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Pigments of Our Imagination: On the Racialization and Racial Identities of ‘Hispanics’ and ‘Latinos’

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How do “Latinos” or “Hispanics” fit in the country’s “white racial frame”? Are they a “race” – or more precisely, a racialized category? If so, how and when did that happen? Does not the U.S. Census Bureau insist (or has since the 1970s) on putting an asterisk next to the label – uniquely among official categories – indicating that “Hispanics may be of any race”? Is it a post-1960s, post-Civil Rights-era term, not fraught with the racial freight of a past in which for more than a century, in Texas since 1836 and the rest of the Southwest after 1848, “Mexican” was disparaged as a subordinate caste by most “Anglos”? The use of the label “Latino” or “Hispanic” is itself an act of homogenization, lumping diverse peoples together into a Procrustean aggregate. But are they even a “they”? Is there a “Latino” or “Hispanic” ethnic group, cohesive and self-conscious, sharing a sense of peoplehood in the same way that there is an “African American” people in the United States? Or is it mainly an administrative shorthand devised for statistical purposes, a one-size-fits-all label that subsumes diverse peoples and identities? Is the focus on “Hispanics” or “Latinos” as a catchall category (let alone “the browning of America”) misleading, since it conceals the enormous diversity of contemporary immigrants from Spanish-speaking Latin America, obliterating the substantial generational and class differences among the groups so labeled, and their distinct histories and ancestries? How do the labeled label themselves? What racial meaning does the pan-ethnic label have for the labeled, and how has this label been internalized, and with what consequences? This chapter considers these questions, focusing primarily on official or state definitions and on the way such categories are incorporated by those so classified.

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