Increasingly, More Latinos Say They Don't Fit In Census Boxes
Chula Vista resident Carolina Juarez immigrated from Mexico 18 years ago, but every time she has to fill out a U.S. Census survey, she finds the process confusing.
She doesn’t understand why she has to select whether she’s Hispanic/Latino and then select her racial identity in another question.
“I don’t identify as African American, Asian or white, I feel like I am left out without a box to mark,” Juarez said. “So I just put in ‘some other race.’”
The 2020 U.S. Census data released last week shows the majority of Latinos in San Diego County are like Juarez. Almost 45% identify as “some other race.”
The growing number of people with Latino or Hispanic origins marking “some other race” shows the limits of the census to accurately reflect people’s racial experiences, said Edward Telles, a sociology professor at UC Irvine.
“Why should there be a ‘some other race’ category?” Telles asked. “Why isn't there a Latino category?”
Since 1980, the census has had a two-format question that asks respondents to identify whether they have Hispanic/Latino heritage and then identify their racial identity. It only began allowing people to choose more than one racial category in 2000.
In 1977, the federal Office of Management and Budget designated Hispanic/Latino as an ethnicity, not a race, which is why the census asks about it separately. For many, however, that distinction isn’t clear or reflective of how they experience and understand racial difference as Latinos.
“The traditional way was that race was how people differ by physical features, and ethnicity was people with cultural differences,” Telles said. “Well, we know that there's really a lot of overlap between those.”
The U.S. Census Bureau recommended doing away with the two-question format, instead including both “Latino” and “Middle Eastern and North African” as part of a single ethnic/racial question.
The changes weren't approved in time for the 2020 census. But the recent census did adapt how it measures people’s answers in an attempt to more accurately reflect people’s identities.
In addition to not changing the question format, several other obstacles, such as the COVID-19 pandemic and the possibility of a citizenship question, have raised questions about the accuracy of the 2020 data.
Telles is part of the National Academy of Sciences panel that will be evaluating the quality of 2020 census data. He said the full study won't be completed until 2023 and will take into account the structure of questions and any potential enumeration issues.
In the meantime, the released demographic data does provide a glimpse into changing understandings of race within the Latino community.
Not only do more people of Latino/Hispanic descent understand themselves as having a distinct racial experience, but they are also less likely to select white and more likely to perceive themselves as multiracial.
The number of Latinos and Hispanic people in the county that chose “white alone” as their race, for instance, dropped by more than 50% from the 2010 census.
In the past, Telles said more Latinos felt that was their only option.
“They classified as white, mostly because they didn't see any other possibility in the race question,” he said.
Latinos in San Diego increasingly see themselves as multiracial — almost 52% of Latinos in the county identified as two or more races, a 458% increase from 2010.
Mario Torres, a Chula Vista-based mariachi musician, began learning more about his roots five year ago through genetic tests and the history of Mexican music.
“Learning that I have Zapoteco, Purépecha from Michoacán, Oaxaca, you know, these indigenous tribes,” said Torres. “I’m not just Spanish blood … there’s a mixture of things.”
It changed how he saw himself.
He marked down several races on the census and wrote that he’s Native Mexican American Mestizo. His mariachi group, Mariachi Torres, which includes his wife and two kids, sing and play songs in both Zapotec and Purépecha. It’s a way of reclaiming their roots.
“I want to acknowledge the indigenous part and I want to acknowledge the other parts, too, because it's me,” Torres said. “If I don't know my history, if I don't know my roots, then I don't have an identity.”
Latinos, like the Torreses, are recognizing their complex racial and cultural identities both on the census, and for the Torres family, through their music.