Spanish. Hispanic. Latino. Latinx.
These are terms that others have used to describe my identity throughout my life. Broadly, the words categorize people from regions that were formerly colonized by “Latin Europe,” specifically France, Portugal and Spain. While many people use these terms as demographic tools, they can also be used to construct a homogenized cultural identity within the U.S. It is harmful to use “Latino” as a cultural marker because it creates a monolith out of a diverse set of peoples.
In the present day, “Latino” is mostly used within the U.S. to denote those from Latin America. Yet the term is not a racial category like “black,” “white” or “Asian.” Although the U.S. has used the word for demographic purposes since the 2000 census, using the term as the building block of cultural identity causes more harm than good, as it is rooted in both geography and colonization. It’s an important descriptor of people of Latin American descent in demographic studies like the census, as it explains a common cultural background that race-markers like “white” fail to encompass. “Latino” also explains a shared history of colonialism under “Latin Europe” and pertains to those from Latin countries. This connection harkens back to the brutal genocide of indigenous Americans and the enslavement of West Africans during colonization. Names have significance, and “Latino’” locates our identities with the colonizers, forcing us to relive our colonial history while glorifying it as what ties us together. Yet we should not celebrate colonization or uphold the former colonial masters as our connection; we have enough culture and traditions, separate from Iberia.
Under the simple term “Latino,” we risk conflating the vast array of languages, cultures, gastronomies, religious practices, geographies, biomes and people found in the region. The Caribbean is home to a number of tropical islands, while South America is blessed with stunning jewels of nature such as the Andes and the Amazon. Racial diversity is also prevalent in Latin American history. Black people have been inextricably linked to the region from 1492 through the formation of salsa and reggaeton. There are also dozens of indigenous cultures in the region, such as the Mapuche, Quechua, Inca, Zapotec and others, all of whom carry on their diverse traditions. In Mexico alone, there are 62 confirmed spoken indigenous languages.
The use of “Latino” promotes the misconception that all Latin Americans are the same. Because I have Mexican and Puerto Rican roots, I know that the two cultures are as distinct as apples and oranges. For example, Puerto Ricans are generally as averse to spicy food as WASPs, while Mexicans are famous for adding peppers to everything. The music, fashions and dialects are night and day; reggaeton compared to corridos; pozole to pernil; and of course, the rapid cadence of Boricua-talk with dropped “s”s compared to the song-like cadence of Mexican Spanish.
Even within Mexico, the idea that a singular Mexican identity exists and encompasses a wide variety of experiences is preposterous. The culture in the state of Jalisco is distinct from the Federal District of Mexico City. Each state and city have their own foods, songs and slang. Constructing a monolith at the national level is harmful and excludes many traditions, but to do this at the international level is worse — if you compare someone from Guadalajara, Mexico, to someone from San Juan, Puerto Rico, you would find distinct ways of life. To categorize these two people as the same does not make sense.
This exemplifies the systematic erasure of identity in the U.S. As someone of Puerto Rican and Mexican descent, I do not want to be placed into one small, digestible label. I want to be understood as a complex person with a cultural heritage that spans varying climates, foods and dialects.
At Emory, the diversity of those categorized as “Latino” is on full display. Student groups like the Latino Student Organization, Greek Life and various clubs showcase the strength of the diverse “Latino” population. I have met those of Puerto Rican descent to international students from Colombia, first-generation Hondurans, Cuban immigrants, QuestBridge scholars and those with wealthy parents and swanky summer houses.
While people categorized as “Latino” often share a common language, it is better to be specific with one’s cultural and ethnic identity, to be patient and to respect the complexities of other identities. Rather than being unimaginative and hurried, we should slow down and learn about each other’s heritage. I have seen immigrants from Latin America, along with their children, form a variety of communities in the U.S. These groups are proof that people from different paths of life and varying cultures can live with one another while celebrating their differences.
I am a Puerto Rican Mexican raised in the American South; I am proud to be from three distinct homelands. I will act in solidarity with those from Latin America, but I will not pretend that we have the same experiences.
Omar Obregon-Cuebas (20C) is from Greensboro, N.C.