Oboler, N. (1995) Ethnic Labels, Latino Lives : Identity and the Politics of (Re) Presentation in the United States. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
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."
However, 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?"
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.
Different meanings 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 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.
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 imagined community.
The emergence of the ethnic label "Hispanics".