What defines Latinidad?
It’s a complicated question with a problematic answer. Amidst “Hispanic Heritage Month” it seems to me that, increasingly, labels are both empowering and constraining. This month is a reminder of the power of the Hispanic and Latinx community, a celebration of changemakers, artists, and identity. It is also a reminder of the problematic conceptualization of race and ethnicity that is rooted in white supremacy. If we are to move toward a more equitable education system, we need to wrestle with both the problematic nature of ascribing narrow definitions to vast experience and the importance of being able to identify oneself within a system.
Using the term Latinx is simultaneously empowering and oversimplifying. But nuance and duality is something Latinx are accustomed to, so I can hold two truths at once. Our systems need to be looking at experiences beyond broad categories of identity and at the intersection of identities. Moreover, during Hispanic Heritage Month we can coalesce around an understanding of Latinidad that is expansive and inclusive.
Hispanic heritage suggests that we are celebrating those that “come from” places colonized by Spain and therefore are Spanish-speaking: namely, Southern, and Central American countries (but not Brazil), and the Carribean Islands. Latinidad strives to be a more inclusive term, yet far too often it misses the mark. While it is not delimited merely by being a Spanish speaker, it still implies brownness in the U.S.. I straddle both these identities. I speak Spanish. I was born in a Carribean island with diverse people — the result of Spanish colonization of an island already inhabited with indigenous Carribean people (Tainos) and being at the geographic crossroads of the Transatlantic slave trade.
Transplanted from that context and placed in Colorado, I am ascribed different identities because I am also white. Rather than “Latina,” or “Boricua,” people assume “American.” And while “American” is included in the list of words that could describe me, it is not at the top of the list of words I choose. American is a word that doesn’t bring me a whole lot of pride these days because I feel it is increasingly used to exclude people who are not white. My experiences, however, do not mirror the experiences of those that look like me. My Latinidad is something I feel very intimately. Yet, friends will ask me, “how come Latinos count as ‘persons of color’?” — part of the problem here being that many Latinx who are black are thought of as black before Latinx, because it’s easier to see regardless of what they experience and may identify as. Latinidad certainly goes beyond “brownness” too. Having benefited from light skin and unaccented English, I am spared from the public disparagement that many of my immediate family members have faced here in Colorado, and many others face often. I fear not for myself, but for them.
Identity is a public thing that is “read” and private thing that is experienced, all at once. This is what makes it meaningful and important. The challenge lies in using one term that groups culture, language, and race as a catch-all. Some Latinx are black, some Latinx are white, and some don’t speak Spanish, but we do not treat Latinx accordingly. Boxing people into one category is painful for anyone with multiple identities, especially when identities are treated as mutually exclusive– something Latinx and Hispanic people are reminded of every time they fill out a government form, answering a question that so often doesn’t feel like the right one. Grouping such a diverse population together is a complex ontological project; but only if you need to box people into one category or another.
And yet, analyzing the outcomes of people after they have been put in these boxes is also one of the foundational components of the work I do on a daily basis. So, why do we bother looking at people through the lens of these imperfect boxes?
The main reason, for me, is that looking at student outcomes (by which we generally mean test scores, attendance, and other things that are easily measured by numbers) by race and ethnicity allows us to see what progress institutions are making towards addressing structural racism. These imperfect categories are imperfect proxies for student experiences. They let us know which schools and districts are making the most progress or which ones are not improving fast enough. This information also gives us a broad idea of where students are going. We can see how diverse schools are. We can see if there are vast inequalities in concentrated areas, and we can make guesses as to why that may be.
We do not understand how students’ diverse experiences are being served by a school. We do not know if a student feels welcome and happy about going to school (there is some data on student experiences as part of the Department of Public Health and Environment’s healthy kids survey, though that is seemingly under a consistent partisan threat). The data we receive, broken down into different categories is a way for us to see how a system is serving broad groups of students. The data we receive is not meant to fully encapture a whole student’s existence — that is impossible.
At the same time, we also can improve our data to better reflect the diversity inherent within these broad categories. As a recent partnership with the African Leadership Group points out, the experiences of the children of African immigrants or African immigrants themselves will be wildly different from the experiences of black or African-Americans that did not immigrate here. Similarly, the Latinx diaspora is a diverse group, facing different challenges.
Puerto Ricans need not worry about citizenship but may be profoundly troubled by the very real consequences of our homeland being neglected by the federal government amidst climate crises and a crumbling infrastructure. Central American children, from Guatemala, Honduras, and other countries, are often separated from their families at the U.S.-Mexico border. Our problems are not siloed (as money is taken away from re-building Puerto Rican schools and put towards building a border wall in response to a fabricated immigration crisis). Both groups of people may experience fear and powerlessness. We share a language, and “brownness”, broadly speaking. However, our lived experiences, needs, and challenges are dramatically different.
Recognizing that Latinx are a diverse group we can ask, “how can we better serve our Latinx students?” while understanding that the challenges Latinx face are staggeringly different; the cultural responsiveness required by our institutions exceeds making space and learning about one more language or one more color. We require our institutions to accept and proactively serve a population that exceeds their labels. And, we require our institutions to work harder to make sure that the labels we have are a better mirror of who is in our schools.