Writing about the Hispanic identity is very difficult. That might be because it doesn’t exist. Maybe it’s just my Social Studies-esque “everything is discourse” sensibility talking, but regardless, I can’t help but notice that in the same way Foucault wrote “Before the end of the eighteenth century, man did not exist,” at Harvard, Hispanics don’t exist either.
I’m not trying to make some vague postmodernist argument about the social construction of race. Maybe there really is some ideal “Hispanic” floating around somewhere in Platonic heaven. But here on Earth, what really matters to Hispanics at Harvard, myself included, is what people actually see as the Hispanic identity, and how it impacts our interactions on campus. It is in this sense that the Hispanic identity is a problem — so fractured, diverse, and ill-defined that for all intents and purposes, it doesn’t exist.
The most obvious place where the Hispanic problem rears its head is in the mundane work of the U.S. Census Bureau. The Census questionnaire asks respondents to identify their race, presenting options for White, Black or African American, American Indian or Alaska Native, Asian, and Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander. “Hispanic” doesn’t make the list because the nature of Hispanicism encompasses various races. There are White Hispanics, Black Hispanics, and Asian Hispanics. Instead, the questionnaire asks in a separate question if the respondent identifies as Hispanic.
This solution addresses the narrow problem faced by the Census Bureau — identifying Hispanics — but, in a broader sense, it exemplifies a failure to fully understand how Hispanics actually identify themselves. Many Cubans, for example, do not consider themselves Hispanic but rather Cuban-American, an identity meant to recognize a particular culture, history, and set of traditions distinct from that of other Hispanics in the U.S. Differences in racial self-identification further distinguish Cubans: In 2004, 86 percent of Cubans identified themselves as white on the Census, while only 50 percent of Puerto Ricans did the same.
In general, Hispanics tend to identify much more with their country of origin than with the term Hispanic. According to Pew Research, only 24 percent of Hispanics use the terms Hispanic or Latino most often to describe their identity. Over half prefer instead to use their family’s country of origin to identify themselves.
Go to any Hispanic event at Harvard and you’ll see this diversity of identities. There are international students who identify more with their home countries than they do with the Hispanic population on campus. There are second-generation immigrants who grew up speaking the Spanish of their parent’s home culture. There are other second-generation immigrants who found a place within a local American-Hispanic culture, and still others who are Black and Hispanic and must balance those two identities. Misguided attempts to generalize Hispanics into one ethno-racial group is what leads people to be surprised when they see the 32 percent of Hispanics who voted Republican in 2020.
Some may see this fracturing of the Hispanic identity as a problem in light of issues with Hispanic representation on campus. In final clubs, for instance, the general consensus is that Hispanics are among the least represented groups. Some people hear mention of the “Black Fly” or a pipeline between Black Men’s Forum and final clubs and conclude that the answer to this lack of representation is to strengthen the institutional and social power of Hispanic affinity organizations, creating a strong, unified Hispanic identity on campus.
Well-intentioned as they may be, calls to create a shared Hispanic identity at Harvard are misguided. Hegel believed that the definition of an identity requires opposition with an Other. Many times this definition is needed, but in this case, in creating a defined Hispanic identity, we risk distancing ourselves from the rest of the student body — all in pursuit of reifying a community that doesn’t need to exist. Instead of trying to construct a community to match the term Hispanic, we should embrace the differences between Hispanic identities and try to learn from one another.
This is not to say that I don’t support the Hispanic affinity organizations on campus. People should embrace all those communities with which they identify; affinity organizations help them do just that. All I’m saying is that we should not lament the fact that Hispanics lack the social cohesion that other identities may have on campus. Instead, we should celebrate the differences between the Hispanic identities that make us who we are.
For someone writing a piece about identity, I haven’t talked a lot about my own so far. Yes, I am Hispanic, but knowing that doesn’t tell you anything about me. Instead of knowing me as a Hispanic student, you should know me as the son of two Colombian immigrants, someone who only speaks Spanish at home, who grew up in Atlanta and visits their family in Colombia often. I am Hispanic, but before that, I am an individual, who, like many, has a story that cannot be generalized into one overarching identity. As Hispanic Heritage Month begins, I urge you to listen to the stories — in the Crimson’s pages and beyond — that define each of us. Reading them, you’ll see the differences that, paradoxically, are what make us all Hispanic.
Manuel A. Yepes ’24, an Associate Editorial Editor, is a Social Studies concentrator in Cabot House.
This piece is part of a focus on Hispanic authors and experiences for Hispanic Heritage Month.