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Reactive Ethnic Formations and Panethnic Identities: The Creation of Latinos in the United States

Identités panethniques et création des Latinos étasuniens
Ramón A. Gutiérrez


Cet article examine la complexité des identités ethniques dans différents espaces nationaux et explore l’émergence de la panethnicité aux États-Unis, qui est devenue un phénomène d’une importance sociologique significative depuis le début des années 1970. Il explore, plus précisément, comment les personnes originaires du Mexique, de Puerto Rico, de Cuba, d’Amérique Centrale ou du Sud, en tant que Latinos, se considèrent comme partie intégrante d’une unité politique. Cet essai s’appuie sur le postulat qu’une telle panethnicité peut émaner d’une instance supérieure, d’une action étatique visant à réunir les identités nationales et ethniques distinctives ou peut être issue de la base, des communautés qui se regroupent autour d’un objectif commun.

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1There is an anecdote of recent vintage that circulates along the border dividing Mexico and United States. It tells of an act of miscommunication between a Mexican immigrant traveling north and a U.S. Border Patrol officer trying to stem that flow. The immigrant is a woman named Molly, who is waiting to cross to the American side. After waiting many hours, her interview moment with the U.S. Border Patrol agent finally arrives. The officer asks in a gruff voice, “Are you Latina?” She replies: “No, no, no señor. Yo no soy la Tina. Yo soy la Molly. La Tina ya cruzó.” (No, no, no sir. I am not Tina. I am Molly. Tina already crossed.) The border agent was asking the woman about her ethnicity as a Latina. The woman was clearly unfamiliar with ethnic categories in the United States, had no idea who a “Latina” was, and accordingly interpreted the question as best she could. She heard Latina not as one word but as two – la and Tina – and interpreting “la” which means “the” and “Tina” as a person’s name. She was most certainly not the person people knew as la Tina.

2I use this story to delve into the complexity of ethnic identities in different national spaces and to explore the emergence of panethnicity in the United States, which has become a phenomenon of significant sociological importance since the early 1970s. Panethnicities are identities created when several ethnic groups forge an alliance for social, economic or cultural advantage, thereby augmenting their numeric power and influence around the issues that bring them together. During the late 1960s and early 1970s, movements that sought to gain civil rights in the United States gave rise to this new form of nationalism. Indigenous tribes, such as the Cherokee, the Apache, and the Menominee, for example, came to see themselves collectively as Native Americans because of their common experiences of genocide, their similar structural relationship to the federal government, and their long histories of collective plight. Immigrants and long-time residents who hailed from such divergent places as Mexico, Puerto Rico, and the Dominican Republic began celebrating their unity as Latinos in the 1970s, much as persons from China, Japan and Korea came to see themselves in the United States as Asian Americans. As new panethnic groups they protested their marginalization and the toxic legacies of racism, militated for political recognition, and petitioned the state for compensatory remedies, demonstrating not only broader levels of interaction among their different national groups, but also a heightened sense of oppositional consciousness.

3The rise of such new nationalisms is not an entirely unique sociological process. Historian Eric Hobsbawm vividly explains in Nations and Nationalism since 1870, how emerging nation-states, through a process he calls “nationalism from above”, transformed the local residents of the ancient kingdoms of Castile, Aragon, Austurias and León into Spaniards through mandatory language instruction, schooling and military service, just as the United States forged Polish, Italian, and German immigrants into Americans using the same institutions and techniques. What is new and distinct about panethnicities is that they have emerged from below, as acts of popular mobilization and consciousness, not as a result of direct state action, but nevertheless, often in opposition to it.

  • 1 Oxford English Dictionary, accessed on line on 9.2.2010 at

4To illuminate this process we will focus in this essay on the emergence of Latino as a panethnic identity that brings together Mexican, Puerto Rican, Cuban, and a range of Latin American-origin immigrants in the United States. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) defines a Latino as “A Latin-American inhabitant of the United States”. The etymology of the word is latinoamericano, Spanish for Latin American. The OED offers several historical uses for the word starting in 1945 and running to 1974, when Latino entered popular parlance in the English-speaking world. The first recorded use of the word Latino in print appeared in 1946, in a book entitled San Antonio, in which mention is made of a group of Latin American exchange students who were scheduled to offer a musical performance at the University of Texas. The book’s author, G. Peyton, snidely remarks: “That in itself would be a fresh intellectual experience for Texas, where Latinos are usually looked on as sinister specimens of an inferior race.” Lady Bird Johnson’s White House Diary, contained an entry dated April 2, 1970, in which she noted that “Six young girls, all Latinos, had encased themselves in cardboard boxes” during a party on the White House lawn hosting the diplomatic corps. Finally, The Black Panther, the newspaper of the Black Panther Party, reported in its March 17, 1973 issue, “A program was drawn up […] by an […] action group composed of Blacks, Latinos, and Whites.”1

