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The Curve, CultureFirst, 2016—Gen X and Y Hispanics often navigate feelings of being “brownish”—either not American enough or not enough of one’s native culture.


At a recent dinner party in Brooklyn, a group of 20-something friends caught up over homemade chicken-and-rice stew, followed by flan. Nikol, Gabriela, Stephanie, Marie Elle, and Rafael have known one another since attending elementary school together in their native Puerto Rico. Now relocated to New York City, Nikol and her friends seem to have had a soft landing. They’re surrounded by familiar faces, eating a home-cooked meal, and living in one of the most diverse cities in the country (with a strong Puerto Rican community to tap into). But they all agree on one thing: they don’t fit in. And it’s a sentiment they feel as strongly in New York as they do in Puerto Rico.

Stephaniewho, to some, looks Caucasiansays that her native ethnicity is called into question at least once a week. She has taken to carrying a second form of ID with her at all times after a bouncer threw her driver’s license on the ground because he didn’t think she could possibly be Puerto Rican. A colleague once asked her if she dyes her hair blonde (she doesn’t). “The bodega guy was like, ‘Oh, you’re from Puerto Rico? You look so white.’ If the bodega guy doesn’t know who I am, then who am I?” Stephanie wondered.

“When I’m in Puerto Rico, everyone thinks I’m American—but when I’m here, I can’t totally relate because I didn’t grow up with a lot of the things here.”

—Nikol, 26, New York, NY

Nikol, who has a darker complexion, has been asked, “Why do you speak English so well?” Yet when she goes back to Puerto Rico, “I get called a gringa. But half of my family doesn’t even speak English!” Nikol is not alone: half (50%) of Hispanic respondents we spoke with reported having been called a gringo or a gringa.

This sentiment of feeling “brownish”either not American enough or not enough of one’s native culture, depending on the contextreveals the complex feelings around identity characteristics that exist, not only toward the Latino community but also within it. In fact, 71% of Hispanic respondents agree that they have faced racial stereotyping from someone within their own race. At a time when national headlines about race are primarily focused on Black and White America, our survey reveals that the discussion about race is more nuanced.

Fifty Shades of Latino

Let’s first address the elephant in the room: race. Talking about race is tricky, if not completely problematic, and we don’t claim to be experts on the intricate politics of race in America today. But after speaking with nearly 2,000 Hispanics of diverse ages, genders, cultural backgrounds, and income levels from across the country, we felt that, for a nation with a complexion that spans such a wide spectrum, the national discussion about race has become far too simplistic. As Rene, 28, of San Antonio put it: “The mainstream American dialogue is just polarized white and black. Then when it comes to Mexican Americans, we get talked about as illegal immigrants.” (See Rene’s essay on Chicano culture.)

Hispanics navigate a particularly complex racial identity. For one thing, there’s disagreement about whether “Hispanic” is a racial or strictly ethnic category. Illustrating how the concept of race is understood in America, federal agencies divide it into just five categories: “White,” “Black/African American,” “Asian,” “American Indian/Alaska Native,” and “Native Hawaiian/Other Pacific Islander.” However, according to a recent study by the Pew Research Center, about two-thirds of Hispanics consider their race to be “Hispanic,” at least in part. This was confirmed in our own study, in which 88% of Hispanic respondents agree (47%) or somewhat agree (41%) with the statement “I consider Hispanic to be part of my racial identity, not just my ethnic identity.”

Racial Reinvention

The societal limits on gender, sexuality, and identity itself are being lifted, and race and ethnicity are becoming much more subjective and abstract. As provocative as this might sound, we have heard about this from millennials and will hear about it even more from Gen Z. For instance, Isabelle, a 29-year-old white girl in San Antonio, says, “Sometimes I wish I were Mexican. My Mexican interests grew so much growing up as a kid that I wrote an alter-ego essay about how my name could technically be Isabella.” While this might appear to be just another case of cultural appropriation, for Isabelle it was much more sensitive and personal: her cultural experience legitimately felt more Latin than anything else.

