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This author traveled across the country to ask: What does it mean to be Latino?


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

William Brangham: The numbers are in. Latinos account for more than half of population growth in the U.S., according to the latest census, and this evolution will continue to transform the American landscape.

But what does it mean to be Latino? That question is explored in an extended essay in the current issue of "Harper's Magazine."

Jeffrey Brown talks with author Hector Tobar for our arts and culture series, Canvas.

Hector Tobar: It's this name, this term that hangs on to us during our entire lives. We're just forced to choose tribes in this country.

Jeffrey Brown: As a child in Los Angeles, Hector Tobar was considered Guatemalan American. Later, on a census form, he checked Hispanic.

Now he's Latino.

Hector Tobar: What do these tribes mean? We're presented with these names of these different races, these ethnic groups as if they mean something to us.

It's being used to judge our actions, to make comments on how we approach our politics. And so I have been spending a couple of years now actually trying to sort of take apart the origins of the term and its meaning, and what it means both for us and how others see us.

Jeffrey Brown: As described in the current "Harper's Magazine," Tobar took a 9,000-mile road trip around the U.S. last winter amid the pandemic to see the diversity of history and experience of people of Latin American heritage, L.A., Oregon, Idaho, south to New Mexico, east to Texas, then Georgia, Florida, New York, and points west on the way home.

The article is accompanied by photographs by others capturing some of the spirit of specific places.

Hector Tobar: You have all these different stories of how people arrived at Latino identity.

So, in New Mexico, for example, people really think of themselves as Spanish, because that was the place that was most colonized by the Spanish during the Spanish empire. So, that identity, that Latino identity, is something very different from, let's say, South Florida, where you have this Cuban migration.

And so to be Latino means so many different things from New York to Los Angeles, to Dallas, Texas, to El Paso.

Jeffrey Brown: And you write: "We are brown, Black, white, indigenous, European, and African. Some of us speak Spanish. Some of us don't."

How much is that diversity understood?

Hector Tobar: I don't think it's understood very well at all.

I think that there is a real failure to understand the intimacies at the heart of the Latino experience, the ambivalence that people feel. You know, your average Latino immigrant, first-generation immigrant, is really conflicted about his or her or their identity. Where do I really belong? You know, am I really Mexican? Am I really Honduran? Am I really Cuban? I have American children now. Does that make me American?

You know, the inner turmoil of the Latino experience really is part of what defines us as a people.

Jeffrey Brown: The labels, though, you suggest, are always about distinguishing some part of the population from the dominant white population, especially now.

So, tell me what you see happening.

Hector Tobar: The United States people, the people of North America, have always sort of struggled with words to describe the people who come from the south, right, who come from Mexico, who come from the Caribbean.

In the 1930 census, Mexican was a race category, because American people sought to sort of explain or describe these darker-skinned mestizo people from Mexico, saw them as different. And so, for that one census, Mexican was a race. And now, most recently, I would say in the last 20 to 30 years, with all this furor over undocumented people and illegal immigration, Latino people have become this sort of brown race of people who are threatening to the United States, in the eyes of many people.

And so, there's been this racialization of Latino people.

Jeffrey Brown: Tobar notes differences in voting patterns among people he visited, strong reaction against the rhetoric of the Trump years, but also a move toward then-President Trump in some areas.

Hector Tobar: The 2020 election was, in many ways, a traumatic event for Latino people across the United States, because our people were at the center of the election.

And I think that remains true in United States politics, but especially in the 2020 election, where you had this politician whose rise in the GOP is linked to his xenophobic statements, to his statements against Mexican immigrants.

At the same time, when we go to the voting booth, that's not the only thing that's going to determine how we vote. And so this sort of failing to understand all of these different complications and subtleties in the Latino thinking process I think is what's been most frustrating to me.

Jeffrey Brown: Today, some people, young people especially -- and you write about your own children using the term Latinx. You can't help but think that the evolution of terms continues.

Hector Tobar: Oh, absolutely.

Latinx is something used by people who are kind of uncomfortable with the binaries in the Spanish language itself, with the masculine and the feminine genders that are assigned to nouns and subjects in Spanish language.

So, this new term Latinx has evolved, and now people are starting to use that term in ways that are not just about gender, but also about deconstructing Latino itself, because Latino is a term that is very Euro-centric. It's saying that we are tied to this European past, to this Spanish past.

A lot of us are very uncomfortable with that, because we have this indigenous descent. I'm part Mayan. Latino cancels out my Mayan identity. So, Latinx is a response also to that.

Jeffrey Brown: Tobar cites studies showing very few people using the term Latinx so far. But the use of different terms, he says, remains fluid.

His road trip and article are part of a larger project, an upcoming book on Latino identity today.

For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown.

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