Hispanic Or Latino? That Is The Question Sept. 15 to Oct. 15 is being celebrated as Hispanic Heritage Month, but the some say the word "Hispanic" should be retired, and would rather be referred to as Latino. Host Michel Martin speaks to four Latinos with varying opinions on the subject — syndicated columnist Ruben Navarrette, Afro-Latino Activist Roland Roebuck, "Ask a Mexican" columnist Gustavo Arellano and Tell Me More Planning Editor Luis Clemens.
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Hispanic Or Latino? That Is The Question

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Hispanic Or Latino? That Is The Question

Hispanic Or Latino? That Is The Question

Hispanic Or Latino? That Is The Question

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Sept. 15 to Oct. 15 is being celebrated as Hispanic Heritage Month, but the some say the word "Hispanic" should be retired, and would rather be referred to as Latino. Host Michel Martin speaks to four Latinos with varying opinions on the subject — syndicated columnist Ruben Navarrette, Afro-Latino Activist Roland Roebuck, "Ask a Mexican" columnist Gustavo Arellano and Tell Me More Planning Editor Luis Clemens.


I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. It's time for our weekly visit to the Barbershop, where the guys talk about what's in the news and what's on their minds. And this week, we're going for a different kind of shape-up than we usually do, you know, switching it up a little bit.

It's Hispanic Heritage Month, and to mark the occasion, we've decided to represent right here in the Barbershop. So sitting in the chairs for a shape-up this week are syndicated columnist Ruben Navarrette, who writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune and CNN.com, Gustavo Arellano, who writes the syndicated column "Ask a Mexican," community activist Roland Roebuck, and NPR editor Luis Clemens, our own. Welcome to you, and dare I say it? Hola.

Mr. RUBEN NAVARRETTE (Syndicated Columnist): Hola.

Mr. ROLAND ROEBUCK (Activist): Buenas.

Mr. GUSTAVO ARELLANO (Columnist): Hola.

LUIS CLEMENS: Como estas?

MARTIN: All right. And before we jump into other topics, I have to ask, this being Heritage Month, let's start with the title itself. Whenever, you know, I have to choose, I always have this little moment, you know, why Hispanic versus Latino Heritage Month? Does it matter? Gustavo, I'm going to start with you because this is actually something you've written about and thought about a lot. So Hispanic versus Latino, why? Which?

Mr. ARELLANO: Which one? Honestly for me, it's whatever people want to call themselves, whatever makes them more comfortable. Some people don't like either of the labels. They want to call themselves Chicano or Boricua, or whatever their particular labels may be.

The reason why it's called Hispanic Heritage Month is because it comes from the federal government deciding that hey, guess what? We're all Hispanics, and this happened - the urban myth is that Richard Nixon was the godfather of Hispanics. That's what Richard Rodriguez, the noted author said, but it was actually done during the Ford administration. And literally, it was done in the back room of some government hall where they took a poll. Should we call these people Latinos or Hispanic?

So Hispanic won. So in that case, that's why I don't like the term Hispanic. I don't like the government telling me what I should call myself. I'd prefer Latino. But again, if you want to call yourself Hispanic, then God bless you. Or Dios bless you, right?

MARTIN: Okay, why do you prefer Latino?

Ms. ARELLANO: Just because it's more out of, you know, out of eliminating the other part that I don't like. So I don't - I mean, I don't like Hispanic only for that term, so I'll use Latino. But me personally, I call myself Naranjedal(ph), a child of, you know, an orange-picker because I come from Orange County, California, and my grandparents were orange-pickers. So that's what I would call myself, and that's where - whenever I go across the country, that's what I tell people I call myself. But, of course, only a very limited amount of people can call themselves that. So if I'm going to express brotherhood with the fellow people that were colonized by the Spaniards or the Portuguese, then I'll just - I decide to call myself Latino.

MARTIN: Okay. Roland, what about you?

Mr. ROEBUCK: Well, this month should be called White Hispanic Heritage Month, because it allows an opportunity for white Hispanic to display their wares, and it also heightens the invisibility of Afro-Latinos that are seldom given a chance to participate in these national holidays. So we are invisible during the year, more so during White Hispanic Heritage Month.

MARTIN: Why do you say that? And for those who can't - you consider yourself Afro-Latino.

Mr. ROEBUCK: Yes, yes. But just look at the events. Ever since Celia Cruz died, Roberto Clemente is not around, people are scrambling to find Afro-Latinos to be recognized because they concentrate on two areas.

MARTIN: Now, you prefer Latino, as opposed to - you don't say Afro-Hispanic.

Mr. ROEBUCK: No. I say - if I'm going to use the Latino, it would be Afro-Latino because I want to acknowledge my Africanness, and I also want to recognize my cultural background, which is Puerto Rican. But I have to use both.

