Ligia Cushman, who grew up in the predominantly Dominican Washington Heights neighborhood of New York City, where she recalls being told “you’re not black, you’re Dominican”, identified as Hispanic until what she moved to the Great South.
“This is where I had to come to terms with the fact that the world, the world’s broadest spectrum, doesn’t necessarily think of me as Hispanic,” said Cushman, 46.
While living in states such as Tennessee, Kentucky, and North Carolina, she has faced cases where her Latin American identity has been called into question. In particular, she recalled a case where a coworker told her that her team needed to hire a Hispanic woman, even though Cushman had worked for that team for five years.
“I thought it was a joke, and she literally wasn’t kidding,” she said. As a result of these kinds of experiences, she discovered the term Afro Latina, which embraced both her blackness and her Dominican roots.
“Identifying that way was what allowed me to conclude. And it also helped me learn to love myself,” she said.
As Hispanic Heritage Month kicks off, Latinos grapple with the decades-long debate over whether the pan-ethnic terms that exist to identify their communities truly represent their lived experiences.
The term Hispanic first appeared in the 1960s when Puerto Rican civil rights groups and others such as the La Raza National Council, now called UnidosUS, advocated for a way to count people who might trace their roots to the Spanish-speaking countries of Latin America, the Caribbean or Spain in order to identify specific needs and to fight for policies likely to improve their living conditions.
In 1968, President Lyndon Johnson signed a bill to celebrate Hispanic Heritage Week and recognize the contributions, diverse cultures, and long history of Hispanic and Latin American communities in the United States starting September 15.
But the federal government officially adopted the term Hispanic as a descriptor for this population in the 1970s under President Richard Nixon. It became a directive from the Office of Management and Budget in 1977, with the aim of including the term in the 1980 census count, according to Mark Hugo Lopez, director of race and ethnicity research at Pew Research Center.
Hispanic Heritage Week was later extended to Hispanic Heritage Month during President Ronald Reagan’s tenure in 1988. Over the next decade, other terms such as Latino and Latinx emerged, with Latino being included alongside Hispanic in the 2000 census.
Newer terms such as Afro Latino or Black Hispanic have also been adopted in academic spaces in recent years to highlight the particular experiences of blacks who also belong to other ethnic groups.
Alternative terms for Hispanic became crucial for Latinos like Alfredo Corona, who wanted to avoid the original term.
Corona, 26, said he “isn’t too keen on using terms like Hispanic and Latino,” which implicitly anchor ethnic identity to the colonial period of Latin America when the mixing occurred between indigenous peoples, white Europeans, black slaves from Africa and Asians. . Instead, he prefers to identify himself as Chicano, a term popularized by people of Mexican descent born in the United States in the 1960s, as it adds value to his native roots while also acknowledging his American upbringing.
He even pays homage to his roots through Chicano rap. Its artistic name, Aztec Speech, is an ode to the rapper known as Speech from the Atlanta-based hip-hop group Arrested Development – as well as to the Aztec tribes that once lived in central Mexico, where Mesoamerican culture took hold. prospered before the colonial period of Latin America. .
“We would really call ourselves Mexicas,” said Corona, who lives in the Atlanta metro area, of his rapper name before learning that Aztec was the term European colonizers used to describe Mexican tribes. “But I guess it’s too late now to change it.”
Fatima Garza also identifies as Chicana. But as an American Mexican living in South Texas, the 21-year-old identifies himself as a “fronteriza”, or a frontier. It is specifically someone who lives in the border area between the United States and Mexico and navigates both languages and cultures.
“We didn’t cross the border, the border crossed us. So there is this very unique experience,” Garza said. “My family went through this state of not being from Mexico, but not being from the United States. That’s why I find it so important to call myself a fronteriza.”