Photo by Martin Dee
Wendy D. Roth is in the department of sociology at the University of British Columbia. She is the author of Race Migrations: Latinos and the Cultural Transformation of Race.

Editors’ Note: The author prefers to capitalize Black and White along with other socially constructed racial categories.

For much of American history, race has been a dichotomous, Black-White affair where the “one-drop rule” dictated that people with any amount of racial mixture were defined legally and socially as Black. In recent generations, however, with the rise of intermarriage and the entrance of new immigrants from all over the world, American racial categories and conceptions have become much more complicated and contested. Latinos provide a particularly revealing case of the new complexities of race in America.

Persons of Hispanic ancestry have long had mixed racial identities and classifications. The history of Latin America is characterized by the mixing of European colonizers, native Indigenous groups, and Africans brought over as slaves. As a result, the diverse Latino group includes people who look White, Black, and many mixtures in between. In the mid-twentieth century, it was assumed that as they Americanized, Latinos who looked European would join the White race, while those with visible African ancestry would join the Black race, and others might be seen as Native American. For 50 years, the Census has supported this vision by informing us that Latinos could be classified as White, Black, or “other,” but not as a race themselves. “Hispanic” remained an ethnic, not a racial, category.

Race Migrations CoverBut today, few think twice when a breakdown of races in America includes, among others, the categories Black, White, and Latino. Throughout our media and popular culture—in newspapers, television, social media, and even academic research—we tend to treat Whites, Blacks, and Latinos as if they were mutually exclusive groups. How has this come about, given that the United States has long insisted that “Hispanic” or “Latino” is not a race, but an aspect of ethnicity?

To answer this question, I studied Dominicans and Puerto Ricans, two groups whose members span the traditional Black/White color line. I interviewed 60 Dominican and Puerto Rican migrants in New York City, and another 60 Dominicans and Puerto Ricans who have never migrated out of their countries of origin. We spoke about how they understand and classify their own and other people’s races, their perception of races in the mainland United States and their home country, what race means to them, and the migrants’ integration experiences. Their interviews revealed that most identify with a new, unified racial category that challenges not only the traditional Black-White dichotomy but also the relationship between race and ethnicity in American society. In other words, the experiences of these groups help us to better understand how immigrants’ views of collective identity and the relationship between color and culture are reshaping contemporary American racial classifications.

How Dominicans and Puerto Ricans Understand Identity and Race

My respondents all identified primarily as “Latino,” “Dominican,” or “Puerto Rican.” Even among those who had migrated to New York City, these were strongly held identities, associated with language, culture, and nationhood—the kinds of attitudes, attributes, and claims American scholars tend to associate with ethnicity. But many respondents also gave the same answers when asked specifically how they identified their race. They explained that, with their country’s history of racial intermixing over many generations, the meaning of “Puerto Rican” or “Dominican” is itself racialized as the mixture of White, Indigenous, and Black. For instance, Blanca, an arts administrator in Puerto Rico, looks European. Because of her mixed roots, she identifies herself as Puerto Rican.

Many Puerto Ricans consider themselves… [a] mixture of blancos, indios and negros…. I consider myself a mixture of blanca, negra and maybe india…. I don’t consider myself mulata because mulato is blanco and negro. I consider myself Puerto Rican, and the Puerto Rican is that.

Q: Puerto Rican is blanco, negro, and indio?

Yes. I don’t know if I have indio race and I don’t know if I have negro race but if I look at myself in the mirror I think that, although I have, look, straight hair and I’m more blanca than negra, but I’m a Puerto Rican. There is no way that I’m not Latina.

Gregorio, a taxi driver from the Dominican Republic, identifies his race as Dominican.

Q: Could you tell me what race you consider yourself to be?

Well, from the country, I mean, Dominican. Dominican.

Q: Okay. And would you say that Dominican is a race?

Yes, I believe so. Yes, because… each country has its race of origin…. I’m Dominican and everywhere you go, you say, “What country [are you] from?” or “What race?” Well, you say, “Dominican.”

