How did this movement start?
It was the activists who first went to the Census Bureau and said, ‘You have got to create a category. You have got to distinguish us from whites.’ Up until that time, the Census Bureau mainly grouped Mexican Americans, Puerto Ricans and Cubans in the same category as Irish and Italian, and that became a real problem because it couldn’t show the government the poverty rates between Mexicans and whites. There was pushback on how large and how broad the category could be, but ultimately, a Hispanic category was established.
How was the category sold to Latin Americans?
The Census Bureau asked activists and the Spanish-language media to promote the category. The media created documentaries and commercials. There was even a Telethon where people called in, and were encouraged to identify as Hispanic on the Census form. We can see why the media executives were so happy and so quick to help the Census Bureau because, later on, it became in their interests to help grow that cooperation.
Why was that?
Until that time, Spanish-language media executives had been creating separate television stations and programming for Mexican Americans, Puerto Ricans and Cubans. Suddenly they were able to start using some of this broad Census data and go to advertisers like McDonald’s and Coca Cola and say, ‘Look, we’re a national Hispanic community and our consumer needs are different so invest in us and we will get you Hispanic consumer dollars.’ With that strategy, they were able to connect stations across the country, and over time, create a Spanish-language McDonald’s commercial that could broadcast to a national audience…
Weren’t there enough Mexican Americans to warrant their own category?
In the 1970s, this was fine if you wanted to capture the California governor’s attention, but it wasn’t enough for capturing President Nixon or President Ford’s attention, and it certainly wasn’t enough for capturing the attention of East Coast politicians because many of them had never even met a Mexican. But when activists were able to cite the number of Cubans in Florida, Puerto Ricans in New York, Salvadorans in DC and Mexicans in the Southwest, and when they were able to argue that these groups were all connected and were all in need of resources for job training programs and bilingual education, then they were onto something. It was only then that activists could get federal attention – by making Latin American groups seem like part of a national constituency.
Interesting blend of an emerging presence in the United States, developing Census definitions, and new marketing and media opportunities. This is another reminder of the fluidity of racial and ethnic categories in the United States and the various influences shaping those categories.