The U.S. Census and Latinos’ Conceptions of Race

My parents were filling out the U.S. Census a few nights ago when they reached a question that stumped them both—the race question.  The Census requires that individuals “answer BOTH Question 8 about Hispanic origin and Question 9 about race” and states that for purposes of the 2010 Census, “Hispanic origins are not races.”

Question 8 asks:

Is Person 1 of Hispanic, Latino, or Spanish origin?

–No, not of Hispanic, Latino, or Spanish origin

–Yes, Mexican, Mexican Am., Chicano

–Yes, Puerto Rican

–Yes, Cuban

–Yes, another Hispanic, Latino, or Spanish origin –Print origin, for example, Argentinean, Colombian, Dominican, Nicaraguan, Salvadorian, Spaniard, and so on.

Question 9 asks:

What is Person 1’s race?


–Black, African Am., or Negro

–American Indian or Alaska Native –Print name of enrolled or principal tribe.

–Asian Indian



–Other Asian




–Native Hawaiian

–Guamanian or Chamorro


–Other Pacific Islander

–Some other race – Print race.

 My parents had no difficulty answering Question 8.  They are both from the Dominican Republic so they checked “Yes, another Hispanic, Latino, or Spanish origin” and printed “Dominican” in the box provided.  They did not know how to respond to Question 9, however.  My father, whose phenotype is that of a light-skinned Black man, wanted to select “White” because he equates Black with African-American.  My mother wanted to select “Black” because, in her view, “White” refers to Caucasian and, although her grandfather was a Spaniard, her grandmother was of African descent.  Confused, my parents asked their four adult daughters, all of whom were born and raised in the U.S., how we self-identified in the Census.  Three of us checked “Black” and one checked both “Black” and “White.”  My father finally agreed to check “Black,” not because he identifies as such, but because there were no other “adequate choices.”  When I asked him what race he would have selected had it been listed, he responded “Latino.”  For him, and many other Latinos, his race is not White, Black, or American Indian, but Latino—the result of a mixing of European (mostly Spaniard), African (brought as slaves to the Americas), and the indigenous people of the Americas (for example, Taino, Aztec, Mayan, etc.)

My parents’ frustration with the Census’ race question is not unique.  I informally surveyed my Latino friends and relatives and found that members of the same family checked different boxes in Question 9—for example, one person checked “White,” while her full-blood sibling checked “Black.”  One Latina identified as White, Black, and Taino.  Others printed “Puerto Rican,” “Dominican,” or “Mexican” in both Questions 8 and 9 even though the instructions state that, for purposes of the Census, Hispanic origin is not a race.  As one woman wrote, “I don’t identify with the choices they had” so she refused to select any of the racial categories provided in Question 9. 

 These responses reinforce what Latino scholars have known for decades—that Latinos do not subscribe to U.S. conceptions of race.  The U.S. has historically treated race as biologically determined.  This understanding is reflected in the “one-drop” rule which defined an individual with one drop of Black blood as Black regardless of the amount of white blood.  For example, until 1960, Virginia law provided that “every person in whom there is ascertainable any Negro blood shall be deemed and taken to be a colored person.”  Louisiana law was more precise.  It provided that a person with 1/32nd Black blood was Black.  Under this conception, phenotype was deemed irrelevant when assigning racial classifications.  The Kentucky Supreme Court held in 1911 that a person with 1/16th Negro blood was Black even though he was as “fair as persons of the white race.”

 Latinos do not believe that race is determined by ancestry.  In 2000, the U.S. Census asked Puerto Ricans on the island the same race questions that are being asked in the 2010 Census, and 80% selected “White.”  This was a surprise to many Americans because the majority of Puerto Ricans have Spanish, African, and Taino ancestors.  Thus, under U.S definitions of race, most Puerto Ricans are Black or, at least, not White.  However, in Latin-America, race is based on an individual’s phenotype—skin color, hair texture, and facial features.  It is not rare for full-blood siblings to be classified as of different races.  Furthermore, race is often seen as a continuum and racial categories are fluid and influenced by class and education.  In fact, a person’s racial designation can change during his lifetime based on social mobility, including marriage. 