Regardless of whether African, Indigenous, or European features predominate, Dominicans and Puerto Ricans view “race” as this shared ancestry, not as something that divides them. Puerto Ricans and Dominicans refer to a range of physical appearances as “color,” but insist that such appearances—such as blanco, negro, mestizo, trigueño, and a host of others—are not their race. Eduardo, a young Dominican administrative assistant in Santo Domingo, gave a response typical of both groups when he said, “They’ve taught us that this is color… for me, they’re only skin colors.” Many respondents believe that “color,” or appearance, is just a matter of chance—what happens to get expressed—but that a person’s racial mixture is latent and can present itself in future generations.

For instance, Jaime, a Puerto Rican professor in San Juan, locates the essence of the Puerto Rican race in an ancestral inheritance: “If… you’re Puerto Rican, [and] you have the races, Spanish, Indian, and African, then that’s your race. And it doesn’t matter if you’re more blanco, or if this one is more negro, and they got married, the son still has the race. You see? Because the race isn’t lost, the pedigree isn’t lost, you know, you carry it.” As a result, Jaime maintains, “I don’t think that the color defines a race.” This view of “Puerto Rican,” “Dominican,” or even “Latino” as a mixed racial ancestry is quite different from how Americans traditionally think of race and distinguish it from ethnicity.

Confronting the American Racial Context

Studies by scholars such as Laura Gomez and Julie Dowling show that other Latino immigrants, such as Mexicans, have similarly understood their ethnicities as a mixture of races. I found that when my migrant respondents first came to the mainland U.S., they brought this “mixed” understanding of race with them. When early migrants arrived,  this view ran up against the prevailing American racial images and categories, especially those associated with darker skin tones.

Most people from the Hispanic Caribbean have some African ancestry, which would have led to them being classified as Black under the United States’ one-drop rule. This surprised and often frustrated migrants who identified their race in terms of their nationality. Celia, a Puerto Rican school counselor who was sent to live with her older sister in New York in 1955, explains:

I discovered so much about racism when I came to this country… When I came to school… for my ethnicity, they put Black. And then my sister went [to correct it] and she said, “She is a Lat—” At that time we didn’t use the word “Latino.” We said Puerto Rican.

Q: …Did they change your race on the form?

Yeah, they changed it… I don’t think they gave her a hard time. But yet, it was a problem. It was a problem.

The problem, for Celia, was one of respect. Being classified as Black not only imposed a race she did not accept, but also implied a lower status.

A Dominican team known as the Young Devils (still a social club to this day) plays stickball in Spanish Harlem in the 1940s. Historic photo via streetplay.com.

A Dominican team known as the Young Devils (still a social club to this day) plays stickball in Spanish Harlem in the 1940s. Historic photo via streetplay.com.

Because of their treatment as Black, even where Puerto Ricans and Dominicans have been allowed to live and travel has been constrained. Antonio, a Puerto Rican migrant who arrived in New York in 1947, settled in Spanish Harlem. He became aware of racial divisions through the territorial demarcations that divided his neighborhood landscape:

East Harlem was divided into two portions: the portion east of 3rd Avenue and the portion west of 3rd Avenue. East of 3rd Avenue was where all the Italians lived, and there was a tremendous amount of fights between the kids. And the demilitarized zone was 3rd Avenue because it had an “el,” an elevated train. I had to go to the elevated train to go downtown or whatever so that was a place that it was safe to go. But you wouldn’t go past [east of] that and the Italians couldn’t go west of that. I was very young when I first became aware of that because we were told “Don’t go east of 3rd Avenue or your life is in danger.” …And then west of that was Central Harlem where all the Blacks were living and we mixed with Blacks.

The African Americans Antonio grew up with could not understand why he did not identify as Black. Having internalized the one-drop rule themselves, they insisted, “If you’re mixed, you’re Black.” This, after all, was their reality.

But much has changed in recent years, led in no small part by the tremendous growth of Latino populations. In New York City, the Puerto Rican population grew from about 600,000 in 1960 to almost 900,000 in 1990. Between 1960 and 2000, the Dominican population grew by more than 3,000% to become the second-largest Latino group in the city. Moreover, the entire Latino population of New York City has surged from less than 10% in 1960 to 27% in 2000 and has become increasingly diverse. With more than one in four New Yorkers identifying as Latino, native-born Americans are more familiar with these populations, and the communities themselves have more power to determine how they will be classified.