5The first recorded references to Latinos were tied geographically to ethnic understandings in Texas, where calling a person a “Mexican” in the 1940s was an extreme insult. In polite English-speaking company, Mexican Americans were called Latin Americans when one wanted to praise them in positive terms; they were simply Mexicans if one intended to insult. The first Mexican American civil rights organization in the United States, which was begun in Corpus Christi, Texas in 1929, was named accordingly the League of United Latin American Citizens, or LULAC for short (see Márquez). What we also see in the above-cited passages from G. Peyton and The Black Panther is that the word Latino was racialized and referred to a group of people deemed to be of an “inferior race”. In the late 1960s, members of minority communities began recognizing three races – black, white, Latino – to affirm that American society had moved beyond its simple black/white racial dichotomy, which no longer adequately described the racism persons of Latin American origin experienced in the United States.

Panethnicity among Latinos emerged from a complex combination of cultural and structural factors that together became the basis for a reactive identity that was intentionally organized to counter hostile, demeaning and discriminatory acts by the dominant society while projecting a defensive communal dignity. Sociologists tell us that reactive immigrant identities are not foreign imports but quite distinctly American. They have sprouted in local contexts, in places with long histories of discrimination toward persons of African, Asian, indigenous, and Latin American origin. Emerging first in cities like Chicago and New York, largely to advance political agendas not easily achievable by small, isolated ethnic groups, Latino identity was championed next by regional civil rights organizations seeking nation-wide clout, and finally diffused more broadly through advertising targeted at a group’s ethnic consumption patterns (Portes & Rumbaut, 248).

6Mexican Americans are the largest, best documented, and most regionally dispersed of the immigrant groups that hail from Latin America and who call themselves Latinos. They are now the largest ethnic group in the United States, having surpassed African Americans in number and proportion. According to the 2010 Census of the United States, the country’s total population numbers 310.2 million, of whom 32 million are of Mexican ancestry. Their presence in areas that were eventually incorporated into the United States dates back to 1598 and the establishment of a Spanish colony in what became New Mexico. In the two centuries that followed, Spanish settlements were established in Texas, Arizona, Colorado, and California, which became Mexican territory in 1821 when the country gained its independence from Spain. But these provinces quickly changed hands again and were annexed into the United States as a result of the Texas Revolution (1836) and the U.S.-Mexican War (1846-48). From this initial group of settlers, the Mexican population of the United States again grew rapidly between 1910 and 1917, when a revolution in Mexico sent hundreds of thousands packing north fleeing violence at home. And the numbers were further compounded when Mexico and the United States negotiated a guest worker program in 1942 to supply cheap labor to industries deemed essential to World War II. The Bracero Program, as it was called, outlived the war, lasting until 1964 because it was an easy way for business interests in the United States to secure an abundant supply of cheap labor regulated by the state.

7The majority of Mexican Americans are relegated to the lowest rungs of the economy, working as unskilled labor in service industries, agriculture and construction. The history of discrimination against them is extensively chronicled. Their work has been valued differentially at lower rates; they are afforded few legal protections, and in cases of exploitation, left with little remedy or recourse. Their social segregation in barrios, or ghettoes, has been marked by substandard housing with little access to public transport and commerce, and even fewer bridging ties to earning and learning opportunities. Historically, their children have been systematically denied quality education by restricting their access to those schools reserved for whites, by refusing to employ bilingual and bicultural instructors to facilitate the transition to English-language mastery, by tracking them into low paid trades rather than college preparatory sequences, and by assigning under-prepared or derelict teachers to their dilapidated and under-funded schools. Despite the fact that the majority of ethnic Mexicans in the United States were born here, were naturalized as citizens or are here legally on work visas, most of them nevertheless suffer the stigma of “illegality”, not worthy of equal protection. When accused of crimes in past times they rarely have been judged by a jury of their peers, have often been handed harsher sentences than their fellow white citizens, and have been constantly surveilled and subjected to unwarranted police harassment (see López).

  • 2 Garis claimed that Mexican minds “run to nothing higher than animal functions – eat, sleep, (...)

8Since the early 1920s, white patriotic societies and eugenicist organizations have been clamoring for Mexican immigration to be stopped because their presence was leading to the mongrelization of the white race, to fornication and sexual debauchery, and to a “hatred of the gringo”, or so claimed Vanderbilt University sociologist Roy L. Garis in testimony before the United States Congress in 1930.2 Though the actual metaphors of contagion and reaction have changed slightly over the decades, for at least 40 years now Mexicans have been feared as a tsunami of sorts, described either as a “wave”, a rapidly rising “tide”, or as an “explosion” signaling “seismic population shifts”, with California as “ground zero” (see Santa Ana and Chavez).

