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Hispanic Labels Don’t Fit

Pew research finds fewer than a quarter call themselves Hispanic or Latino
  • April 10 2012

It has been nearly four decades since the U.S. government mandated the use by federal agencies of the terms "Hispanic" or "Latino" to categorize Americans who trace their roots to Spanish-speaking countries. But the labels still haven't been embraced by the groups to which they have been affixed, according to a survey from the Pew Hispanic Center.

Or put another way, people who trace their ancestry to Mexico or the Dominican Republic are as likely to call themselves Hispanics as people who trace their ancestry to Germany or Ireland are to call themselves European Americans. Hispanic/Latino is a broad label and many people simply don’t describe themselves that way.

In the Pew survey, only about one quarter (24 percent) of Hispanic adults say they most often identify themselves by "Hispanic" or "Latino." About half (51 percent) say they identify themselves most often by their family's country or place of origin, using such terms as Mexican, Cuban, Puerto Rican, Salvadoran or Dominican. And 21 percent say they use the term "American" most often to describe themselves. The share of those who use “American” rises to 40 percent among those who were born in the U.S.

By a ratio of more than two-to-one, survey respondents say they do not see a common culture among U.S. Hispanics. 69 percent say Latinos in the U.S. have many different cultures, while 29 percent say Hispanics share a common culture. Respondents do, however, express a strong, shared connection to the Spanish language. More than eight-in-ten Latino adults in the Pew survey say they speak Spanish, and nearly all say it is important for future generations to continue to do so.

Hispanics are also divided over how much of a common identity they share with other Americans. Nearly half (47 percent) say they are a typical American, while another 47 percent say they are very different from the typical American. Foreign-born Hispanics are less likely than native-born Hispanics to say they are a typical American—34 percent versus 66 percent.

The Pew study also examines Hispanic attitudes toward “The American Experience.” The U.S. is seen as better than Latinos’ countries of origin in many ways—but not in all ways. Fully 87 percent of Latino adults say the opportunity to get ahead is better in the U.S. than in the country of their ancestors; 72 percent say the U.S. is better for raising children than their home country; 69 percent say the poor are treated better in the U.S.; and a plurality of 44 percent say moral values are better here than in their homelands. However, when it comes to the strength of family ties, a plurality (39 percent) say the home country of their ancestors is better, while 33 percent say the strength of family ties is better in the U.S.

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