By Diana Castro
The US Census form for 2020 will feature updated wording for the Native American race category and for the first time will include Aztec and Mayan under the tribes listed. This change is happening after decades of requiring Native American respondents to list their “principal or enrolled tribe.” This small change will have an impact on the number of Latinxs that check the box, especially for those that haven’t checked it in the past due to confusion surrounding the tribal affiliation follow-up requirement, which notably is not required for any other race.
It’s not news to Latinxs that filling out a census form has been confusing in the past. We are a diverse people and a large number of us are of mixed race. However, this is not reflected in recent Census data despite a majority of Latin American countries listing “mestizos” as their racial majority.
It seems like most forms I filled out growing up opted to keep things simple and would lump Hispanic/Latino into the same category as everyone else, but the census for some reason always had a separate box in addition to race. In 2010 it explicitly stated on the questionnaire that “hispanic origins are not races.” That’s what made it confusing. I’d never really thought I was anything other than Peruvian or Latina, but those weren’t listed in the race category.
Apparently, I wasn’t alone. The Pew Research Center reported in 2015 that the census bureau was contemplating combining all ethnicities, races and origins into one question to reduce the number of responses that were a variation of Latin American ethnicity, which they classified as an ethnicity and not a race. However, after a sample survey, the census bureau found that 81% of Latinxs chose to select only the “Hispanic/Latino” option and nothing else. The PRC also offered this insight from their article titled, “Is being Hispanic a matter of race, ethnicity or both?”:
- “When it comes to reporting their racial identity, Latinos stand out from other Americans. In the 2010 census, for example, 94% of the U.S. population selected at least one of the five standard, government-defined racial categories – white, black, Asian, American Indian or Pacific Islander. But among Latinos, just 63% selected at least one of these categories; 37% of Latinos, or 19 million, instead selected only “some other race,” with many offering write-in responses such as “Mexican,” Hispanic” or “Latin American.”
- “A new  Pew Research Center survey of multiracial Americans finds that, for two-thirds of Hispanics, their Hispanic background is a part of their racial background – not something separate. This suggests that Hispanics have a unique view of race that doesn’t necessarily fit within the official U.S. definitions.”
In 2011, the Census Bureau released a brief titled “Overview of Race and Hispanic Origin: 2010”. This is what I found most interesting:
- “For the 2010 Census, a new instruction was added immediately preceding the questions on Hispanic origin and race, which was not used in Census 2000. The instruction stated that “For this census, Hispanic origins are not races” because in the federal statistical system, Hispanic origin is considered to be a separate concept from race. However, this did not preclude individuals from self-identifying their race as “Latino,” “Mexican,” “Puerto Rican,” “Salvadoran,” or other national origins or ethnicities; in fact, many did so.”
- In 2010, 6 percent of Hispanics reported multiple races.
- Over half of the Hispanic population identified as White and no other race, while about one-third provided responses that were classified as Some Other Race alone when responding to the question on race. Much smaller proportions of Hispanics identified as other race groups alone: Black alone (3 percent), American Indian and Alaska Native alone (1 percent), Asian alone (0.4 percent), and Native Hawaiian and Other Pacific Islander alone (0.1 percent).
What is most interesting about both of these reports and many of the other reports I’ve read, is that they don’t really go into any detail about what the racial makeup of Latin American countries actually are. Looking at most Latin American countries, you will find mestizos as the majority.
In fact, the CIA World Fact Book report on Mexican demographics shows that a majority (62%) of Mexicans are “mestizo (Amerindian-Spanish),” and 28% are “Amerindian or predominantly Amerindian,” while only 10% identify as “mostly European,” and 1.2% identified as Afro-Mexican. Mexicans make up the largest percentage of Latinxs in the US. How is it that the US statistics vary so much from the Mexican ones?
How Latinxs Became a Thing and What We Can Do About the Race Thing
In Latin America, most countries use the word indigena to describe people of Native American ancestry and mestizos to describe people of mixed Native American and European/Spanish ancestry. Many Afro-Latinxs are also a mix of mestizo or European with African. However, the US government has recently chosen to confine Latinxs to a separate category while also having historically made it difficult to select something that encompasses what the word mestizos means to Latinxs. Our tendency to identify as Latinxs and our country of origin is a point of pride and, ironically, likely also a response to being told that is what we are for so long.
The topic of the Census can go in so many directions and I’m not here to teach you the full history of the Census and the many ways it has been messed up throughout history, or to explain why you’d best fill it out (and you better!). I’m here to talk to Latinxs, specifically those that have Native American ancestry, about our identity.
Looking at past census questionnaires is like looking at a decade-by-decade snapshot of racial relations, diversity, and economic development in the United States. The way the federal government has classified Latinxs in the US has changed a lot over the last 90 years and this recent change in the census questionnaire is coincidentally happening at the same time as nationalistic rhetoric and racial tensions are on the rise in this country.
While researching past Census questionnaires I didn’t run into anything Latinx-specific until I got to 1930 and found “Mexicans” listed under the race category. That designation was short-lived and the federal government decided to remove Mexicans from the race category for the following three censuses from 1940-1960. The Census wouldn’t make full mention of Latinxs again until 1980.