9Such rhetoric of reaction suffuses not only popular journalism in its radio, print and television forms, but scholarly representations as well. Dale Maharidge, a 1990 Pulitzer Prize winner, recently penned The Coming White Minority: California’s Eruption and America’s Future, in which he ignorantly declared that “No white society in the industrial world has ever evolved into a mixed society,” predicting cultural explosions that required whites to arm themselves for the difficult fight ahead. Similar alarmist tones were articulated by the late Samuel P. Huntington in Who Are We? The Challenges to America’s National Identity, in which he argued that the cultural division between Latinos and Anglos would soon replace the racial division between Blacks and Whites. The vast majority of Latinos were Mexican. Many had entered the country illegally, were reproducing more rapidly than Whites or Blacks, by about a ratio of 5 to 1. They spoke Spanish at home and at work, refused to learn English, were leading highly segregated lives, and were largely confined to society’s lowest economic rungs. These facts portended anarchy, racial war, and separatist sentiments comparable to those of the Quebecois, Huntington warned. Others made similar points both from conservative and liberal perspectives. Peter Brimelow’s Alien Nation, Lawrence Auster’s The Path to National Suicide: An Essay on Immigration and Multiculturalism, Richard D. Lamm and Gary Imhoff’s The Immigration Time Bomb, and Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.’s, The Disuniting of America: Reflections on a Multicultural Society were but some of the most shrill anti-Mexican immigrant books.

10Such academic tracts gave grist to nativist mills, which soon found their way into policy-making and state action. In 1994, California’s voters passed Proposition 187, hailed as a referendum to “Save Our State”, barring state agencies from providing unauthorized immigrants with basic social services in health, education. Two years later, Proposition 209, promoted as “California’s Civil Rights Initiative”, was approved by voters prohibiting California’s state agencies from considering race, sex, or ethnicity in the distribution of work opportunities, state contracts, access to education, or housing benefits. In 1998, Proposition 227 was similarly passed, ending most bilingual education programs in the state. Most of these initiatives in California were explicitly aimed at ethnic Mexicans, curtailing many of the hard-won victories and ameliorative changes wrought by the civil rights movement of the late 1960s (Martínez Hosang).

11Of course, California was not alone in its anti-Mexican state actions. In 2010, Arizona’s governor signed into law Senate Bill 1070, which ordered local police to identify, prosecute and deport individuals suspected of being in the country illegally. Mexican American civil rights organizations have argued that the legislation is racist and will result in racial profiling, an argument with which the administration of President Barack Obama concurs, noting that immigration regulation is solely a federal responsibility, not one granted to individual states. Arizona’s governor, Jan Brewer, further intensified the state’s attack on ethnic Mexicans, signing into law House Bill 2281 making it illegal for Arizona’s publicly funded schools to teach courses that “promote resentment of a particular race or class of people, are designed primarily for students of a particular ethnic group or advocate ethnic solidarity instead of the treatment of pupils as individuals.” (See “Arizona Bill …”) Weeks later, the Arizona Department of Education ordered school districts to remove teachers with heavily accented or ungrammatical English from contact with students still learning the language, and moved to curtail Mexican American Studies classes (see “Arizona Grades …”).

12The attack on Mexican immigrants and Mexican Americans in recent years has come not only from states like California, Arizona, Texas and Florida, but also from cities and municipalities like Hazelton, Pennsylvania, Carpentersville, Illinois, Farmers Branch, Texas, and Prince William County, Virginia, through a variety of actions. Some cities have ordered landlords to determine the immigrant status of anyone seeking rental housing under pain of punishment and fines. Others have prohibited the congregation at particular street corners of unemployed men seeking low wage day labor in housing construction and gardening. Still others have ordered local police to demand full identification from anyone stopped for minor traffic infractions and if the driver or passengers are found to be unauthorized immigrants, to turn them over to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security for deportation. The purpose of all of these actions is to create a hostile environment for ethnic Mexicans, with the hope of propelling those unauthorized to be in the United States to leave (see Varsanyi).

13A very similar story of discrimination and marginalization can be told about the 4.5 million Puerto Ricans who currently live on the mainland of the United States. They are the second largest Latino group and together with Mexican Americans account for 75 percent of all Latinos. Puerto Rico was originally discovered by Christopher Columbus on his second voyage to the Americas in 1493 and was settled by Spanish colonists soon after. For most of its Spanish colonial history, Puerto Rico was largely a military fort and entrepot for commerce between Mexico and the port of Europe. In the early part of the nineteenth century, as Spanish America’s various regions sought and won their independence, only Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Philippines, failed in similar bids. Though there had been plenty of sentiment and activity for the proclamation of Puerto Rican independence since 1868, it was repeatedly thwarted by Spain and the United States. The U.S. had long coveted the island as a way of achieving its own larger geo-political visions of hemispheric empire and repeatedly asserted its claim, various times offering to buy the island from Spain. In 1898 the United States provoked war with Spain over the Philippines that quickly spread to the Caribbean as well, engulfing Puerto Rico and Cuba. When the United States emerged the victor, it quickly took Cuba and Puerto Rico. When the Spanish-American War was ended with the Treaty of Paris in 1898, the United States rapidly smashed the local independence movement on Puerto Rico, with the 1900 Foraker Act established American rule over the island, and with the Jones Act of 1917 declared Puerto Ricans citizens of the United States.