 In the Dominican Republic, the “cedula,” the government issued identification card, states the cardholder’s height, eye color, and sex, just like in the U.S.   In addition, it includes the person’s race.  However, the choices are not merely Black or White, but include “trigueño” (wheat-colored and may specify, light or dark), “indio” (the literal translation is “Indian” but in this context it refers to a person with caramel or tan skin color, similar to that of persons of aboriginal descent, with straight, silky hair), “moreno” (dark skinned but with a variety of African or European features and hair textures), and many others.  Racial categorizations also depend to a large extent on the opinion of the beholder.  For example, my father’s race is listed as “Blanco” (White) on his cedula because that is what the government officer selected based on his quick glance.  Another officer could have just as easily selected indio, trigueño, or another term. 

 Given that Latinos’ conceptions of race differ significantly from those commonly held in the U.S., it is not surprising that Latinos are confused by (or refuse to answer) Census questions that fail to provide choices with which Latinos identify. 

You may also like...

19 Responses

  1. A "New" Mexican says:

    Answering the Hispanic origin and race questions poses a challenge for those of us whose ancestry meanders through New Mexico.

    Many New Mexicans identify as “Hispanos” with “pure” Spanish blood, despite their “Mexican” phenotype.

    Gustavo Arellano explains, in his inimitable style: “Mexico’s lazy mestizos never made much effort to populate New Mexico, so many longtime New Mexicans can honestly claim a Mexican-free background. But those so-called Hispanos are delusional: even if a Hispano can proclaim his family clean of Mexicans, many Hispanos intermingled with gabachosor Indians . . . .”

    Albuquerque’s Joseph Baca similarly adds, in his own style: “Chicanos, Hispanos and the folklore of Hispanos of Spanish decent is alive and well among these wannabe Europeans. Santa Fe is the Mecca of this mixed-up mythology, which allows Las Vegas, Taos and Española Mexicans to believe that they are all descendants of the Spanish royal court. . . . Much of this lore really came about as a form of self-preservation among Mexicans when faced with strong tides of overt racism from whites. In the mid-1800s there were numerous lynchings of our brown skinned brethren, and around the time of the Great Depression there was enormous anti-Mexican sentiment that led to the deportation of about 500,000 people, most of them U.S. citizens. Suddenly, every wire-broom mustachioed Mexican became a pure-blood Castilian-speaking Spaniard, purged of any Tapatío sauce in his veins.”

    So how do I answer, when some of my New Mexico relatives say we’re Spanish?

    I’ve been to Mexico, and I’ve been to Spain. We ain’t Spanish. I went with “Chicano” and “white.”

  2. Brant Lee says:

    Census racial politics are interesting. A few decades ago it was proposed to eliminate all the different Asian ethnicities, and collapse them into one racial category. Asian Americans, whose racial identity is formed at least in part by the common experience of being lumped together, organized in pan-Asian coalitions to oppose being lumped together on the census.

  3. It would dramatically simplify things, wouldn’t it, if the census were reduced to it’s original purpose: Counting Americans for reapportionment.

    And nothing else.

  4. Ken says:

    >>It would dramatically simplify things, wouldn’t it, if the census were reduced to it’s original purpose: Counting Americans for reapportionment.
    And nothing else.>>

    It would simplify, indeed. Then we wouldn’t have to worry anymore about such annoying complexities as racial discrimination in government hiring, since we wouldn’t have any racial statistics against which to compare hiring data. We wouldn’t have to worry about such annoying complexities as racial discrimination in school admissions, since we wouldn’t have any racial statistics against which to compare admissions data.

    Yes, by all means, let’s to back to the old, simple, way, and make our lives a lot simpler.

    But waitaminit!

    Did we forget to read Article 1, Section 2, Paragraph 3?

    So I guess it wasn’t quite so simple as we’d like, even back then.

  5. “Then we wouldn’t have to worry anymore about such annoying complexities as racial discrimination in government hiring, since we wouldn’t have any racial statistics against which to compare hiring data.”

    I see that you’re presuming that any disparities between general population, and numbers showing up in small sub-groups, is evidence of discrimination. That is actually a pretty good reason to NOT collect such statistics: It would force those alleging discrimination to produce evidence of actual discrimination. Thus avoiding turning anti-discrimination rules into de facto racial quotas.