For me, Hispanic refers to white, Spanish-speaking individuals. So the whiter you are, the more inclined you will be to identify yourself as Hispanic. And this is prevalent throughout the Southern region of the United States. If you ask the average person on Columbia Road, do you consider yourself Hispanic? No. They will use a geographic identification.

MARTIN: A country, what country you're from. So anyway, so one of these days, maybe you'll come out of your shell, Roland, and tell us how you really feel.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Ruben, what about you? Latino versus Hispanic: Do you care?

Mr. NAVARRETTE: Thanks, Michel. First of all, I think it's a non-issue. I mean, there's about 1,001 other issues of import to the Latino community right now, and this isn't one of them. The comparison that I come to mind with is, you know, there's a debate - a somewhat little D debate in the black community: Should we be black or African-American? And you hear older African-Americans saying I've never been to Africa. How can I be African-American? I'm black. And at the end of the day, I mean, I'm with Gustavo on this. Call yourself what you want. It really doesn't matter.

I disagree with this idea that somehow it's about skin color, though. I think independent of the unique experience of Afro-Americans, Afro-Latinos, when I go to - and I've lived in Arizona and in Texas. There were dark-skinned Latinos in those places who call themselves Hispanic. There's a regional dimension to this. The word Hispanic may have a negative connotation in Los Angeles, but it doesn't have a negative connotation in New Mexico, Arizona, Texas and Colorado. In those places, people of all different complexions call themselves Hispanic. And really, at the end of the day, it doesn't really matter much.

And it's - you know, I think the significance of the term, though, is that once upon a time, a generation ago, Latinos were always sort of at loggerheads with each other, and we always looked for any excuse to fight it out - light skin, dark skin, Cuban, Puerto Rican, Mexican, whatever. Happy to report that in the age of this new nativism that seeps through the immigration community and the immigration debate, a lot of that has gone by the wayside and Latinos now are thinking of themselves as a collective, as one group, 49 million people in this country, a larger demographic than African-Americans…

MARTIN: I think it's 45.

Mr. NAVARRETTE: And this is a - 49. And then, as George Lopez says, those are only the Latinos who answer the door, you know, when somebody knocks. You know, and the census taker is there, so…

MARTIN: I get it. I get it. But I'm always so intrigued by this numbers thing with African-Americans. Like is it a competition over…

Mr. NAVARRETTE: Well, it's…

MARTIN: Like, it's a race?


MARTIN: I don't remember - I mean like a footrace. I don't mean like a color race.


MARTIN: But is like a competition over numbers? I'm sorry. I'm not getting that.

Mr. NAVARRETTE: Well, here's the thing. I think that if you - for instance, someone like a Bill Clinton came up very fluent in the African-American-white dynamic, the black-white world, if you don't have coming forward from this point on a fluency with the Latino dynamic and how that factors in all this, then a lot of what you believe in terms of race relations is going to be outdated. I think Washington, in many cases, defines race relations in black and white, and in the Southwest we just scratch our heads trying to figure out what that's about.

You know, NBC will do a special on race in America, black and white. So that's why the numbers are important. If you want to ignore a community, it often - it helps if you are not ignoring a community that will, by 2050, be a third of the entire country.

MARTIN: Well, I don't want to ignore Luis. Luis, where are you on this?

CLEMENS: Call me Hispanic. Call me Latino. Call me a Cuban-American. Just don't call me illegal.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CLEMENS: And the fact is that…

MARTIN: Okay. Just call…

CLEMENS: …the Pew Hispanic Survey from November 2008 found 44 percent prefer Hispanic, 16 percent prefer Latino, 37 percent don't care. No preference. Majority prefer country of origin.


Mr. NAVARRETTE: That's true.

MARTIN: Which, in your case would be?

CLEMENS: Cuban-American.

MARTIN: Cuban-American. Okay.

CLEMENS: Represent.

MARTIN: Represent. Represent.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: And speaking of what some consider to be the more pressing issues, Ruben sent this rocket earlier this week as a way to celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month. And he's says that he's giving Hispanic immigrants a gift straight from the heart: a lecture. And I'll just read a short bit of his advice, as he's got 10 things that he thinks that Hispanic immigrants - particularly Hispanic, not exclusively, but particularly Hispanic immigrants, he says, should do to improve their relationship with the U.S.

Number one: All immigrants should enter legally. Number two: Learn English. Number three: Don't feel entitled to anything. Number four: Don't play the victim. Number five: Assimilate. Number six: Accept conditions to become legal. Number seven: Challenge both political parties. Number eight: Teach your children that education is indispensable. Number nine: Earn citizenship, then register and vote. Number 10: Put down roots. Give up this fantasy of returning home. Ladies and gentlemen, send the mail to Ruben, not to me.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: But Ruben, tell me: Why did you want to write this column, and what reaction are you getting to it?