Many Hispanics we spoke with agreed that the racial classifications in use today don’t accurately reflect how they see themselves: 82% of Hispanics agree with the statement “Race is becoming a continuum and needs more diverse classifications for all of the different kinds of people.” In Detroit, Laura, 24, told us, “I’m like the melting-pot dream team: I’m part Jewish, part Mexican, part Cuban.” Her mixed racial and cultural heritage has caused significant identity confusion, if not a full-blown crisis—and, to top it off, the culture she identifies with most is African American. Alejandra, 25, who lives in Austin but spent her formative years in an African American neighborhood of Atlanta, concurs: “I just have to say it, I feel more black than Latino.”

78% of Hispanic respondents report having been asked, What are you?” by people trying to figure out their racial or ethnic backgrounds.

As racial and cultural continuums expand, Hispanic millennials feel that they’re increasingly being forced to define and label their racial identities while not always fully understanding them. Yazmin, 29, of Detroit, explained: “I’ve done surveys before where I can’t get through the survey unless I said whether I was “Black” or “White Hispanic,” and it’s very frustrating. If I say I’m black, would that be culturally insensitive? Technically my skin is lighter, so am I supposed to say that I’m white? But I don’t identify with that culture. There’s a point where you have to be like, well, this is what I feel like I am, but then it never feels exactly right because neither of them fit.” In fact, there’s evidence that more and more Hispanics are becoming dissatisfied with the checkboxes available to describe their race. According to the 2010 U.S. Census, 37% of Hispanics selected “Some other race.”

Census Non-Consensus

Hispanics are especially likely to rethink their racial affiliation. According to the U.S. Census, 2.5 million Americans of Hispanic origin (approximately 7% of the 35 million Americans of Hispanic origin) changed their race from “Some other race” in 2000 to “White” in 2010. The journalist Nate Cohn, who pens demographic articles for the New York Times, wrote in 2014, “Race is an immutable characteristic for many white, black and Asian Americans. It is less clear for Americans of Hispanic origin.” The sociologist Héctor R. Cordero-Guzmán explains the phenomenon of white Hispanics as “a result of social confusion of Latinos having to inhabit the border of two different cultures. In one culture, Latinos may see themselves as one identity, yet in another culture, they may take on a different identity.” So for some Hispanics, racial identification increasingly depends on context.

80% of Hispanic respondents and 62% of non-Hispanic respondents agree: Race is subjective. People can be physically one race but mentally or emotionally another race.”

Making the issue all the more complex is the fact that self-identifying as White Hispanic or Afro Latino doesn’t necessarily mean that you identify with, have anything in common with, or enjoy the privileges of the dominant White or Black culture. Mari, 29, a Cuban American living in San Francisco who is profiled in TCK Rising, told us that people have a tough time placing her based on her light skin tone: “I’m definitely not Mexican. And I’m certainly not White American,” she insists. And yet, “I’m as American as I can be. I was born in the United States.” Today she doesn’t much care what people make of her, but she wasn’t always so confident. An ill-fated attempt in grade school to use self-tanner to make her skin look darker stained it bright yellow for weeks.

Latino Enough

The Latino American diaspora is a particularly complex landscape because “Latino” is an entirely self-defined and inexact categorization. A third-generation American with one-quarter Mexican ancestry, a first-generation Cuban, and someone whose great-grandparents emigrated from Spain and doesn’t speak a word of Spanish are all equally Latino. But different people hold different assumptions about what it means to be Latino—or to be “Latino enough.”

Sam, 25, of Austin feels that Hispanics have an undue burden to prove their racial and cultural identity in a way that other folks don’t have to. “When you’re talking about white people, do you ask, ‘Are you Protestant or are you Catholic?’ Do you ask black people, ‘Are you from Africa or are you from another country?’ Hispanics are forced to say, ‘This is specifically who I am.’” Both outside of and within Latino communities, there are stereotypes about what it means to look Cuban, Mexican, Puerto Rican, Salvadoran, and so on. For example, Alejandra explained, “I was dating a guy who was Panamanian. Dark-skinned. And this girl had an issue with the fact that we were dating. She was like, ‘Why are you with her? You should be with your kind.’ And he was like, ‘I am, actually. I’m Hispanic.’”