  6. Brant Lee says:

    “That is actually a pretty good reason to NOT collect such statistics: It would force those alleging discrimination to produce evidence of actual discrimination.”

    What if our goal isn’t just to catch bad guys, but to track patterns of racial inequality so that we can figure out what if anything to do about them?

  7. But why would we want to do something about patterns of racial inequality, if they’re not the product of malign acts, but instead voluntary choices? Wouldn’t doing something about them require overriding those voluntary choices?

    We have ample evidence that laws prohibiting racial discrimination have been perverted into requiring racial discrimination, to produce compliance with statistical results which don’t arise naturally in the absence of discrimination. If that’s the result of those statistics be collected, better to leave them uncollected.

  8. Ken says:

    I’m having trouble believing this exchange is more than a deliberate barb intended to provoke a silly controversy.

    First of all, what I just read is an attempt to read my mind, which has obviously failed. “I see you’re presuming…” No way, Jose. I’m presuming nothing in re: “evidence.” What I’m suggesting is simply that deliberately ignoring data is a darned good way to avoid having to consider the possibilities suggested by those data, and thus to avoid going any further for ANY real purpose, like (for example) assessing patterns to try to figure out whether they’re the result of individual choices or systematic (and perhaps illegal) exclusion.

    Second, which is even funnier, is the failure to note the actual wording of the Constitution, even after I cited it. Isn’t it ironic to propose to go back to the original, while summarily dismissing the changes that don’t fit the simplistic view, but ignore the original words that don’t fit that simplistic view and admit those changes de facto, without comment?

  9. Okay Ken – the actual wording of the Constitution:

    “Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons.”

    Modified by the 14th amendment:

    ” Representatives shall be apportioned among the several States according to their respective numbers, counting the whole number of persons in each State, excluding Indians not taxed.”

    How does any of that weigh against what Brett’s written?

  10. Ken says:

    >>How does any of that weigh against what Brett’s written?>>

    The discussion prior to Brett’s first comment was about the confusion involved in attempting to count ethnicity. What Brett wrote (right at the beginning) was that if we used the census only for its original purpose it would greatly simplify things.

    Under the presumption that Brett’s comment was in fact related to this thread (i.e., complexity of counting), I wrote, with irony intended:

    >>Yes, by all means, let’s to back to the old, simple, way, and make our lives a lot simpler. But waitaminit! Did we forget to read Article 1, Section 2, Paragraph 3? So I guess it wasn’t quite so simple as we’d like, even back then.>>

    Since the cited sentence required counting certain groups differentially, and applying fractional arithmetic to the count, I was pointing out that even our forefathers in the eighteenth century didn’t make it nearly so simple as Brett wished. Yes, the fourteenth amendment simplified that language eighty years later, but Brett’s opening position re simplicity related to the original, which I don’t perceive as being so simple.

    Once we got off on Brett’s trying to read my mind as to what ought to be done with the data, we were pretty far afield from his original point about “simple,” so I merely brought us back to that point by reminding him about the original language, which wasn’t nearly so simple as he had made it sound.