Mr. NAVARRETTE: Right. Well, I'll tell you what. I have written a number of columns, five or six different columns, where I beat on Americans. I like to beat up on Americans. I like to beat up on Irish-Americans, Mexican-Americans, in particular, because I'm one of them, African-Americans. I think Americans have it soft. We've grown soft. We have not work ethic. We think in terms of entitlement. You know, our whole negotiation with most of bosses is most money for the least amount of work. And this is why I think immigrants often get a leg up on us when we're competing for jobs and the like.

Having said that, I was getting tons of mail from people for the last few years or so from people saying, you know, enough of this beating up on Americans. Why don't you tell Mexican immigrants in particular what to do and how they should behave when they get here? And why don't you give them a lecture? And, sure enough, after many years of thinking about it, I decided to put this column together, and the reaction was just off the charts. I think 90 percent of the Latinos who read this, just the Latinos, loved it. And they loved it. They thought it was great, even if they themselves were immigrants, especially if they themselves were immigrants, they loved it.

And among the greater population, I think 98 percent of them liked it. But I tell you, when you don't like this column, I mean, those people hated it with a passion. And the people who really hated it, you know, they think I'm a sellout, an Uncle Tom, how dare you, da da da da da, and they really, I think, got the wrong message from it. But a lot of others really liked it, and it's been a powerful column. It's very impactful.

MARTIN: Let me hear what some of the other views are. But before I do that, let's just say, if you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're having a special Barbershop in honor of the beginning of Hispanic Heritage Month with Ruben Navarrette, Luis Clemens, Gustavo Arellano and Roland Roebuck.

MARTIN: Roland, what do you think?

Mr. ROEBUCK: I didn't like the article. As a matter of fact, with all this, you know, full year(ph) that's taken place within the U.S., for Latinos to be subservient, to be obedient, to kiss up in order to be accepted, I find it ridiculous. And there are some undertones here with respect to the attitude of I deserve certain rights and certain privileges. The writer is really talking about black folk using the race card in order to secure certain rights.

We need to understand the legacy of slavery. We need to understand that the attitude of blacks is very different from the attitude of Latinos. And when we approach the white structure, we do it from that perspective. Latinos have not been oppressed as blacks, and that's why the discourse is very, very different. So I'm very upset with the article. I thought that Limbaugh wrote it, but upon reading the end of it…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ROEBUCK: …I found out that it was Mr. Navarrette.

MARTIN: Navarrette. Let him respond, and then we're going to hear from other views on this.

Mr. NAVARRETTE: Yeah. Let me respond.

MARTIN: Go ahead, Ruben.

Mr. NAVARRETTE: Brother, there are not enough couches in this country to let you unpack all the stuff you're carrying around in your head over your skin color. There are not enough couches and therapists in this country. That is your thing. That is your hang up, obviously. You and I are both Latinos, if you want to call it that…

Mr. ROEBUCK: No. No. I'm Afro-Latino.

Mr. NAVARRETTE: You know, but you talk about - well, first of all, listen. You've got something wrong. This idea somehow that Latinos have not suffered oppression the way that African-Americans have, certainly absent the idea of slavery, which is absolutely correct, African-Americans never had to suffer the indignity of being treated as second-class citizens in their home country, in their own country. They were treated as second-class citizens in someone else's country when they were brought here forcibly. This idea somehow…

MARTIN: I must say, I think this is our country, too. I'm sorry, we've been here since 1619, Ruben. Forgive me but, so…

Mr. NAVARRETTE: Right. But at least there was kind of - the whole Marcus Garvey idea was sort of the homeland idea. Go back to where - where exactly do Mexican-Americans go home to? I mean, so, there is this kind of ignorance, I think, bred pretty much on the East Coast, but lots of other places that somehow suggests that Latinos haven't been victims of lynchings, of Jim Crow laws. All that happened, it's just I blame history and the people who teach it, obviously. They don't really understand that. They haven't imparted that, so this is an ignorant statement that somehow Latinos haven't suffered.

MARTIN: I thought you said don't play the victim?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. NAVARRETTE: Well, I'm about truth telling. I mean, it is what it is.

MARTIN: All right. Let's hear what the other guys have to say about this. Gustavo, what do you have to say about this?

ARELLANO: Yeah, I'm always a fan of Ruben. I always have to defend his stuff among my friends who do call him a Tio Taco, which totally Ruben is not. He's a curmudgeon in the good old H. L. Mencken fashion. But this column…

MARTIN: He's not old enough to be a curmudgeon.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ARELLANO: Yeah, but Ruben writes like one. I try to like write like one, too. He must've written this column for my family, because my family did it all wrong. We came to this country in the trunk of a Chevy. My parents have been in this country about 45 years, still mostly speak Spanish. We're not - we don't feel we're entitled to anything, but we would be those typical idiot immigrants that Ruben seemingly is lecturing about, saying hey, you guys got to do it a certain way.

