Oboler, N. (1995) Ethnic Labels, Latino Lives : Identity and the Politics of (Re) Presentation in the United States. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

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Oboler argues that the use of the ethnic label "Hispanic" in the USA has homogenized a diverse population of people with a variety of national backgrounds, classes, races, and genders. According to her the use of the label by government agencies, social scientists, the media, advertisers, and the public at large obscures the social and political experiences of immigrants from Central, South, and Caribbean countries. The label "Hispanic" is elusive, it is an ethnic umbrella term that is contested. There is no consensus on what does it mean to be "Hispanic" because the experience of spanish-speaking immigrants from south and central America, and the Caribbean is heterogeneous.

As a statistical construct, the term is problematic because there are so many differences among nationality groups, class, and education from people of Latin American descent.

Both latino and non-latino populations use the "Hispanic" label in a very broad sense, attaching different meanings depending of the perspective.

Very frequently,especially from official institutions and dominant perspectives, "Hispanics" are categorized as trouble population, perceived as a social problem: low income, unemployed, poor, associated with school dropouts, early pregnancies, drugs, and crime.

Other times, the label "Hispanics" constructs an active population of consumers, a market segment. And still other times, especially when its voting capacity is recognized, "Hispanics" are constructed as citizens.

Although the label "Latino" is a grassroots alternative designator, it stills homogenizes and creates a stereotype. In the 1990s the use of this term became popular. Using "Latino/a" was a conscious choice different to the imposed label "Hispanic." Scholars like David Hayes-Bautista and Jorge Chapa have argued that the term "Latino" is more political than

For public health practitioners and policymakers there is a need for using a standardized ethnic umbrella term that accurately describes a specific population. There is a recent debate in the Journal of Public Health (187) that discusses the advantages and disadvantages of both terms "Hispanics" and "Latino." Scholars like Hayes-Bautista and Chapa make the argument that the "Latino" term is more accurate for describing people from Latin American origin because it is political and is "nationally-derived." They claim that this population cannot be described as a racial group. As Oboler explains, they "defend the use of "Latino" as a substitute for "Hispanic" in an attempt to embrace all Latin American nationalities, including those which neither have ties to Spain nor are necessarily Spanish-dominant groups - for example Brazilians; second- and third-generation English-dominant U.S citizens, particularly within the Chicano and Puerto Rican populations, as well as among the second and later generations of Latin American descent, English-speaking Panamanians; and various non-Spanish-speaking indigenous groups from diverse Latin American regions."(4)

In the U.S. ethnicity is important for accessing governmental resources such as housing, education resource, as well for building political power. As Obeler explains, "the post-1960 distribution and withdrawal of resources by the state in ethnic terms has led some scholars to identify the common grounds on which Latinos can and do forge panethnic unity." (5) Felix M. Padilla, for instance, argues in "Latino Ethnic Consciousness" that the population from Latin American origins, specifically the Chicano and Puerto Ricans groups, needs to collaborate in the political struggle for equality and justice regardless of their national origins and cultural differences. The use of a panethnic label could be useful for dealing with the minority and oppressed status of the group.

Padilla argues that "the expression of Latino ethnic conscious behavior is situationally specific, crystallized under certain circumstances of inequality experience shared by more than one Spanish-speaking group at a point in time." Hence, the use of an umbrella term is useful for mobilizing communities who are marginalized and unprivileged. According to Padilla, the "situational Latinismo" is strategic in the U.S context can be helpful for integrated resource-poor groups that deal with hostility and frustration. As he explains, "The Latino-conscious persons sees himself as a Latino sometimes and a s Puerto Rican, Mexican Amercian, Cuban and the Like at other times."

Padilla's situational approach to "Latinismo" solves in a way the problem of homogenization that umbrella terms create.