Nikol told us about going head to head with Nuyoricans from the Bronx who felt they were more Puerto Rican than she. “They’re of Puerto Rican descent and are very proud, but have never been there and don’t speak the language. And they want to be more Puerto Rican than me?” Rene, whose parents are first-generation Mexican Americans and who identifies as a Chicano activist, says that he’s been called out for not being Mexican enough. The evidence? He doesn’t eat barbacoa (braised beef head) and drink Big Red soda after church on Sundays. “Certain types have been like, ‘Oh, you haven’t done this? You’re not Mexican. I am more Mexican than you.’ I’m like, ‘Oh, my gosh. I didn’t know there was a checklist that I had to fulfill!’” In Detroit, it was the topic of Spanish fluency that sparked a lively debate. Manuel, 26, told us, “You hear a lot of people say they’re Latino, and you’ll start carrying on a conversation in Spanish, and they can’t talk to you.”

67% of Hispanic respondents agree: I’ve been told by someone of my own race, ethnicity, or culture that I am not legitimately part of that culture because I don’t act or behave the way I’m supposed to.”

But if being fluent in Spanish is a deciding factor for Latino legitimacy, a lot of prominent and powerful Hispanic activists might not make the cut. For example, former San Antonio mayor and current United States Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julián Castro isn’t fluent. In fact, 38% of the Hispanics we surveyed admitted they aren’t comfortable speaking Spanish. Additionally, 81% of Hispanics say that they don’t need to be fluent in Spanish for Spanish advertising to speak to them. In today’s society, the ability to speak Spanish is neither a measure of how Hispanic one is nor a barrier that limits what non-Spanish Hispanics connect with culturally.

Multiracial, Multifaceted

These stereotypes and judgments about what it means to be Hispanic have become all the more fraught for multiracial individuals, a growing group. Walter Thompson-Hernandez, a researcher at the Center for the Study of Immigrant Integration and the Program for Environmental and Regional Equity at the University of Southern California, studies and documents the identities of “Blaxicans,” individuals who have mixed Black and Mexican heritage. Thompson-Hernandez has personal knowledge of the racial tensions that exist between the African American and Mexican communities from his interactions in South Los Angeles (a neighborhood made famous by the race riots of the 1990s)—both in the streets and at home. He says that discriminatory remarks from both sides of his extended family have made it clear that neither side understands him. His Mexican family members have called black people “lazy,” adding, “‘Oh, those black people! Not you. You’re fine. You’re good. You’re not one of those,’” he recalls. On the flip side, his black relatives see him as an exotic other. “I wondered why my uncles and my cousins thought this way, and it wasn’t until I was older that I started to understand the historical context that has led to these ideologies…. It’s a tough experience. And it’s something that I think every Blaxican faces,” says Thompson-Hernandez. “As a Blaxican, you exist in this liminal middle ground where you aren’t deemed or considered Black enough or Mexican enough.” (Read more about Thompson-Hernandez in TCK Rising.)

Given the growing number of multicultural individuals in America, race issues will be even more complex in the future. Jose, 30, of Detroit believes that his mother has had it easier than he does because her identity is simple: she’s Mexican. He does, however, think that society is starting to come around to understanding the brownish predicament: “I feel like we’re now getting to a point where we’re comfortable talking about who we are. I can say, ‘I’m Mexican.’ Can I also say, ‘I’m French’? Can I also say, ‘I’m indigenous’? Probably.”

Brand Opportunities


While most of America focuses on the black and white racial discussion, recognize the struggles the Latino community also faces.


As the racial spectrum expands, people are becoming increasingly dissatisfied with checking off boxes to identify themselves—these simplifications don’t reflect who they are. Take this to heart in your representation of communities and when asking people for personal information.


Many Hispanics report feeling as if they have to prove their cultural heritage; make them feel that they’re “enough,” no matter what their cultural background is.

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