But you know what? My parents did it the entire wrong way, and guess where they're at? They have their middle-class house here in Anaheim, three children with college degrees, two of them with graduates. The youngest one is just started college. So we did it all wrong, and still, we're perfectly fine Americans.

I wish Ruben, and actually I would say even more columnists who write about this issue, that they would target not so much the Latino immigrants at large, but specifically the idiot immigrants. You know, target the chollos. Target the, you know, target those criminals because, you know, it's a small size - it's a small community, but they're the ones who need to be talked down to. They're the ones who need to be lectured at. The rest of us - I read this. I'm like well, duh, Ruben. We know this already.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ARELLANO: It doesn't need to be said again and again and again.


Mr. ARELLANO: That said, though, what Ruben said, I mean, I would have to agree with every - with most of the points that he did. But at the same time, again, we did it wrong and hey, we did okay and there's millions of us. And…

MARTIN: Let Luis get in on…

Mr. ARELLANO: …I don't think he was wrong.

MARTIN: Let Luis get an oar in the water before we go back to you, Ruben. Go ahead.

CLEMENS: Just quickly, when Ruben writes learn English, I guess the first people who should heed that message are the ones leaving those nasty grammatically incorrect online messages at the end of the article.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. NAVARRETTE: Amen. Amen.

CLEMENS: That's the first thing, and all those signs that misspell amnesty at protests and the like. But that said, I mean if the message is learn English, Ruben, you have to (Spanish spoken) and say it in Spanish and tell people who can't read your column.


CLEMENS: I think the message, you know, if you want to do it, you should be shouting it on the border with Tijuana, right from San Diego. I don't understand the notion of saying it in English in response to complaints from people, because it seems misdirected. It seems like playing points in an immigration argument.


CLEMENS: The folks who most need to hear your argument - need in the sense of that would address it - can't hear it.

MARTIN: Can I just Roland a quick question? Roland, you took issue with the column, but I mean isn't Roland - I mean, sorry. Isn't Ruben, in one side, just being practical and saying listen, if you really want to advance in this country, you have to learn English? Everybody here in this conversation is bilingual, which means you can all work in two worlds. I mean, so isn't that just a practical reality?

Mr. ROEBUCK: I don't have an issue with the fact that in order to enjoy this great democracy, you must learn English. I am in total agreement with it. But the way I view the article is that you have to learn English, then you have to assimilate, and there is a difference between the folk that he spoke about - the Irish, the Germans, etcetera. There is uniformity in terms of complexion. It is also very difficult for darker-skinned people to assimilate into the spaces that Dr. Navarrette is sharing with us.

MARTIN: Go ahead, Ruben. Final thought from you.

Mr. NAVARRETTE: Well, the column goes out in English because it's syndicated from the Washington Post Writers Group. I write in English, but it does get translated into Spanish. A number of my clients - a number of the 150 papers that run the column are Spanish-language papers, so there's a Spanish version of this very column. The other thing is people don't often read the column carefully enough before they go off on it. But there are various places in this column where I'm bashing Americans. I'm talking about Americans feeling entitled and how immigrants would be well to stay away from that sort of thing.

So a lot of the negative mail I got was from people who were defending the rights of Americans - the honor of Americans for being slighted by this column. So, you know, even people who were critical of it would have to agree with it. Also, Gustavo talked about doing it wrong. I don't think his parents did it wrong at all, because obviously they taught their kids for instance that education's indispensable. That's on the list. Maybe they challenge both political parties. I don't know if they do or they don't…


Mr. NAVARRETTE: Maybe they registered and voted and became legal.

Mr. ARELLANO: Yeah, they vote for none of them.


Mr. NAVARRETTE: You know, so I think a lot people out there do believe in the sort of self-help message that they can improve their own situation.

MARTIN: Well, we have to leave it there for now. Our regular cast of Barbershop regulars will be back next week.

I want to thank Ruben Navarrette, a syndicated columnist who writes for the San Diego Union Tribune and CNN.com, and he joined us from San Diego. Gustavo Arellano is the author of "Orange County: A Personal History." He writes the syndicated column "Ask a Mexican," and he joined us from Villa Park, California. Roland Roebuck is an Afro-Latino Activist. Luis Clemens is TELL ME MORE's planning editor, and they were both here in our Washington, D.C. studios.

Gentlemen, thank you all so much.

CLEMENS: Gracias.

Mr. ROEBUCK: Gracias.

Mr. NAVARRETTE: Thank you.

Mr. ARELLANO: Thank you.

MARTIN: And that's our program for today.

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