"The problem facing social scientists and public health specialists in trying to make sense of the data collected by federal, state, and other agencies is a problem not only of comparability but of meaning....To speak about "Hispanic" fertility, child-rearing habits, health subculture, migration patterns, etc. is to engage in empty talk, at best, or in stereotyping. The heterogeneity of national origin groups, in turn, undermines generalizations about the entire group."

Because umbrella terms homogenize populations they cannot really describe the differences between various nationality groups according to class and socioeconomic status. Gimenez raises the questions "What is the meaning of the data gathered about this population?"

In the US society, ethnic labels play an important role for defining and articulating social and political positions. Ethnicity shapes the the institutional and social life in the US. Hence the importance of labeling a Hispanic ethic-community for talking about a heterogeneous immigrant population.


However, there are advantages in the use of an imposed umbrella term as "Hispanics" because it enables access to resources and making demands from an ethnic kind of policy. Under certain circumstances, such as the ones of inequality, the use of the term could be useful for political unity and for competing for resources. Some scholars, like Fernando Trevino, have pointed out the benefits of continuing using the term "Hispanics" becuase it is a well known term in the U.S and can be used for getting access to resources, organizing communities, and articulate policies inside the "ethincally based policy structure of the U.S government." Trevino highlights the fact that the national statistical data systems in the U.S use the term "Hispanics" and introducing a new terminology could be confusing and affect "Hispanics" competition with blacks and other groups for government resources.

In Oboler analysis, US national identity and imagined community are important concepts for understanding the the construction of the term "Hispanic." According to her, Spanish language, is not part of the US imagined community but it has been at the center of US history.

Historically, different meanings and social values have been associated with the term according to specific historical periods of time.

Oboler looks at the different meanings that the term "Hispanic" has had in the history of the USA and explains them in the context of a society that is segregated. Important historical and economic contexts are the war against Mexico, the occupation of Puerto Rico, the decades after the WW II, the civic rights movement, and the post 1980s globalized world.

"The particular historical and economic conjuncture during which the various Latin American populations are entering the country today has also differentially shaped each national group's experiences in the United States." (9)

Oboler argues for a reassessment of the ethnic assimilation paradigm as a model for analyzing Latinos as a homogeneous group. The experience of this population is heterogeneous and depends not only of national, racial, linguistic, and class, but also the historical, geopolitcial, and economic context. Assimilation patterns from Europeans immigrants don't apply well to the experiences of the Latino populations.

  • Conquest of the Southwest: The Mexican-American War (1846-48), the conquest of Mexico's lands, and the annexation of Texas occurred during a period of U.S territorial expansion and consolidation of national economy. Mexican populations living in the north of the country had to decide if they wanted to become U.S citizens. Oboler points out that these northern Mexican people was inserted to the U.S economy very fast and they ended "building the transportation infrastructure of the emerging nation and developing its mining and agricultural resources." (8)
  • Military occupation of Puerto Rico after 1898: happens at a time where US is searching for markets to distribute its industrial production. The Island of Puerto Rico became an important metropolis for overseas markets and a source of human and national resources. In the 20th Century, during the period of postwar there is a massive migration of unemployed Puerto Ricans to the U.S east coast.
  • Post World Wars and changes in global economy: economic growth and industrial expansion in the US and later a shrinking. Different kind of jobs available to immigrants. Decline of an industrial economy and little demand for unskilled labor. The "more recent immigrant groups cannot follow the kinds of labor market insertion open to earlier European groups" "

  • Post 1960s immigrants of political and geographic factors specific to the history of all the nations in the Western Hemisphere: effects of the presence and impact of US capital in Latin American countries economic development, as well military interventions. For instance, Guatemala (1954), Cuba (1961), Dominican Republic (1965), Nicaragua (1980s), Panama (1989).

As Oboler explains, although labels are ahistorical, they "incorporate specific social contradictions that their emergence and dissemination may originally have intended to quell." The contemporary experiences of Latina American immigrants today cannot be understood without serious consideration of the context of "historical discrimination shaped in relation to Chicanos and Puerto Ricans." (16)

The emergence of the ethnic label "Hispanics".

