“For Latinos, the only option that was given was to check ‘Other.’ There was white, black, or indigenous, which infers that you have to be an American Indian, ideally with a registered federal tribe,” says Arturo Aldama, associate professor in the University of Colorado at Boulder’s ethnic studies department. “In history, when it comes to the census, Latinos have been counted as white as a way to deny the demographic power of Latinos. This is especially true in the state of Colorado. Latinos were checked off as white up until 1970. So if you read through demographic and census reports up until 1970, what the census showed was a very high white majority in Colorado.”
The purpose of the United States Census is to gather information to help distribute government funds to schools, hospitals, emergency services, public-works projects like bridges and tunnels and other government-sponsored endeavors. The census also helps determine the number of seats a state can hold in the U.S. House of Representatives.
In 2008, the Colorado census reported a white population of 89.7 percent, but in the category of white persons not Hispanic or Latino, it was at 71 percent. The numbers show that “brown” people are selecting white as their race, which in turn could affect how some of the government funds are distributed. While there are black and white Latinos in the U.S., a more inclusive description for a majority of Latinos here would be “mestizo.” The term “mestizo” refers to people who are of mixed Spanish and indigenous ancestry, which includes Aztecs, Mayans, Incas and other groups that populated much of Latin America in the pre-colonization era. But to get anything added to or changed in the U.S. Census, it must go through a stringent process.
“When the U.S. Census Bureau is preparing those questions, they go through a process with focus groups of various ethnic groups throughout the country, and they narrow it down to the specific races and ethnicities,” says Doug Wayland, U.S. Census media spokesperson for the Denver region. “The census questionnaire is submitted to Congress. They go through a lengthy process of identifying the questions they want on the census form, and Congress approves them. The ultimate purpose they want to achieve is to get a complete and accurate count.”
In the 2000 U.S. Census, people were able to select more than one race, mostly to cater to bi-racial people who had a black parent and a white parent. It also afforded Latinos the opportunity to select their “mestizo” background by choosing American Indian and white, but some were still disgruntled to not see themselves as a race. With the population of “mestizo” Latinos growing at a fevered pitch, becoming the largest minority in the United States, you would think it wouldn’t be that much of a problem to get “mestizo” added to the 2020 U.S. Census.
“The U.S. Census Bureau officially feels that the appropriate response for Hispanics would be Caucasian or white because they’re using an old way of looking at race,” says Fernando Soriano, Ph.D., chairman of the Department of Human Development at California State University San Marcos.
Soriano is also the vice chair of the Hispanic Advisory Committee, a group under the Race & Ethnic Advisory Committee which counsels the U.S. Census Bureau on matters of race. Other groups under REAC include African American, American Indian and Alaska Native (AIAN), Asian and Native Hawaiian and Other Pacific Islander (NHOPI) advisory committees.
Soriano says the Hispanic Advisory Committee’s main purpose and goal is to make sure the Latino population is counted. The committee was instrumental in getting Question 8 added to the census, as well as keeping the “Other” race option in Question 9, as opposed to forcing Latinos to select “white” as their race.
“Obviously that’s very controversial and not really appropriate, so that’s why we made sure the Bureau included the ‘Other’ category,” Soriano says.
“For a while, there was a proposal from the Census Bureau that would eliminate that, therefore forcing everybody into the other racial categories. So we forced that issue and made sure we maintained that.”
Soriano and the rest of the Hispanic Advisory Committee are already working with the Census Bureau on the 2020 U.S. Census and are continually trying to figure out how to get the best response from the Latino/Hispanic population, including the possibility of adding “mestizo” to the form.
For others, however, the future doesn’t seem so optimistic for Latinos. Although the population is continually growing, so is the backlash and prejudice against Latinos, thanks to the immigration debate.
“It’s complicated and problematic, but I feel in this particular case with the Census, to be honest and without trying to sound like a conspiracy theorist, I think the increase in anti-immigrant hostility with impunity is because there’s this ‘browning’ of America,” says Aldama. “The U.S. is becoming much more multi-racial, and much more of a nonwhite majority. I think there’s a certain amount of pushback going on that is creating these ways in which this ‘browning,’ or multi-culuturalizing, if you will, is being minimized.”
It’s a tough process to get the population counted and have everyone feel included, but Soriano says at least the Bureau is listening.
“They have been receptive, but it’s one of those things where they’re very much interested in our feedback, but it’s like a train leaving the station and it’s not something you can stop,” Soriano says. “The process of planning the 2020 Census starts now, and sometimes the challenge is in making sure the train stops for feedback from the advisory committees.”