CHICAGO — Let me introduce you to my fake Latino children. No, no, they’re real children — it’s just their Hispanic bona fides that are in question these days.
Up until four years ago, when they attended a nearly all-Caucasian private school, my two sons — who are part Mexican and Ecuadorean, half white and all American — always thought of themselves as white.
In 2008, I wrote a column about how far into subsequent generations could U.S.-born Latinos still claim to be Hispanic, quoting the boys as they described themselves. “I’m white,” said my older son, just 9 at the time, noting that despite his mom’s heritage he considered himself Caucasian because of his dad and: “I don’t know, ’cause I look more white — I’m white, I want to be white.”
My younger son, 7 at the time, declared, “I think I look more peach,” and despite my explanations that being Hispanic was an ethnicity and that his race was still white, he politely declined being classified as Latino. “I think I’d still like to be white.”
Oh, how times change. Just the other day, those same two boys had a strong reaction to me referring to them as white.
“We’re not white,” they said, practically in unison and looking at me as if I’d grown an extra head. Apparently, now that they’ve spent three years as somewhere-in-between students in a predominantly Mexican-American school, they’ve defaulted to being “other.”
Apparently, that “other” status comes with a small, manageable amount of taking flak in certain parts of our town for not being a “real,” Spanish-speaking Latino. Yet they also get to be the lone diversity component of groups that happen to be mostly white, like their extended family.
I told them the pendulum will swing depending on what group they happen to find themselves in, and to just get used to the absurdity of people’s label hang-ups.
Surely no group seems to revel in label wars as much as Hispanics, who constantly fight among themselves over whether to be called Hispanic or Latino, and whether the U.S. Census should consider either of those terms a new racial classification — even though it really isn’t.
Recently the question about who is a “real” Latino has centered on the topic of language. In the comments section of a story about why Ted Cruz, Texas’ Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate, doesn’t speak Spanish, someone posted: “If you want to connect to Latinos, learn to speak Spanish — language is culture.”
Ironically, at the same time on Twitter, another commenter was busily complaining about the sprinklings of Spanish in convention speeches: “Do all of the Latina/Latino Republicans think that speaking Spanish will improve the party’s polling numbers with that demographic?”
But don’t think this is a partisan issue. As San Antonio mayor Julian Castro was about to light up the stage of the Democratic National Convention, multiple news stories popped up about Castro’s inability to speak Spanish. Yes, even as he became the first Latino keynote speaker to address the DNC, he was getting knocked left and right as a “fake Latino.”
And, by the way, some of the same people pummeling Cruz and Castro for not speaking Spanish have also enthusiastically put down Craig Romney’s Spanish-language campaign ads on his father’s behalf on the grounds that speaking Spanish doesn’t make the Romneys more relatable to Hispanics.
These are big “wow” moments, especially in light of recent research illustrating what poor reputations Hispanics have with non-Latinos. How sad that — at least on the language issue — it appears we’re not safe from toxic “you’re different from us” animosity even among ourselves.
Maybe not having the advantage of being able to speak in two tongues is what makes it so plainly obvious to my kids, and both sides of their diverse family, that it’s ridiculous to boil an entire cultural heritage down to mere language acquisition.
Whether it was a family’s desire to assimilate by adopting English language, or extended mixed-language families like mine, or because speech specialists suggested a child with language difficulties stick to learning one tongue, no Hispanic who doesn’t speak Spanish should ever feel inauthentic.
And to those who need an accent or vocabulary to serve as a barometer of cultural legitimacy: A Fox News Latino poll recently confirmed for the umpteenth time that Hispanics’ most important issue is the economy. Let’s stick to talking about that, shall we?
ESTHER J. CEPEDA is a columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group.