.

The pattern of poor language learners not separating the two languages became clearest to me when I met one particular American who could speak Portuguese with a near-native level of fluency (most Brazilians couldn’t tell that he was American); whenever this guy would speak English, though, he would pronounce any occasional Portuguese word in the conversation (such as proper nouns or words that didn’t have an English equivalent) with the worst American accent you could imagine. I finally realized that part of his ability to speak Portuguese so well came from strictly separating the two languages in his mind.

The people who were constantly mixing pronunciations almost never gained a very high level of Portuguese language fluency. They spoke Portuguese with thick American accents, generally had a poor vocabulary, and were frequently unable to fully express themselves in Portuguese. My theory is that their mixing of languages interfered with their brain’s ability to learn and fully integrate the new pronunciations, vocabulary, and grammar.

This first reason for not mixing languages, however, doesn’t apply to people who learned to speak multiple languages as a child – children’s brains have an amazing capacity to learn languages that is lost with the start of adolescence.

Efficient Communication

The purpose of language is to communicate. A speaker who uses foreign pronunciations from a language that is not understood by the speaker’s listeners is defeating the whole purpose of using language. When someone uses foreign pronunciations, they just cause decreased understanding and comprehension; it just increases the risk that a listener won’t understand the speaker’s words. It can also make the listener afraid to talk to you. My mom (who has lived in the United States since before I was born) used to pronounce her first name with the correct Brazilian pronunciation (and would sometimes correct people when they messed up). It just made people afraid to talk to my mom or to say her name, because they were afraid of “getting it wrong.” Years ago, she switched to using an anglicized pronunciation of her name, and it has made life easier for her and everyone else too.

Respect for Listeners

If you’re speaking one language to a group of people, switching into another language not understood by your listeners shows a lack of respect and cultural sensitivity for your listeners. It is a form of cultural and linguistic imperialism, demonstrating disdain for the language you are speaking, and trying to impose new cultural and linguistic norms on your listeners without their consent.

It Leads to Errors

Often, people who try to adopt foreign pronunciations get it terribly wrong. Juan Forero’s errors in rhat NPR story are a perfect example. Alex Trebek from from the TV game show Jeopardy is another – he tries to pronounce Portuguese words correctly, but ends up with some weird pseudo-French pronunciation that is completely wrong. Juan Forero’s and Alex Trebek’s mistakes are worse than just using an anglicized pronunciation. By giving listeners the wrong idea about how those words are pronounced, their mispronunciations actually perpetuate mistakes and cultural misunderstanding.