Construction of a homogenous ethnic group are made by different sectors of the society who attach different values and make different representations.

Hispanics sometimes are categorized as "low-income people" who confront "unusual poverty and unemployment," who speak Spanish language and don't want to learn English, and who don't want to embrace being Americans.

As Oboler explains, "From the perspective of the dominant society, for example, Hispanic ethnicity is perceived as welfare-riden -hence, "Hispanics" become a "social problem." From the perspective of business entrepreneurs, however, the term "Hispanic ethnicity" identtifies a lucrative market segment and good box office -in this context, then, those labeled as Hispanics are created as consumers. Moreover, some scholars have pointed to the growing numbers of the Hispanic community as indicating that Latinos constitute a 'growing force to be reconed with,' suggesting that its potential unity makes it a powerful voting block. In shis situation, the label constructs 'Hispanics' as citizens." (14)

The Roots of Hispanic Homogenization

According to Oboler the construction of the "Hispanic" label is very specific to the political and everyday life of the U.S society and it is rooted in an past ideological self-image and identity as a "melting pot" of immigrants, and its current redefinitions as an "ethnic mosaic."

As Oboler explains "people of Latin American descent in the United States have long been perceived homogeneously as 'foreign' to the image of 'being American' since the nineteenth century, regardless of the time and mode of their incorporation into the United States or their subsequent status as citizens of this nation."(18) Ideologies that justified the expansionism of the U.S in the 19th century conceived "foreign others" the people from Latin America and the Caribbean. These groups of people became the minorities that were excluded of "being American." The community of Americans was imagined as white, protestant, and anglo-saxon, despite the presence of people from other origins and the diversity of classes, races and national origins. The nation self-definition and public image was constructed in white-only terms.

Incorporation of Spanish-speaking populations from the Southwest was violent. The Mexican-American war (1846-1848) as key in the construction of the homogenizing category of Hispanics and the perception of people from Latin America in the U.S. although many Mexicans decided to accept U.S citizenship after the war, many small farmers who owned communal lands (ejidos) were expropriated of their territories. According to Obeler, this violence acts "underlay the eventual political and social subordination of large sectors of the Chicano populations." (23)

In order to keep privileges rich and elite Mexicans tried to create alliances with the Anglos and also identified themselves as Spanish-Americans as a strategy to cope with seegregationist-based dynamics of the Anglo society. As Oboler explains, "Spanish-American" was like an aphorism about color and class. The same occurred with the term "Hispanos" that started to be used by the elites of New Mexico during the early years of the 20th century in response to the American social and racial context. The term "hispanos" was a reference to the Spanish conquistadores who conquered those lands before and were Europeans. Some scholars, as Carey McWilliams, have explained the use of this term as a strategy to keep power and status in the the Anglo racial hierarchy, a "fantasy heritage" of racial purity. By claiming their whiteness this New Mexican elite tried to differentiate themselves from the mestizo (half-breed) Mexicans.

In the specific region of Texas, the commercial farm industry offered jobs to the Mexican populations of the region and dissolved the class structure of the Mexican farms. Mexicans became then landless and dependent wage laborers, subordinated to the Anglos. There are many accounts of the Texan Mexicans from the border who complained of the discriminatory practices of the Anglos.

In the U.S nation and society, as Oboler explains, the status hierarchy was "forged concomitantly with the construction of then nation's identity based on the belief in white, Anglo-Saxon, and Protestant superiority." As a consequence of this U.S identity, Mexican and other Latin American populations "came to be perceived homogeneously, and as culturally and ractially inferior in the U.S context.

Oboler claims that the U.S identity was "forged in the nineteenth century partially through the creation of racialized perceptions that homogenized Latin America's populations and that in turn set the context for the later emergence of the label Hispanic in the twentieth century"(18)