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The Name Game

By Joseph A. Acevedo

"Sticks and stones may break my bones," goes the old adage. "Names will never hurt me." But for many Spanish-speaking people, the matter of names cannot simply be brushed aside in a child's chant.

Over the past few years, ethnic groups have increasingly debated how to refer to themselves. As in the Black and Asian communities, leaders of the Spanish-speaking public have engaged in verbal onslaughts--arguing over the name their constituents should use to describe their ethnic background.

With Spanish speakers making up America's fastest growing minority, the question of group identification--and, more specifically, group nomenclature--has become more and more important.

But for a group striving to empower itself and to attain greater enfranchisement, time wasted trying to come up with a suitable name would be better spent on more meaningful pursuits.

Arecent NBC immigration poll indicated that the number of people of Hispanic origin in the United States grew 53 percent between 1980 and 1990. With this influx have come forceful voices calling for one name under which all Spanish speakers can unify. Earl Shorris, author of the recently published Latinos: Biography of the People, favors "Latino," a term whose very sound embodies the one strand that Shorris believes ties all of these people together: their common language.

Unfortunately, this term does not account for the myriad of second and third generations who consider themselves Latino or Hispanic, but may not even speak the language. Shorris deplores the use of "Hispanic," an anglicized designation defined as "pertaining to ancient Spain." He urges the emergence of a more accurate, all-inclusive term which would give greater political power to this group.

Shorris' aversion to the word "Hispanic" stems from his belief that it is often employed by social climbers, power seekers, Republicans and kings. In other words, the elitism which he feels the word connotes provides enough reason to abolish it.

For many years, the accepted colloquial term for Spanish speakers was simply "Spanish." This misleading and incorrect expression has been used by both non-Spanish and native speakers alike. Calling someone "Spanish" implies that that person is of Spanish descent (i.e., from Spain).

Very often, this is simply not the case. The actual number of Spaniards or "Spanish" entering the U.S. represents only a minute fraction of Hispanic immigration. Some have argued that the term is perfectly justifiable and legitimate because the origin of all Spanish-speakers can be traced back to Spain.

However, the connection most Latin Americans feel to Spain is often so remote that such an identification is patently absurd. Most Latinos (or Hispanics) agree that it is as ridiculous to call a Mexican or Dominican the same name given to a Spaniard as it is for Archie Bunker to characterize all people with Spanish surnames as Puerto Rican. To Archie's credit, the reality of demographics in New York at the time "All in the Family" was filmed makes his stereotype an understandable assumption.

Social patterns of conversation such as those used by Archie permit the random groupings of distinct populations to occur. With today's emphasis on ethnic pride, we should not tolerate such all-encompassing terms which tend to lump disparate groups together.

For years, standardized test-takers have been forced to choose among Hispanic, Latino, Puerto Rican, Chicano, Cuban, South American or various combinations of similar rubrics. The U.S. Census Bureau officially used "Hispanic" as a category in 1980. If the bureau had called the group "Latinos," would it really have ramifications for the community's political status?

Political movements seek to establish "proper terminology" for describing ethnic groups about as often as Michael Jackson acquires a new face. "Oriental" is now out, and "Asian" is in. Use of "Indian" is gone, and "Native American" is now acceptable. The outdated terms "Negro" and "colored" have evolved into "African-American." "Person of color" is now acceptable for several groups. When the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson made a call for wider usage of the latter term, he probably didn't realize the can of worms that he was opening.

Carribeans and others of mixed descent now face a word they can not fully relate to. Similarly, use of the words "Hispanic" or "Latino" will never satisfy everyone. The need for some appellation has always been imperative for ethnic groups, and the Spanish-speaking community is no exception. Political realities dictate that this group, like any other, must find a common name in order to establish the unity necessary to form a base for political action.

The problem with affixing a universal name to an ethnic group is that the components which make up that group are often so varied. For example, the socio-economic situation of Puerto Ricans is, in general, decidedly different from that of Cubans. Likewise, lest we forget the rich tradition and history which makes each group unique, it would be wrong to treat them as one conglomerate.

A Dominican should not feel compelled to prefer Latino or Hispanic. What's wrong with simply using "Dominican"? Germans don't generally call themselves Europeans. Canadians don't refer to each other as North Americans. It makes sense to use a name that is descriptive and meaningful.

America's obsession with race has allowed terms to develop based on a person's appearance with little regard for individual preference or ethnic pride. Chinese, Japanese or Filipinos no longer have their own identity but are simply called Asians. Hondurans, Peruvians and Mexicans should be acknowledged by those names--not by general expressions.

For purposes of political power, Hispanics, Latinos or whatever these people want to call themselves can only benefit by unifying behind the common cause of empowerment. But arguing over a suitable group heading is not the way to go about it. A community should acknowledge the diversity within it and work toward solidarity among all of its members.

Coming up with a name that pleases everyone is impossible. Only after we realize that this hopeless game of semantics is useless can we focus on bringing these groups together in spirit rather than in name.

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