Celia, quoted above, now teaches at a school in the center of Spanish Harlem. In her school, Latinos are the majority, and there is no question that staff and administrators are fully sensitive to their cultural backgrounds and unique way of thinking about race, nationalism, and ethnicity. The size and prominence of the population has helped them assert their view of race as based on culture, a view that also fosters a shared Latino identity. And just as “Puerto Rican” or “Dominican” represented the particular mixture of Spanish, African, and Taíno peoples, these migrants have applied their understanding of race to view “Latinos” as a mixed-race group. This is much like José Vasconcelos’s notion of a “cosmic race” created out of the blending of peoples in Latin America. In racializing the “Latino” category, many respondents highlight the contrast to European Americans, who historically tried to avoid the racial mixture that characterizes modern Latinos.

Migrant respondents tend to emphasize their Latino identities in situations where they see it as advantageous. Those with darker appearances find it particularly useful to distinguish themselves from Blacks. Yesenia, a retired Puerto Rican garment worker, explained, “Negro [dark-skinned] Puerto Ricans don’t want to be Black Americans…. When they come in the elevator and you think they are Black Americans and you speak English to them… they quickly speak Spanish to you.” Speaking Spanish or revealing their name is usually enough for others to “reclassify” those initially “mistaken” for Black.

But Not White, Either

But by the same token, those with lighter appearances often find that Americans do not accept them as White. When they assert a White identity, an identity many held in their countries of origin, light-skinned Latinos are often corrected by people around them. Carla, a Dominican lawyer, learned that she is no longer considered White through an experience at college.

In my country, I’m very light in color. That is, very, very light among Dominicans. I even think that my personal identification card… said White. And actually I considered myself White before, until I came here. And later when I arrived here I realized that no, that I’m not White and that actually I realized what discrimination was, that is, being treated differently.

Q: And how did you realize that you… aren’t White?

That happened one day when we were at the university, my friend and me. My friend is also Dominican and she is negra. We were studying at the university until very, very late [so we were told to call] the security office and ask them to accompany us to our home… So I called, and they asked me how we looked… I told them that we were two women and that one was Black and the other one White. And my friend who had lived in the U.S. for some time laughed and she told me, “Do you think that you’re White?”

Through reminders like these, light-skinned migrants learn that the most privileged racial category is the hardest to join. Either through their own efforts to move up the racial hierarchy or other people’s efforts to keep them down, Latinos of all appearances find themselves occupying a middle rung on the country’s racial ladder.

Of course, light-skinned Latinos could become White by integrating culturally—losing their accent, language, and their Latino identity. But many of the migrants I spoke with did not. In addition to being proud of their roots, they also saw distinct advantages to being bilingual and bicultural in a country with a growing Latino community. Nilda has light skin and could pass for a White American, but when applying for jobs she finds that it helps to be seen as a Puerto Rican English speaker. Even if her English is not perfect, her ability to speak Spanish lifts her above other job candidates, especially in customer service.

Migrants of all appearances recognize the tremendous potential of being able to “navigate in two worlds” as the Latino community (and market) grows, which makes them reluctant to fully “Americanize.” Even for those who are largely acculturated, the prominence of the Latino community in New York City’s psyche keeps the identity alive. Subtle indications of their origins—their name, references to their family roots—remind others that they are part of this group. Unlike an ethnicity, the Latino race does not seem to be fading over time.

Immigration, Integration, and Race and Ethnicity

The 2010 U.S. Census Form's section on race.

The 2010 U.S. Census Form’s section on race.

In August 2012, the Census Bureau announced that it is considering replacing the separate race and Hispanic origin questions with one combined question that will place “Latino” on equal footing with other recognized race categories. In recent censuses, about 40% of Latinos have chosen not to select White, Black, or one of the other races listed and have instead marked themselves as “Other” race. Many interpret this to mean that they identify their race as Latino or as their nationality.

