sonia sotomayor

A funny thing has happened to Latin@s on their way to full representation in Congress, other political offices, and the media. They’ve come to embody everything that is quintessentially American in a way that Cesar Chavez could only have dreamed about.

When Chavez died in 1993, the most recent U.S. Census, the one from 1990, distinguished between Whites and Hispanic/Latinos as races. These days, “Hispanic origins are not races” and have their own checkmarking category apart from the race questionnaire. In fact, they’re not on the race questionnaire at all. This may come as a splash of cold water to someone like Jesse Jackson, whose Operation PUSH recently shamed top Silicon Valley companies into publishing their hiring data on blacks and Latinos.

Contrasting signifiers like these imply that Latin@s occupy a liminal status, not quite racial, but not quite non-racial, either. This seems exactly where most Americans have wanted to position themselves ever since the 1960s’ advent of “-American” labels (e.g. Irish-American, Italian-American, etc.): all of the benefits of ethnic pride and none of the drawbacks of police profiling. Too bad it doesn’t always work that way in practice. Latin@s are still disproportionate sufferers of bias, and not just from police, but mortgage companies, government agencies, and businesses who look more enthusiastically at a resume from a Rogers than a Rodriguez.

Nonetheless, Latin@s continue to represent and even give new meaning to the American Dream. Like all of us who aren’t pureblood indigenous, they are immigrants or descendants of immigrants. They are at minimum bilingual (some speak more than two languages, obviously), as were all our founding fathers. Throughout their history, they were often cordoned off into their own neighborhoods, discriminated against in the workforce, threatened with deportation, and verbally and physically harassed…not unlike most of our ancestors. Now, things are better, but still improveable.

There is a rich history of literature about African Americans “passing” as whites. The same literature doesn’t exist for Latin@s partly because when they “pass” it isn’t quite the same disruptive effect as, say, a woman playing on an NFL team. Some Latin@s experience the same discrimination as blacks, but others, often lighter ones, for example Raquel Welch and Cameron Diaz, seem to be accepted for who they are. Perhaps they’re considered white or perhaps they’re considered slightly better than white; you can’t say because no one says. But still, tensions arise as borders get crossed again and again, externally and internally. Sometimes this can happen at the same time, as one of my students discovered when she was a little girl. She could “pass,” and when she was six, at the U.S.-Mexican border, a guard told her, in effect, “tell your mother to learn English.” Cesar Chavez’s birthday is a holiday, but it isn’t. Mexicans keep winning Oscars, but they’re technically not Mexican-American. People on TV and in movies are speaking Spanish and Spanglish, but they’re not.

A book I teach, Harry M. Benshoff and Sean Griffin’s “America on Film,” has chapters titled “African Americans,” “Native Americans,” “Asian Americans,” and “Latinos.” The suffix “-American” isn’t necessary. Not only that, but academic Latinos have been rather forward-looking in their literature, and one often sees “Latin@s” as a more gender-neutral term. “Hispanic” technically includes people descended or hailing from Spain – meaning that the beautiful couple Javier Bardem and Penelope Cruz, who might otherwise simply be considered white, have associations with greater pluralism (they were “counted” as non-white when journalists cited this year’s Oscars as the whitest since 1998). Again and again, Latin@s, as a group, come to represent the past and the future of American aspirations.

Latin@s are now 17% of the American population and growing, which adds up to 53 million people. Of these, 38 million identify as Hispano-hablante (Spanish-speaking); the United States has recently passed Spain, Argentina, and Columbia to become the country with the second-largest group of Spanish speakers (after Mexico). They are clearly a long, long way from being 17% of the United States Congress (though they are now 11% of the Supreme Court – thanks President Obama and Sonia Sotomayor!), making it very clear what language young D.C. lobbyists should start learning. As part of their ongoing growth, Latin@s have become central to America’s political process, America’s swing voters.

Thomas Edsall’s latest piece illustrates some of what’s going on. As recently as the early 80s, Latinos represented tiny slivers of the American urban population outside the Southwest; now, they are roughly even with whites and blacks (around 30% each) in Chicago. Edsall calls this an advantage for Democrats, because historical white-black polarizations will start to fade, creating 3-way contests for Democratic attention and alienating fewer swing voters. Indeed, Edsall seems to believe that as Hispanics push into urban centers and push blacks and other Hispanics out into the suburbs, these reliably Democratic voters have the possibility to disrupt suburban districts that were gerrymandered in 2010 to be “safe” Republican districts. Edsall also notes, almost racistly, that “the influx into the suburbs of minorities and the poor – which raises the possibility of attendant tax increases, property value declines, social service demands and crime — could push local whites to the right, into Republican arms.”

But let’s not dwell there. In the current war-weary, warrantless-wiretapped century, we have to look hard for good news that has nothing to do with digital innovation. This counts. As America becomes more Latin@, America becomes better, and not just because of more Mexican food restaurants. When politicians, civic leaders, and the media genuflect to Hispanics and Latin@s, we find them to be more compassionate, more forward-looking, and even more inclusive of other marginalized groups and women. We should we welcome the centralizing of the Latino spirit into the American narrative. Well, I do welcome it. Bring on the rainbow that Chavez could only dream about. Viva el arco iris.