  11. Wendy says:

    I have not, as of yet, responded to the census as I haven’t received it. My family, however, has interestingly differed in their responses…much in line with what you’ve seen in your unofficial survey. My brother responded with “Dominican” and then refused to select any of the choices provided on the survey. Other siblings are torn about how to respond. My parents, having issues of their own with the “pigeonholing” of the selections, chose to write “Dominican” and then again reiterating the same on the race line under “other” – ignoring the instruction that for the purposes of the 2010 Census, Latino or Hispanic is not a race. Race is, in fact, a figment of some convincing writer’s imagination and nothing more. I think it’s interesting that very in-tune Latinos know this truth even without the scientific knowledge that we are sometimes more closely related (DNA-wise) to people from the other end of the spectrum than we are to people who look almost exactly as we do. I’m sure, though, that not all hesitation on Latinos’ part is due to being in-tune with this truth but is due in some part to a reluctance to be labeled as part of a “race” they don’t altogether identify with. A dark-skinned Dominican does not (generally speaking) identify with the “black” or “African-American” designation understanding themselves to be a mixture. Neither of those designations fit their profile exactly and they are reluctant to identify with something that does not identify them correctly. But more than that, they are reluctant to identify with groups that have been the object of oppression, hatred, and severe discrimination. Why identify with a NEW group that doesn’t fit their designation and has additional and different struggles than Latinos experience. I will, when the time comes, identify my race as HUMAN…as it seems the only worthwhile designation for me. The erroneous concept of race only causes, in my humble opinion, divisiveness and ideas of superiority that hamper progress and encourage a focus on the differences among us instead of the similarities. Such divisiveness, fueled by questions like those on the census, makes it difficult for our country to move forward into an age where we celebrate each other as equals. It also allows educators (the manipulators of fertile minds) to continue to shape young people into THEIR version of what they think a child is capable of achieving…according to their “race”. Yes, it’s still happening, despite our efforts to avoid such limitations on our young. Many teachers still believe that children of one race or another are just not capable of higher level thinking…and that’s a HUGE problem. By eliminating “race” questions from the census and other governmental forms, we more our country forward. We should stick to counting heads for our the purposes or representation. Comparing “races” and the proportions of each in the U.S. creates an unnecessary competition and fear that is, at best, unhealthy for our nation.

  12. Teresa says:

    Ms. Maldonado:

    I took a DNA test for a paper in a Sociology class,
    and I am of Spanish and Indian descent (just like I knew I was),and so are millions of other Latinos, especially Mexicans and South Americans.

    Dominicans are always claiming to speak for all Latinos and they are always trying to make it seem all Latinos are black just like Dominicans are.

    Leave us alone. You don’t speak for us.

  13. Claudia says:

    Exactly @ Ms. Maldonado!! I am Costa Rican & Colombian of MESTIZO heritage just like most Costa Ricans(central Americans) and Colombians (south Americans) and Mexicans.
    There is a large afro population in Colombia but I know for a fact that I don’t have any afro in me.
    To Dominicans their world is either white or black. A dominican that seems “mestizo” to us is “white” to them.

  14. Madeline says:

    This is very thought provoking and I agree with your points. I can attest to the fact that the farther you go from the areas in the US that have large Latino populations, the more confused the Latino AND non-Latinos are in regards to race, ethnicity and culture. Here in Kansas and Missouri, the people I interact with daily for the most part have no concept of Dominicans. They don’t know where the Dominican Republic is or how the culture and even Dominican Spanish is different from the culture and language of the known latino group here- Mexican. I also find that the latinos that are here are not well identified with Latino culture. Many don’t speak Spanish or don’t speak it well and identify more with the norms of Anglo culture here in the Midwest. I can say that the Latinos who I have met that are more grounded in the Latino culture, are the “transplants”to the midwest. People like my colleagues from L.A. and Philadelphia. They are rooted in Latino culture and they like me, miss having that available like you would in cities like LA or NYC. I have had to educate several people here who have asked me “what are you”? I even had one woman ask if my hair was “real”. Presumably, she thought my long thick, curly hair was a weave (?) due to its length and thickness and the fact that the white women, african american women and mexican women that live in the area where I live and work, do not have hair like mine. It’s moments like this that have made me realize that the census and all of this confusion around the question asking about race as it pertains to Latinos, is a reflection of a confusion that most people in the US have unless they are in large urban cities where they are exposed to latinos of all kinds.

    I choose to not get offended or be upset by the questions and sometimes stares. I choose to see the opportunity to educate people that have never been exposed to Dominicans or even Latinos, and to allow them to get to know me, and through me my culture. I am proud to be Dominican but I am more proud to be Latino and to speak Spanish to other Latinos that I encounter here. The country and cultural background of the other Latinos is not as important as the reality that our struggle and issues here in the US are the SAME.

    So Claudia and Teresa, please take a deeper look at what your issues are with being identified as having afro blood in your background. DNA tests are not 100% accurate, and since people that had mixed afro, indian and white blood are intermingling with other mixed people, each bloodline and the DNA becomes more and more diluted. Feel free to check out the NY times article on DNA testing for race-

    Claudia, Dominicans do not identify with white as a race, but rather with having “white” features (light eyes, hair or skin). Dominicans (and most Latinos from the Caribbean) are very mixed in bloodline ancestry. This is why like Ms. Maldonado stated in the article it is common practice in Dominican culture to categorize as blanco, moreno, mestizo, based on their appearance- color of skin, texture of hair.

