Four common myths about Hispanics living in the United States that won’t go away
By Horacio Sierra
Envious of Spain’s conquests in the Americas, British propagandists circulated “la leyenda negra,” the black legend, a series of writings that denigrated Spaniards and the Spanish Empire as cruel, haughty and intolerant, starting in the 1500s. Anglophones have propagated myths about Hispanic cultures ever since. Though Hispanics make up 18.3 percent of the U.S. population — the country’s largest minority group — many Americans continue to remix and reuse centuries-old stereotypes about them.
Here are four of the most common.
Myth No. 1
Hispanics are a racial group.
From CNN and Brookings Institution election exit polls to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention public health studies, Hispanics are often listed as a distinct racial group. When a diversity task force recommended the elimination of New York City’s school programs for gifted students, the committee and the news media lumped Hispanics into one racial category, calling the city’s Hispanic-majority schools “segregated” without paying attention to how racial differences among Hispanics affect identities and outcomes.
Hispanics constitute an ethnic community, not a race — a distinction evident on forms that ask if you’re non-Hispanic white or non-Hispanic black. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Hispanics identify as white (65 percent), “some other race” (27 percent), mixed race (5 percent), black (2 percent), indigenous (1 percent) and Asian (0.4 percent), among other designations.
Seeing Hispanics as a racial group erases our diversity and discounts the racism and pigmentocracy that plague Hispanic societies. To ask Afro-Hispanics to choose between being black and being Hispanic is to negate their unique identity. To ask white Hispanics to distance themselves from their European heritage is to diminish the important ways Spain helped shape the United States. From Spain’s blue-eyed King Felipe VI to members of Peru’s Japanese-descendant Fujimori political dynasty, Hispanics can look like anyone. Such differences require more nuance than we get when we consolidate Hispanics into one race.
Myth No. 2
Spanish is a foreign language in the United States.
Many viral videos in recent years have featured English-speaking Americans whining in front of Spanish-speaking Americans with profanity-laced tirades that showcase their xenoglossophobia (fear of foreign languages). Although the United States has never had an official language, bans on the use of German, the shuttering of Japanese-language schools and “English only” movements are scattered throughout the nation’s history. Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) has repeatedly introduced the “English Language Unity Act” to make English the country’s official language. And according to a 2018 Public Religion Research Institute poll, 83 percent of Americans believe that being able to speak English is “somewhat or very important to being American.”
But through it all, Spanish has remained the second-most-spoken language in the nation, which is not surprising considering that the U.S. population of 58 million Hispanics is more than Spain’s and second only to Mexico’s. In fact, Spanish was the first European language to be widely spoken in what is now the United States. Ponce de León’s 1513 report on Florida described natives speaking Spanish — either from contact with a previous Spaniard or because they had immigrated from Spanish-speaking colonies. Ultimately, of course, indigenous tribes were here first. But once Europeans began to arrive, from Ponce de León in Florida (1513) to Lucas Vázquez in South Carolina (1526) to Hernando de Soto in Arkansas (1541), Hispanics mapped coastlines, established cities and celebrated an American Thanksgiving 50 years before English-speaking immigrants did.
Myth No. 3
Hispanics support liberal immigration policies.
A comprehensive Dallas Morning News report on immigration and the 2020 Latino vote said that President Trump’s immigration policies are “expected to fuel a historic turnout among Latinos.” The National Hispanic Leadership Agenda maintains that “federal immigration law and policy continues to be a top priority for the Latino community.”
Such claims create the sense that Hispanics naturally embrace liberal immigration policies. After the 2018 midterm elections saw Democrats lose Hispanic votes in Florida, Simon Rosenberg, president of the Democratic group NDN, cited Trump’s relentless attacks on immigrants and declared with surprise, “I don’t know what happened.”
What happened is that Hispanics do not speak in unison when it comes to immigration. In a Washington Post-ABC News poll from April, 36 percent of Hispanics described “the situation with illegal immigration across the U.S.-Mexico border” as “a crisis,” similar to the share of Americans overall who said the same. Organizations such as the Latino Coalition offer complex views: They support legal immigration, encourage stronger security to deter illegal immigration and oppose local municipalities that defy federal immigration laws.
Myth No. 4
‘Hispanic’ and ‘Latino’ are synonyms.
The frequent use of the slashed term “Hispanic/Latino” implies that the identities are interchangeable. From the Presbyterian Church to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, many organizations mirror the general public in switching between “Hispanic” and “Latino” mid-sentence. Similarly, a page of tips for quitting smoking from the CDC repeatedly equates the two words, noting, for example, “Among Hispanics/Latinos, cigarette smoking is more common in men than women.”
“Hispanic” stems from Hispania, the Roman Empire’s name for Spain, so it refers to the peoples and cultures of Spain and its former colonies. “Latino” describes the peoples and cultures where colonizers spoke Latin-derived languages such as Spanish, French and Portuguese. The term “Latin America” was coined in the 1800s to differentiate Romance-language-speaking areas from English- and Dutch-controlled territories: People from Brazil (Portuguese) and Haiti (French) can be considered Latino but not Hispanic.
The federal government has used the term “Hispanic” since the 1970s, when health official Grace Flores-Hughes argued that the community needed better services. Instead of continuing to be categorized as just white, Hispanics could now be classified as a distinct group separate from the Latino label, which could include Italians and Brazilians.
Horacio Sierra is an associate professor in the Department of Language, Literature, & Cultural Studies at Bowie State University.