What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”
“Romeo and Juliet”
When William Shakespeare wrote those words in the late sixteenth century there was no great mystery to what he meant. The thought shared from one young person to the other remains beautiful for its simplicity and eloquence. A smitten young Juliet, in speaking to her equally young and star-crossed love, Romeo, was simply saying that names---his, Montague, hers, Capulet, ultimately meant nothing. It was not the name, after all, that she loved, but the person; that what truly mattered is what something is, not what it is called.
But fast forward to the 21st century and a similar effort on clarification and identification about what one should be called continues across the United States in communities where surnames like Gonzalez, Portillo or Baca remain as ubiquitous as cultural murals. Four centuries after Shakespeare’s famous line there remains no uniform agreement on how Spanish-surnamed groups or individuals want to be identified. Even the government is uncertain if Latino is preferable to Hispanic or even Chicano, a term whose star rose meteorically in the tumult of the sixties and seventies but has cooled considerably.
“In most cases people have the ability to self-identify,” said Denver area Census spokesman Leo Cardenas. In filling out the census forms, he said, people can check White, Black/African-American, American Indian or Alaska Native or Asian. Then it gets trickier for most Spanish-surnamed residents. The 2010 Census allows those who do not check any of the previous options to select Mexican, Mexican-America, or Chicano. They can also choose Puerto Rican or Cuban. Or, the census offers them the choice of selecting among a number of options including Argentinean, Columbian, Dominican, Nicaraguan, Salvadoran, Spaniard, and so on.
While Spanish influence has been a part of the geographic region now known as the United States since explorer Pedro Menendez planted the Queen’s flag in St. Augustine, Fla., in 1565, it wasn’t until 1980 that the term Hispanic became an official part of the census lexicon. The government could see a growing population among Spanish-surnamed residents and wanted to be able to better understand the demographic changes that were occurring. Thirty years later, there remains no conclusive modifier in how nearly fifty-million Spanish-surnamed Americans identify themselves.
“Now that we have an identity I say I am a Latino,” said Roberto Lopez, of the Southeast Dallas Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. “But then I say I’m of Mexican origin.” A lot of people, Lopez said, “just call themselves Hispanic because they speak Spanish.”
Not Stephanie Velasquez, director of Pueblo’s El Centro del Quinto Sol, a recreation center that serves a mostly Mexican-American population. Velasquez has called herself a Chicana for as long as she can remember. “My father is Chicano and he was a Brown Beret,” she said, “and that’s the way he raised us.” The history and politics of the Southwest go right to the core of the 29-year-old’s self-identification. “It’s a way of life,” said Velasquez. “Being Chicana is a state of mind.”
But according to the Pew Hispanic Research Center, the term is far from how most Spanish-surnamed U.S. residents refer to themselves. The Pew Center says that nearly three quarters of all Spanish-surnamed Americans are comfortable with the terms Hispanic or Latino in identifying themselves with 48 percent opting for the former and 26 percent choosing the latter. The remainder prefers using any of the 22 countries whose families’ personal histories in Central or South America are connected with Spain or Portugal.
While appreciating the value of other cultures, including many under the Latino/Hispanic umbrella, Velasquez remains steadfast in how she identifies herself and eschews other options for her and her young son. “I have raised him the same way we were raised,” she said. Her son is a Chicano and “Chicano is very much America.”