In 1970, a select sample of census questionnaires listed the following options under a birthplace and descent category: Mexican, Puerto Rican, Cuban, Central or South American, and “Other Spanish”. However, the majority of the 1970 questionnaires still confined Latinxs to selecting one race under the race category or selecting other and clarifying.
By 1980, the government decided to treat the Latinx problem by including a separate question asking if respondents were of “Spanish/Hispanic origin or descent”. It’s important to note again that people were only allowed to select one race until the 2000 census; that’s 70 years of data on Latinxs that is pretty skewed.
It was actually a conversation with a couple of canvassers that came knocking on the doors at my job last week that prompted me to write this. I work in Pilsen in Chicago and the women that came knocking were super friendly. I told them I didn’t live there but I was curious about a few things. I asked them right away whether or not I was allowed to check Native American as a race, if I didn’t belong to a tribe. For context, this all happened before I’d been made aware of the changes to to 2020 census language for Native Americans and I believe they were likely unaware of the changes at the time as well.
What surprised me was that they weren’t sure if I was allowed to and what surprised me more was the fact that they weren’t actually allowed to guide people in that way. I asked them what they’d put in the past and they reiterated that they weren’t allowed to guide me. I made mention of how I felt that most Latinxs here in the US were afraid or confused about checking the Native American category and we talked for a bit about that. As we talked, I learned that they were both Mexican and had been confused about that, too.
The first census form my family filled out was in 2000. As the oldest sibling, and honorary translator, I stood next to my mom as the older, white man that came to our door instructed her to select only white as our family’s race. My mother is a fair-skinned Peruvian, but that wasn’t accurate and it didn’t feel right. This memory has stuck with me for 20 years because even at 11 years old, I knew it was wrong. By the time the 2010 census came around, I was still a bit confused and did not check the Native American box again. I was stuck on the follow-up: “Print name of enrolled or principal tribe.” My family wasn’t in a tribe, we’re from Lima, Peru. It was weird because no other race category asked for a tribe name. That year I settled with writing in Latin American as my race, and Peru for my country of origin. I felt that nothing else listed made sense for me.
I’d obviously heard of the word mestiza before seeing it printed on my Peruvian birth certificate, but I never really identified with it when I was younger. I grew up in a neighborhood known as Albany Park in Chicago and it seemed like everyone around me was from somewhere else. I identified myself mostly as Peruvian and as a youngster it never really bothered me that I had to check the Hispanic box, after a while it just made sense to me. I paid little attention to the labels this government gave out. For some reason, though, seeing mestiza written on my birth certificate really made it click for me that mestizos are part Native American. That I was part Native American. I don’t know why, but after that, I started feeling like all the forms I was filling out (and had been filling out all my life) were making it hard for me to say I was Native American.
All of this thinking started during the good old Obama days, but it started to bother me much more after seeing how the Trump administration and ICE were separating families at the border and allowing for migrant children to be placed in what can only be described as cages. It was wrong that Latinxs trying to come to this country to better their lives were being barred from moving freely through this continent by people whose families had immigrated here for the same reason. I took it upon myself to remind any jerk I encountered that most Latinxs are also Native American and have just as much right as anyone else to come to this country.
It’s unclear how many Latinxs with Native American ancestry have misclassified themselves over the decades or how many have chosen not to fill a form out due to fears regarding their legal status, so we can only imagine. After learning more about Latin American history and understanding how segregated and strictly classified the American government has kept Native American tribes (see: Trail of Tears, blood quantum laws, the ‘one-drop rule), I am no longer surprised that more Latinxs haven’t identified as Native American in the past.
Any Latinx that has watched Spanish-language television or studied Latin American history is probably aware that in the past many have looked down upon and rejected their own indigenous roots in favor of standards set up around Eurocentric ideals. Colonization hit the Western hemisphere pretty hard, but it’s 2020. Connect with your roots and don’t let them put us into a box we don’t belong in. Feel proud and united with all the indigenous people of the Americas; all of our ancestors have shared a similar struggle and survived.
It’s important to note that there are many Latinxs that don’t have Native American ancestry and would be considered another race or combination or races. If you aren’t sure what to write, but know you have Native ancestry, do some research and find out the name of the tribe(s) that live(d) in the country you or your family are from and write that into the box.
My birth certificate says that my race is mestiza, however, mestizos is not a race recognized by the US government, so it is up to me to decide what I will identify as. This time around, I will be checking the Native American box and will write in Quechua for the tribe, since that is the predominant identity of Native Americans in Peru. I will also be checking white, because I know I have European ancestry, too. If you are Afro-Latino, check all the boxes that apply. There is no rule or limit on how many boxes you can check.
Technically, a census worker is not allowed to guide people when filling out a census form; individuals must self-identify their race and ethnicity. It is our job and liberty to classify ourselves, so I urge you all to talk to your elders about your family history. Ask them whether or not you have European, African, or Native blood, and fill your census out accordingly. Race is just a social construct anyway, right? Fill in what’s right for you.