March 22, 2010 | The Palm Beach Post | Original Article

What 'Hispanic' isn't: New census finally will show distinctions

The Census Bureau has been trying to figure out how to count the nation's brown population for the better part of 50 years, since the arrival of people from south of the border signaled the titanic, continuing demographic shift.

Because most new arrivals spoke Spanish, the government during the Nixon administration labeled them Hispanics. The term gained a level of acceptance it didn't deserve and became a description for race, ethnicity and culture. To most people who are called Hispanic, the term still has little or no good meaning.

A derivative of the Latin word for Spain, Hispanic to Central and South Americans conjured images of the conquistadors. That is not a connotation they received fondly; many indigenous people blame Spanish explorers for destroying their civilization and consider Christopher Columbus a mass murderer.

Despite all the grumbling, the Census Bureau persisted, stuck with Hispanic and collected data that was inaccurate, misleading and often misused. For example, census counters who mistook Hispanic for a racial designation overlooked the fact that Hispanics can be black or white — or Asian. Routinely during the 1980s, government and private sector counters compared blacks and Hispanics with each other as growing minority groups, without acknowledging that many people belonged to both groups. The perception was that you could be black or Hispanic, but not both.

In recent years, a movement to replace Hispanic with Latino only has seemed to muddle the issue. "Latino" generally refers to anyone from Latin America, and the term has become popular for Mexican-Americans living in the Southwest.

But what is worse than an imprecise designation is two imprecise designations. Demographers have wasted a lot of time and energy during the past decade trying to explain the difference between a Hispanic and a Latino. Then they had a harder time assuring doubters that the distinction was worth making. For the 2010 Census, the bureau is doing more than ever to allow respondents to describe themselves.

Are you "of Hispanic, Latino, or Spanish origin?" the survey asks, and then offers specific choices: Mexican, Mexican American, Chicano, Puerto Rican, Cuban. People from other Hispanic, Latino or Spanish countries of origin are instructed to write in their homeland.

The next question deals with racial identity. Are you white, black, African-American, or Negro, American Indian or Alaska native? Asian Indian, Chinese, Filipino, Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese, Native Hawaiian, Guamanian or Chamorro? Hmong, Laotian, Thai, Pakistani? There are plenty of choices; there is write-in space, too. In other counts, respondents checked multiple boxes to reflect their mixed heritage. This time, with write-ins, the individual can identify himself and do it specifically.

It's safe to say that the Census Bureau offers the largest range of responses ever on questions of race and origin. It figures to be the most accurate picture ever taken of who we are as a nation.

In the case of the Mayans, this could be especially revealing. They started migrating to South Florida in the 1970s to escape a 30-year civil war in which more than 200,000 of their people died. Palm Beach County and the Treasure Coast have one of the largest Mayan populations outside of Central America — California also has large numbers of Mayans — but how many has been left to widely divergent guesses: 20,000 on the low side, 60,000 on the high.

Mayans have been famously reluctant to come forward in previous surveys because of deportation fears and a mistrust of government rooted in their homeland experience. Activists predict that many more will participate this time, and part of the reason is because they finally can call themselves Mayan.