  15. Mara says:

    Recently, I found the 2010 Census form hanging on my door. As I began filling it out, I came across a dilemma. The U.S. government wants to know if my children are adopted or not and it wants to know what our races are. Being adopted myself, I had to put “Other” and “Don’t Know Adopted” for my race and “Other” and “Don’t Know” for my kids’ races.

    Can you imagine not knowing your ethnicity, your race? Now imagine walking into a vital records office and asking the clerk for your original birth certificate only to be told “No, you can’t have it, it’s sealed.”

    How about being presented with a “family history form” to fill out at every single doctor’s office visit and having to put “N/A Adopted” where life saving information should be?

    Imagine being asked what your nationality is and having to respond with “I don’t know”.

    It is time that the archaic practice of sealing and altering birth certificates of adopted persons stops.

    Adoption is a 5 billion dollar, unregulated industry that profits from the sale and redistribution of children. It turns children into chattel who are re-labeled and sold as “blank slates”.

    Genealogy, a modern-day fascination, cannot be enjoyed by adopted persons with sealed identities. Family trees are exclusive to the non-adopted persons in our society.

    If adoption is truly to return to what is best for a child, then the rights of children to their biological identities should NEVER be violated. Every single judge that finalizes an adoption and orders a child’s birth certificate to be sealed should be ashamed of him/herself.

    I challenge all readers: Ask the adopted persons that you know if their original birth certificates are sealed.

  16. Daniel says:

    I am puerto rican (mixed Taino native and spaniard) but I am damn proud of Ta
    ino native in my bloodline and already filled out the census2010 under number #8 “yes I am puerto rican” and #9 “native american Taino”.

  17. Visceraltuning says:

    “New Mexican”,

    I don’t claim to be pure blood anything, but I have a very recognizable Colonial New Mexican surname that does not exist anywhere but in NM (although we know what it was before arriving in NM). I have been throughout Mexico, Spain, France, Italy, and Portugal (The Mainland and the Azores), and never in my life have I ever been more inconspicuous (blended in) than when I was in Andalusia (Southern Spain), Southern Mainland Portugal, and the Azores (except I was fatter). I literally thought to myself “this must be what it feels like to be a blonde person in Germany” because people showed no sign of curiosity or sense that I was foreign, whatsoever.

    I was told by my Portuguese teacher that it was probably the crypto-jew connection, and she referred me to “To the end of the earth: a history of the crypto-Jews of New Mexico” by Stanley M. Hordes, which told me more about my family than I thought I would ever know.

    On the 2010 Census, I put:

    Question 8- Yes, another Hispanic, Latino, or Spanish origin: Colonial New Mex USA
    Question 9- White

  18. Carlo Rolando says:

    First of all Race is a Social Myth ( false Science)”Casta is Spanish for caste and “casta paintings\” existed in colonial Latin America during the 17th and 18th century. They were race based social hierarchy and enforced social power and control. The system was inspired by the assumption that the character and quality of people varied according to their birth, color, race and origin of ethnic types.

    The system also impacted economics and taxation. The Spanish colonial state and the Church expected more tax and tribute payments from those of lower socio-racial categories. These are the main classifications with more to indicate first, second and third generation mixing. Casta-painting series usually identify 16 racial taxonomies, including zoologically inspired terms such as “coyote and “wolf”—in one bizarrely named racial classification, children born of mulatto and mestiza couples are called “lobo tente en el ayre” (Wolf-Hold- Yourself-in-Mid-Air).

  19. Carlo Rolando says:

    Initially the Casta paintings were developed to show how racial mixing in Mexico was working and being legitimised by marriage. This can be documented as the first paintings tend to not be numbered and just carried a written description of the individuals included within them, thus avoiding any sense of hierarchy being imposed on the viewer.
    Latin american have a confused identity of algebra of so called Race ..this all started in their selective countries.
    created about European colonist to basic control.. Ms SOLANGEL MALDONADO
    Seems to have same self hatred