What does it mean to be Latino in America today?

Story highlights

  • Hispanics are the youngest racial or ethnic group in the United States
  • 71% of Hispanics say that it's not necessary to speak Spanish to be considered Hispanic
  • The term "Latino" is gaining more traction

(CNN)Latino? Hispanic? Spanish speaker? Native born? When it comes to defining Latino identity in the United States today, the one common thread is its sheer complexity.

In the latest episode of the CNN Original Series "United Shades of America," W. Kamau Bell explores two Los Angeles communities where the majority of the residents are of Mexican descent -- East L.A. and Boyle Heights.
Bell asks people in East L.A. to describe the state of Latinos in America today.
    "We're a growing force to be reckoned with," says one man.
    "We're taking over," says another.
    Indeed, in 2014, the Hispanic population in the United States reached a high of 55.4 million, or 17.4% of the total U.S. population.
    But the growth rate of the Hispanic population overall has slowed, in large part because fewer Mexicans are coming into the United States than there were decades ago. Native-born Hispanics are now the driving force behind the current population growth.
    California is still the state with the largest Hispanic population in the country with 15 million followed by Texas (10.4 million) and Florida (4.8 million).
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    According to a new report by the Pew Research Center, Hispanics are also the youngest racial or ethnic group in the United States. About a third (17.9 million) of Hispanics in the United States are under 18 and almost 60% are millennials or younger.
    One of the issues Bell asks his interview subjects — who range from artists to undocumented immigrants to public officials — is about assimilation. For many immigrant groups, assimilation is seen in a variety of ways, with one of the most obvious being native language proficiency.
    "Within a short period of time, everybody will have trouble talking to their grandmother," Gil Cedillo, a Los Angeles City Council member, told Bell.
    If current trends remain constant, Cedillo might be right.
    Young Hispanics today are more proficient in English than previous generations and the younger they are, the more proficient they are likely to be.
    According to Pew, 76% of Hispanic millennials speak only English at home or speak English "very well," and 88% of Hispanics ages 5 to 17 are proficient English speakers.
    And while 95% of Hispanics think it's important for future generations to preserve the cultural tradition of speaking Spanish, 71% of them say that it's not necessary to speak the language in order to be considered Hispanic.
    Over an evening snack with two musicians at a sidewalk café, Bell dives into the fraught question of what his interview subjects call themselves: Chicano, Chicana, Hispanic, Latino or Latina.
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    "Chicano and Chicana is the term that came from the people, the term that came from the streets, that came from the struggle of people saying 'Brown is Beautiful,'" explains Hector Flores, a musician with the band Las Cafeteras.
    "Latino" is another complicated term, Flores tells Bell: "People use it as an umbrella term." For Flores, "Hispanic" is "a Census word" used "to put everybody in categories."
    A 2012 Pew study on Hispanic identity showed that half of those surveyed preferred to use their country of origin to describe their identity (Puerto Rican or Mexican for example) instead of Hispanic or Latino.
    Half of the respondents said they had no preference between Latino or Hispanic.
    And despite the increasing use of "Latino" as umbrella term, those surveyed considered their culture unique and not part of a pan-Latino or Hispanic-American identity. (Generally, "Hispanic" is used to define those who have roots in Spanish-speaking countries, excluding Brazil, while "Latino" includes those from Latin American countries, including Portuguese-speaking Brazil.)
    Right now, the U.S. government and many media outlets use the term interchangeably. For example, Bell uses the term Latino in this episode while Pew tends to use the word Hispanic in its research reports.
    Complicating matters more, the Census Bureau asks two questions when collecting data on Hispanics. The first is an ethnicity question asking whether the respondent is "Hispanic, Latino or Spanish" and asking respondents to specify their national origin (Mexican, Puerto Rican, Cuban etc.). They then ask respondents to specify their race (white, black etc.).
    The bureau is reviewing these questions in advance of the 2020 Census in an effort to more accurately reflect Latino identity.
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    As the term "Latino" gains more traction in the United States, it carries with it an additional concern -- gender. Instead of opting for Latino (masculine) and Latina (feminine), an emerging constituency of Latinos are pushing for a new gender-neutral term: "Latinx."
    In a 2015 article for Latina magazine Raquel Reichard described the term, pronounced "La-teen-ex," as including "the numerous people of Latin American descent whose gender identities fluctuate along different points of the spectrum."
    In his opening monologue for the episode, Bell takes issue with the use of the word "minority" to describe "all the people that are darker than Vin Diesel and blend them together."
    As Latinos continue to debate identification issues, they move closer toward creating identities that are more personal, and thus more reflective of their unique experiences.
    What could be more American than that?