As Latinos transition into the largest minority group in Berks County and the nation at large, how that group is defined remains murky.
With the confusion, misuse, imposition and appropriation of labels such as Latino, Hispanic and a multitude of others, it may appear that Latinos are in the throes of an identity crisis.
And although the definitions can vary depending on what government or social agency is using them, many Latinos see the labels as interchangeable and even insignificant.
A Gallup Poll released in July showed that 70 percent of Latinos, or Hispanics if you will, have no preference about which term is used to identify them. In Berks County, for example, there's the Daniel Torres Hispanic Center and also the Berks County Latino Chamber of Commerce.
Dr. Patricia Foxen, deputy director of research for the National Council of La Raza, a Hispanic civil rights and advocacy group based in Washington, said her organization uses the labels interchangeably, though the issue of ethnic identification is a complex one for Latinos.
"Ethnic discourse is generally discussed in very black-and-white terms," Foxen said. "But the Latino population is very diverse, constantly shifting geographically and linguistically.
"We are not a monolith at all."
An ethnic patchwork
A 2011 Pew Research Center's Hispanic Trends Project study suggested a blanket term may seem unfitting for some Latinos since the majority (69 percent) see the group as made up of many different cultures rather than one unified culture.
The survey also showed that if given the option, most Latinos (51 percent) referred to themselves by their family's country of origin rather than "Latino/Hispanic" (24 percent) or American (21 percent).
Groups throughout Berks County, such as the Puerto Rican Latin Association, the Union Dominicana, the Dominican-American Union and Union Colombiana identify geographically.
For Union Colombiana founder Jobany Bedoya, the terms depend more on the context in which they are used than they do on definition.
"I always use Hispanic when I'm talking in English and Latino when speaking in Spanish," Bedoya said. "I think it's just a label for non-Hispanics to feel safe or politically correct when referring to us as a minority."
Nuances of ethnicity
Even as he responded from his grandmother's home while on vacation in Colombia, Bedoya said labeling himself is a challenge.
"I am seen here (in Colombia) as only a gringo," Bedoya said, referring to a term used for American Latinos in Latin American countries.
"Everywhere I go, I am introduced as the gringo," he said. "Which in reality I am, since I was born and raised in the USA with American customs. So at the end of the day, all first-generation people like myself, Hispanics alike, we have a case of lost identity."
Jonathan Encarnacion, regional director for UMPC for You and the former executive director of the Hispanic Center, said the issue becomes even more complex when taking into account the niche subgroups that Latinos use to identify themselves.
"When you look at the Southwest and Chicanos (Mexican-Americans), you are looking at a political identification," Encarnacion said. "The term has a connection with the Mexica Indians while also having a distinct connotation as being born in America."
He also related this to how some Puerto Ricans identify as Boricua, connecting with the island's native population.
Does it matter?
In the last census, the government asked people to identify their ethnicity as "Non-Hispanic" or four "Latino or Hispanic" choices, including Chicano, Cuban, Puerto Rican or another type of Latino.
Then the census requested people to identify their race, selecting from 15 choices.
The U.S. government said that more than 18 million Latinos reported being "some other race," helping propel the category to the third-largest minority in the nation.
In response, the census has been looking at ways to better track the groups, lumping "Latino or Hispanic" into the race category.
"These labels may not mean much to us, but labels are really important in social discipline and civil rights issues," Foxen said. "We need to be able to identify disparities in areas like health and education, and to do this we need to be able to track the group."
And while most immigrants do not see themselves as Latinos or Hispanics until coming to the U.S., the ability to identify with a group serves a need more profound than tracking numbers, according to Encarnacion.
"As part of human nature, we need to belong," he said. "We have to be part of a collective, but we have to feel accepted and accept the groups we are in."
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