Posted by ESC on June 30, 2003

Population Milestone Draws Attention on Question of Hispanic Identity

Monday, June 30, 2003

By George C. Armas, Associated Press

"WASHINGTON - Jean-Robert Lafortune considers himself Latino, but to the government he is not Hispanic. He checked off black as his race on his census form, but ask him directly and he will call himself Afro-Caribbean.

While the Census Bureau recently minted Hispanics as the nation's largest minority group, Lafortune is an example of the confusion over what it means to be Hispanic or Latino and the comparison with blacks and whites.

Hispanic first appeared in 1980 as a choice on a census questionnaire. The ethnic category is different from any other label the government uses in looking at Americans.

Hispanics can be of any race. There are white Hispanics, black Hispanics and Asian Hispanics, for example. Yet it is unclear what the category means.

Many, but not all, Hispanics speak Spanish. For some, ancestry in a Spanish-speaking country was many generations back.

'It's a little messy,' said Sonia Perez, deputy vice president for research for the National Council of La Raza (search), a Hispanic advocacy group...

'Latino is different from Hispanic,' said Lafortune, head of the Haitian American Grassroots Coalition in Miami. 'It's a wider definition of culture.'

Much of the confusion stems over the government defining Hispanic as an ethnicity, instead of a race. The 2000 census, for the first time, offered the option of identifying with more than one race.

Before 1970, the bureau tried to measure the Hispanic or Latino population by discerning the origin of a person's last name or asking the country of birth.

As immigration from Mexico began to grow in the 1960s and 1970s, pressure mounted to more accurately count Hispanics. The Census Bureau first gave an 'of Spanish heritage' option in 1970, and added the term 'Hispanic' in 1980."

On the 2000 census, the question was phrased, 'Is this person Spanish/Hispanic/Latino?' People who said 'yes' were asked to check off a box that identified them as Mexican, Puerto Rican, Cuban or a write-in box for another country of origin."