Growing up in a Mexican-American household, I was quite familiar with the term “Viva la raza!” Anytime there was a party or gathering at our house, it was normal for someone to get excited and yell this out. One day, I asked my father what it meant. “La raza means the race,” he explained. “That’s us, Mexicanos. So Viva la raza means ‘Long live our people.’ Get it?” I nodded. I got it.
Not so long afterward, I was sitting in my third-grade science class at school. “There are three races,” my teacher intoned a now discredited theory. “Caucasian, Mongoloid, and Negroid. Everyone in the world belongs to one of these three races.”
I raised my hand. “What about la raza?” I asked.
My teacher gave me a blank look. “What’s that?”
“You know, like Mexicans,” I offered.
My science teacher glared at me. “Mexicans are not a race. I just told you there are three races. Weren’t you listening?”
I didn’t say anything. I didn’t get it.
Back then, I had no concept of race and ethnicity; I was just confused that what I learned at home didn’t match what I learned at school. But such cultural conundrums remain a fact of life for Latinos. In March 120 million households received their questionnaire for the 2010 Census, and it has left many Hispanics perplexed.
Question 8 asks whether a person is of Hispanic, Latino, or Spanish origin, and then lists possible answers ranging from Mexican-American to Cuban to Spaniard.
It is Question 9 that has confused Hispanics. It asks one’s race, and the possible answers are White, Black, American Indian, Chinese, Filipino, Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese, Native Hawaiian, and Samoan. Responders are allowed to check as many boxes as they like.
Excuse me, but when did nationalities like “Japanese” and “Korean” become a race?
And in the interest of accuracy, what is the best answer to Question 9 for Latinos? The overwhelming majority of Hispanics are a combination of Spanish and indigenous peoples, yet there is no box to check off “Biracial” or “Mixed race.”
Question 9 does offer a write-in option, under the heading “Some other race.” That conjures up a vision of someone from another planet.
Officially, the federal government considers race and Hispanic origin to be two separate and distinct concepts. In accordance with regulations devised by the Office of Management and Budget, the Census Bureau says that people may answer Question 9 based on self-identification. Does this mean that the concept of race is subjective? That seems even crazier than my third-grade teacher telling me la raza did not exist!
According to the Pew Center, 54 percent of Hispanics identify as white, while only 1.5 percent identify as black. A full 40 percent do not identify with any race. So perhaps the Census Bureau might want to reconsider their categories for “race” in the future.
Today, many reject the notion of race altogether based on genetic research. Instead, they favor ethnicity. It seems to me that the best option might be to offer four simple choices: white, black, Asian, and multiracial.
Barring such a practical solution, I have one more suggestion. If the Census Bureau intends to continue to mix things up with regard to race, culture, and ethnicity, I propose another option, besides white and black. For Hispanics, it’s one size fits all and it never goes out of style. It’s called brown.
Raul A. Reyes is an attorney and columnist in New York City. A third-generation Mexican-American, he writes frequently on issues affecting the Latino community.This essay originally appeared at mylatinovoice.com .