March 23, 2010 | The Arizona Republic | Original Article

Some Hispanics puzzle over race question on census form

The latest government census form is fairly straightforward, but question No. 9 has proved troubling for some Hispanics.

"It was confusing," says Jessica Valenzuela, a schoolteacher from Avondale. "I came to that question, and I just stopped. I didn't know what to put."

The question asks to which race residents of a home belong. The choices offered are White, Black, American Indian, Alaska native, various Asian descents, Hawaiian, Pacific Islanders and "some other race."

Valenzuela, like a lot of people, isn't quite sure where she fits in.

"Obviously, I'm not White," says Valenzuela, 37. "I would consider myself Hispanic or Mexican-American, but definitely not White. The form doesn't really leave you with another option, though."

The census does count Hispanics. That happens in Question 8, which asks if a resident is "of Hispanic, Latino or Spanish origin." Federal officials consider being Hispanic an ethnicity rather than a race.

But those who answer "yes" on Question 8 then sometimes are stumped by Question 9.

The issue is not a new one, says David Swanson, a professor of sociology at the University of California-Riverside, and chairman of the Census Advisory Committee of Professional Associations.

"They've been trying to play catch-up for several years," Swanson says. "This issue has never been an easy one."

One reason it's so thorny? People's thoughts on the subject change throughout the years. In the 1930 census, for example, "Mexican" was considered a race all to itself.

It also indicates how society's view of Americans of Mexican descent has evolved through the years. Many were taught in schools they belonged to the White race. Others, looking at the indigenous roots of many Mexicans and other Latin Americans, disagree with the label.

"It's been confusing for everybody ever since," Swanson says. "The census is always trying to keep up with changes in American culture, yet it needs to retain some consistency."

The first attempt to comprehensively tabulate people who are Hispanic didn't happen until 1970. Since then, an increasing number of Hispanics have marked "some other race." In the 2000 census, 48 percent of Hispanics described themselves as White while 42 percent chose "some other race."

"In this century, some people feel comfortable calling themselves Latinos, because it's all-encompassing," says Leo Cardenas, an area manager for the Census Bureau. "Other people want to be Chicano, others want to be Hispanic. . . . If you're looking at the form and you're thinking, 'That's not who I am,' that's your chance to identify yourself and state how you view yourself. It's self-identification, and you will be counted."

The fear of not being counted is what worries Susan Edwards.

The Phoenix woman, 62, cares for a 14-year-old girl whose birth parents are of Mexican descent. She wasn't comfortable identifying the child as White.

"How does the Census Bureau think brown is White?" Edwards says. "Don't tell me you don't get treated differently (than Anglo people). Calling her White is ridiculous."

But many Hispanics think of their birth certificates and how they were raised. They have no problem with the White label.

"I've always spoken Spanish, and I've always known who I am," says Norma Morales, 67, of Glendale. "But I was taught growing up that I was a member of the White race and of Hispanic descent. And I love both sides, and I connect with both sides."

However, she says she wasn't entirely pleased with the questionnaire.

"It just made me feel a little uneasy, like they were segregating us," she says.

When it comes to the question of Hispanic being an ethnicity, there is no easy answer. In fact, Swanson says there is no wrong response to the question.

"There is no set definition as to what race and ethnicity is," he says. "There's social categories, social constructs, self-identification, maybe some voting-rights acts, but there's no hard and set definition as to race and ethnicity."

Some people think of leaving the question blank, which doesn't solve the problem, either. An accurate count helps determine which communities receive funding and helps determine congressional districting.

For Valenzuela, the Avondale schoolteacher, the advice of letting her define herself may help clear things up. She set her census form aside after reaching Question 9. It's still on her dining table, waiting to be finished.

"I've never considered myself Caucasian," she says. "I'm not sure what to put, so it's still on the dining table to keep reminding me I have to finish it."