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VOICES / A FORUM FOR COMMUNITY ISSUES | Essay

The Term 'Latino' Describes No One

April 10, 1999|EVELYN G. ALEMAN | Evelyn G. Aleman is a graduate student at Pepperdine University and works with the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project

As an educated Latino woman living in the United States, I am constantly challenged by the traditional mores and values embodied by my Salvadoran family. Defining what it is to be "Latino" can be as complex as defining what it means to be an American. Can a Latino find nationalism in the quilt of American cultural heterogeneity?

I thought about my friends and relatives who came to the U.S. from Latin America, and how they referred to themselves in their countries of origin as nicaraguense, peruano, salvadoreno or dominicano, but in the United States they find a fraternizing cohesive element in the term "Latino." Perhaps this is a way of disassociating themselves from past lives or perhaps the term embodies the much-longed-for Bolivian dream of Latin American unity. Or maybe it is, as many say, used for the benefit of the census. Whatever the term's true meaning may be, it appears to be the word of choice for the majority of Latins living in the United States whether first, second or third generation.

It is interesting that though many Latin American immigrants acknowledge that we're all Americans, the term "American" is taboo. It is a term solely reserved for Americans of European descent. Consequently, many immigrant children and second-generation Latinos find themselves at a crossroads as they try to assimilate into the American way of life. For many, choosing between being an "American" and being a Mexican American or Guatemalan American is frustrating because choosing one can be perceived by the other culture as a denial of roots and heritage. The term "Latino" appears to fill the void by fulfilling the desire to associate and accept the Latin American culture while creating an identity rooted in a common language--Spanish--within the amalgamation of diverse cultures found in the United States.

It may be that as America increasingly evolves into a sea of cross cultures that terms like "Latino," "Asian American" and "African American" may eventually be replaced by the term "American." However, in the meantime, it is imperative that we acknowledge and welcome the diversity of all cultures living in American society and move away from umbrella terms like "Latino."

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