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The Making of “Latinos”


In early November 2004, I was sitting in my Hong Kong office sifting through the results of the just completed elections when I saw that two Hispanics had been elected to the U.S. Senate: a Mexican-American from Colorado, Ken Salazar, and a Cuban-American from Florida, Mel Martinez. Even more eye-popping was the fact that Hispanics had given George W. Bush 43 percent support across the country. As editor of the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal’s Asia edition at the time, I usually wrote about Asian matters, but I decided this time to write an op-ed celebrating all these trends. The result was “Hispanics for Jorge,” published on November 8, 2004.

While the piece was in editing I received a phone call from some guy on the news side of the paper in New York who had noticed the piece in the queue and informed me that I had to change all the references from Hispanics to Latinos. My response was something like “Huh?” Something seemed to have changed stateside during the nine previous years, when I had been posted to Hong Kong and Brussels. Yes, he went on, he had convinced the news-side editors at the paper that the politically correct way to describe Hispanics was as Latinos, because “this is what they themselves use.”

Surely when they speak Spanish they do, I responded, but why are we going to take a phrase from Spanish and pluck it into English? We don’t say “I’m going to Paree” or “Berlusconi is the Italiano prime minister” unless our purpose is affectation. Worse, the purpose was more of the same politically correct minority coddling that was doing so much damage to the coddled.

The little martinet at the other end of the line would not be persuaded. Finally, I used the last arrow in my quiver. “You know,” I said, “I’m one of these Hispanics you keep going on about, and you’re not. Shouldn’t my opinion matter in this?” Nope, came the reply. He had looked into this matter for years and had met with several ethnic group leaders, and this was the right approach, he said.

Forget Self-Description

I called my editor at the editorial page, George Melloan, and he reassured me, “No, you don’t need to change anything.” That silliness applied only to the news side, not to the editorial page. I’m happy to report that as of this writing, Dow Jones has dropped its only-Latinos rule, probably one of many salutary changes that came after Rupert Murdoch bought the company. Using Hispanics as an agglutinative label for different cultural groups was bad enough; groping now for another term struck me as replicating with Latin American immigrants the same endless iterative process that we have seen with African-Americans (the latest iteration at the time of this writing); this silly search for new labels did nothing to address real issues.

This silly search for new labels does nothing to address real issues.

There was a replay in 2010, when, having become vice president of communications at the Heritage Foundation, I wrote a piece for Politico, also on Hispanics and politics. The verdict was the same, except this time I couldn’t get around the rules. In the Politico piece I could not use “Hispanics” but had to write “Latinos” every time. I don’t know what ethnicity my Politico editor was; I remember she was very nice and listened to all my arguments, but she was not Hispanic.

These two instances constituted my own exposure to how those in charge of the culture pretty much ignore the desires of the people in question and forge ahead with their decisions because they know what’s best.

The federal bureaucracy obviously felt it had to create Hispanics out of whole cloth to make sense of many disparate groups, and once formed, the group had to be given the contours of race, because to have protected status for the purpose of civil rights legislation, a group had to fall under the vague heading of people of color. The fact that Hispanics didn’t see themselves as one group and that the people themselves had expressed no interest in being considered as members of a minority—not even Mexican-Americans, the group that had been most discriminated against and the only ones who could claim a prior history of economic and social disadvantage—did not seem to matter to the Washington crowd.

Who’s the ‘Colonialist Oppressor,’ Now?

It was even sillier, then, that West Coast academics suddenly opined that “Hispanics” was a “colonial” term because it harked back to Spain’s colonization of Latin America, and we as a nation needed a new one. What this made clear once again is that to claim sensitivity to other cultures does not necessarily mean to know anything about them. Of all the terms that can be used, “Latinos” might be the silliest.

Of all the terms that can be used, ‘Latinos’ might be the silliest.

The Spanish-language term Latino America, from which Latino derives, was in fact created by the French, and what’s more, in one of Europe’s most blatant colonial misadventures in the Western Hemisphere: France’s attempt to forge an empire in Mexico, which it invaded in the 1860s while the United States was busy fighting the Civil War.

By popularizing a new phrase, the French were aiming to deemphasize the region’s ties to Spain and Portugal and create a larger connection to the Latin peoples of Europe—not just the Spanish and the Portuguese but also the French themselves. Up to that point, “Latin” had referred exclusively to the peoples of southern Europe who were conquered by the Roman Empire and adopted a version of their language—which was, to wit, Latin.

The French imperial exercise in Mexico was more tragicomedy than anything else, an operatic interlude in the history of the region. The Mexicans did not react well and promptly overthrew the empire and executed the French puppet Emperor Maximilian within three years, installing in his place their first Indian president, Benito Juarez, to boot. The term “Latin America” stuck, however.

More Language Manipulation

This was not the first time such a silly name had been imposed on people of the Western Hemisphere. When Columbus arrived, he famously called the natives of the place “Indians,” a term that is still with us to this day, also causing great confusion.

An identity wholly crafted by members of the bureaucracy is being foisted on people who may or may not be ready to accept it but who certainly did not initiate the effort.

Of course, one could go even farther back in history to discover the other, older “imperialistic” meaning of the word “Latino.” It harks back to the even earlier conquest of Spain, Portugal, Italy, and France by Latin-speaking Roman soldiers—not a nice colonial era, if you could interview my rock-throwing ancestors in Spain and Portugal back then. It is therefore surprising that anyone would ever have considered the term “Latino” less colonial and more politically correct than “Hispanic.” Many corporations have bought into it, however, as we can see from Dow Jones and Politico, if only to buy peace.

Whether Hispanic or Latino, it is clear that today’s generation feels some pressure to identify itself as members of a panethnic group. This came home to me in a conversation I had with a very young Los Angeles anchorwoman of Central American origin who identified herself as Latina in conversation with me in mid-2013. I asked why she did that, and she gave me a sheepish look. “I feel this is what I’m supposed to say,” she said.

One of the biggest ironies of this story is that an identity wholly crafted by members of the bureaucracy is being foisted on people who may or may not be ready to accept it but who certainly did not initiate the effort. Generally, it is assimilation and integration as an American that are popularly derided as coercing immigrants into “losing their identity.” Apparently no one has thought that forcing people to accept an identity they had never thought of—as Hispanics—also may be coercive.

The knowledge-making elites in the academy, the culture, and the media—always the handmaidens to the federal bureaucracy in liberal endeavors—have strongly nurtured the panethnic group identity. The Spanish-language media are one such strong force, working to create a Hispanic or Latino identity fit for a people who would vie for power not as individuals but as an ethnic group.

This is an excerpt of Gonzalez’s new book, “A Race for the Future: How Conservatives Can Break the Liberal Monopoly on Hispanic Americans,” (Random House, 2014). It’s available now by preorder, or in stores September 2.