“I’m going to put Black as my race,” says Andrew Torres, 16, a student of the Barrio, Arts, Culture, and Communications Academy after school program in Humboldt Park. “But, you look white and got red hair!” I exclaimed with a smile of interest. “Yeah, but don’t Puerto Ricans got Black in us?” he responded with a look of confusion. “Yes we do,” I said.
The U.S. Congress requires for the counting of every person in the United States every 10 years and the U.S. Census Bureau puts a lot of work in making this happen. After everyone is counted the results play a very large role in deciding on how much funding is allocated to schools, special projects, political representation, among other important things. In many ways, the relationship between the government (on all of its levels) and communities are determined by who and how many live in those areas. For Latinas/os, the census plays a unique role.
Now that “Hispanic” and “Latino” are official options in the census since 1970, they are still ethnic options, not race options. In other words, the U.S. government recognizes that there are Latinas/os in the U.S. (now more than 40 million of us and growing!) but we are not at the level of “white,” “Black,” or “American Indian” as a category.
First of all, the idea of race is different in Latin America. My student could easily pass for white, but his entire life is not that of a white person, but of a Puerto Rican growing up in Humboldt Park among people of color. He also recognizes that Puerto Ricans are a mixed people – Taíno Indian, European, and African. The U.S. Census Bureau’s neat categories do not fit the Puerto Rican or Latin American reality of a beautifully mixed people. That is why we are forced to choose, but is that choice really reflective of our history; of our experiences?
I consider myself a “Black” Puerto Rican – my African ancestry is more obvious in my skin-color and facial features more so than other Boricuas, but is my experience the same as an African-American? What about my uncle Junior? He is very light-skinned, but was called “spic” when he was in the South because they knew he was not white. Is he going to put “white” on the census?
It also must be noted that being Puerto Rican is different from being Mexican or Dominican or any other ethnic group from Latin America. The grouping of all these different nationalities into one category like “Latino” is limiting, but making them all separate races will not solve anything. “Latino” is empowering. There is much that makes us distinct, but there is so much that binds us. The great show of solidarity between the Puerto Rican and Mexican communities in the Immigration Movement proves that.
In the end, my people, put on the census that you are “Latino” and do it proudly. We all must be counted – only then could we tell this country that we are a people to be recognized and our issues must be taken into account, from immigration to gentrification. Also, make sure you put what Latina/o grouping you are from. In communities like Humboldt Park, which is experiencing displacement because of rising rents and property taxes we need to know how many Puerto Ricans are still here so we can continue to build what we have struggled so much to build. Those Paseo Boricua Flags are not going anywhere! “¡Boricua, Házte Contar!”
As for the “race” question, put what you like. I put “other/ mixed” because that is what I/we are. As a Mexican educator put it, we are la raza cósmica, the cosmic race.
Originally published in La Voz del Paseo Boricua, April 2010 and Gozamos.com