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Esther Cepeda / Politics

A Latino Identity Crisis

CHICAGO -- Let me introduce you to my fake Latino children. No, no, they're real children -- it's just their Hispanic bona fides that are in question these days.

Up until four years ago, when they attended a nearly all-Caucasian private school, my two sons -- who are part Mexican and Ecuadorean, half white and all American -- always thought of themselves as white.

In 2008, I wrote a column about how far into subsequent generations could U.S.-born Latinos still claim to be Hispanic, quoting the boys as they described themselves. "I'm white," said my older son, just 9 at the time, noting that despite his mom's heritage he considered himself Caucasian because of his dad and: "I don't know, 'cause I look more white -- I'm white, I want to be white."

My younger son, 7 at the time, declared, "I think I look more peach," and despite my explanations that being Hispanic was an ethnicity and that his race was still white, he politely declined being classified as Latino. "I think I'd still like to be white."

Oh, how times change. Just the other day, those same two boys had a strong reaction to me referring to them as white.

"We're not white," they said, practically in unison and looking at me as if I'd grown an extra head. Apparently, now that they've spent three years as somewhere-in-between students in a predominantly Mexican-American school, they've defaulted to being "other."

Apparently, that "other" status comes with a small, manageable amount of taking flak in certain parts of our town for not being a "real," Spanish-speaking Latino. Yet they also get to be the lone diversity component of groups that happen to be mostly white, like their extended family.

I told them the pendulum will swing depending on what group they happen to find themselves in, and to just get used to the absurdity of people's label hang-ups.

Surely no group seems to revel in label wars as much as Hispanics, who constantly fight among themselves over whether to be called Hispanic or Latino, and whether the U.S. Census should consider either of those terms a new racial classification -- even though it really isn't.

Recently the question about who is a "real" Latino has centered on the topic of language. In the comments section of a story about why Ted Cruz, Texas' Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate, doesn't speak Spanish, someone posted: "If you want to connect to Latinos, learn to speak Spanish -- language is culture."

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Copyright 2012 Washington Post Writers Group



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