But will being seen and now counted as a race affect Latinos’ place in the American social hierarchy and their opportunities for empowerment? In her book In the Shadow of Race, Victoria Hattam suggests that U.S. groups that have been viewed as ethnicities have experienced more social mobility over time while those viewed as races are often relegated to the bottom of society. In effect, she suggests that there are some real costs to being seen in racial terms.

However, most of the groups that were defined as ethnicities and experienced mobility in the past were European, a category that was already, in effect, racialized and associated with Whiteness. They tended to lose their primary attachment to their ethnicity as they acculturated and were able to position themselves as part of the White race. This has always been far harder for those with African ancestry, who are unlikely to be seen as White no matter how integrated they are.

It has also been difficult for groups to shed a strong ethnic identity when they experience ongoing immigration, as sociologist Tomás Jiménez has shown. A steady stream of newcomers ties the group to its immigrant origins in the public mind. In this sense, Latin Americans are different from earlier European immigrants. The Depression and World War II spurred decades with little immigration when European groups could shed their immigrant identities. But steady Latin American immigration over the last 50 years has produced an association between our images of “Latino” and “newcomer.” Latinos are in a unique position relative to other immigrant groups, past and present. Some members of the group—those with light skin and Americanized behavior—could have followed the path of earlier groups toward Whiteness even if it meant changing their names or hiding their origins. But other members—actual newcomers and those with darker skin—influenced public perceptions of the group overall.

The fact that Latinos have not, by and large, shed their Latino identities also creates advantages for the group as a whole. Groups that identify their shared interests and structural barriers are more likely to be involved in political mobilization. Yen Le Espiritu has shown this to be the case among Asian Americans who have fostered a sense of Asian pan ethnicity with common structural positions and shared interests that stem from their racialized treatment. A Latino identity functions in a similar way. The attention given to Latinos in the 2012 election cycle shows their ability to mobilize as a voting bloc, and Latinos will likely only continue to use their numbers for political gain.

The intertwining of race and ethnicity in the national imagination has created greater solidarity within the group. That can improve the situation of all Latinos rather than the lucky few. A common racial identity allows those with lighter skin and greater advantages to share resources and information with those with darker skin. In other words, the Latino race, whether embraced or imposed, might help to lift the entire group and not just those members who are able to jump across the color line into Whiteness. As they form a strong political voting bloc and gain the ability to self-identify on official documents like Census forms, American Latinos will continue to further express their identity and challenge the ways Americans have traditionally thought about race and ethnicity.

Recommended Reading

Julie A. Dowling. Forthcoming 2014. On the Borders of Identity: Mexican Americans and the Question of Race. Austin: University of Texas Press. This study examines Mexican American responses to the census race question and explores the disjuncture between federal definitions and local constructions of race.

Yen Le Espiritu. 1992. Asian American Panethnicity: Bridging Institutions and Identities. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press. A case study of how diverse national-origin groups can come together as a new panethnic group.

Laura E. Gómez 2007. Manifest Destinies: The Making of the Mexican American Race. New York: New York University Press. Uses New Mexico as a case study to explore the paradox of Mexican Americans’ legal designation as White but social position as non-White.

Victoria Hattam. 2007. In the Shadow of Race: Jews, Latinos, and Immigrant Politics in the United States. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press. A comprehensive study revealing how the assignation of certain groups as ethnicities has reinforced the racial inequality of other groups.

Tomás R. Jiménez. 2010. Replenished Ethnicity: Mexican Americans, Immigration and Identity. Berkeley: University of California Press. A cleverly designed study that examines the role of continued immigration on later-generation Mexican-Americans’ identity and experiences.

Clara E. Rodríguez. 2000. Changing Race: Latinos, the Census, and the History of Ethnicity in the United States. New York: New York University Press. Uses historical analysis, personal interviews, and Census data to show that Latino identity is fluid, situation-dependent, and constantly changing.

David R. Roediger. 2005. Working toward Whiteness: How America’s Immigrants Became White: The Strange Journey from Ellis Island to the Suburbs. New York: Basic Books. Roediger shows how American ethnic groups—like Jewish-, Italian-, and Polish-Americans—came to be seen as White only after immigration laws became more restrictive in the 1920s and 1930s.