14Puerto Rico’s population remained largely confined to the island between 1900 and 1930, with approximately 1,800 individuals migrating to the mainland yearly during this period. This trend began to accelerate in the years leading to World War II, when increasing numbers migrated to New York City to fill that city’s jobs and to enlist in the military. In 1940 there were 69,967 Puerto Ricans living on the mainland, the vast majority of them in New York City. By 1950 that number had increased to 226,110, by 1970 to 1,391,464, by 2000 to 3.4 million, and by 2010 to 4.5 million. While in 1940 88 percent of all Puerto Ricans on the mainland lived in the state of New York, by 1980 there was more regional dispersion, with 49 percent in New York, 12 percent in New Jersey, 6.4 percent in Illinois, and with approximately 4.5 percent in each of the following states: California, Florida, Pennsylvania, and Connecticut. By 2010, only about 20 percent of mainland Puerto Ricans resided in New York City (Whalen & Vásquez-Hernández, 2-3).

15The problems Puerto Ricans faced in the United States were not unlike those suffered by Mexican Americas. While the citizenship status of ethnic Mexicans had long been suspect and stigmatized by the suspicion of illegality, Puerto Ricans have been de jure citizens since 1917. But rarely were they treated as such. Their life chances on the mainland were limited, despite repeated sociological studies proclaiming that they too would eventually be assimilated into the American body politic as other immigrants before them had. If they learned English, took American brides, accepted the Protestant ethic of hard work, persevered in school, they too would move out of their ethnic enclaves, gain political representation and the fruits of upward mobility. In 1976 the United States Commission on Civil Rights issued a report that attempted to assess and understand the problems and progress Puerto Ricans had experienced since the 1940s. Entitled Puerto Ricans in the Continental United States: An Uncertain Future, the report noted that Puerto Ricans were living in substandard housing, the majority led lives of poverty and underemployment, had poor access to education and quality health services, and suffered inordinately from racial discrimination. As the report noted, they were still living in utter poverty ten years after the United States had waged “War on Poverty” (U. S. Commission on Civil Rights …, 5).

16I cite this long history of structural inequalities suffered by Mexican Americans and Puerto Ricans to explain what led these groups, in the late 1960s, to abandon older forms of activism rooted in self-help associations, in mutual aid societies, in labor unions and in ethnic churches, and to turn to a militant and reactive nationalism. In the early 1960s Mexican Americans demanded self-determination, national autonomy, and invented a reactive ethnicity as Chicanos and Chicanas, much as Puerto Ricans on the mainland and island proclaimed themselves Boricuas. They eschewed any association with whiteness, which civil rights organizations since the 1920s had long invoked to avoid equation with the stigma of blackness. The Black Power movement of the 1960s offered inspiration to both Chicanos and Boricuas and gave form to their organizational structures. Chicanos founded the Brown Berets and Boricuas started the Young Lords, heralding their racialized identities as brown and black. Chicanos and Boricuas alike gave very specific territorial designs to their national sentiments and ambitions, seeking secession and national sovereignty as a remedy for their histories of segregation and marginalization in the United States. Chicanos proclaimed that they wanted to unite the states of California, Arizona, Texas, New Mexico, Colorado and Nevada, those territories taken by the United States when it annexed Texas in 1845 and won the U.S.-Mexico War in 1848, and to proclaim these lands as the autonomous nation of Aztlán, the mythical homeland of the Aztecs. No one now really knows where exactly it is or ever was; it could have been pure mythology. But it has long been suspected to be in Mexico’s north whence the nomadic Indians that ultimately came to be known as the Mexica first emerged. And it was in Mexico’s north or what became the American Southwest that Chicanos asserted claims to a homeland (see Anaya & Lomelí).

17Puerto Rican radicals conjured up a very similar territorial design, arguing that Puerto Ricans living on the island and mainland were a “divided nation”. If liberation was to occur for mainland Puerto Ricans, they first had to bring national liberation to the island. In early 1971 the Young Lords began their Ofensiva Rompecadenas (“Break-the-Chains Offensive”), calling for unity in their attempt to gain independence for Puerto Rico. Though this vision had been militantly pursued since the 1950s, its embrace by the Young Lords ultimately weakened the organization, spread their resources thin, and caused a fair amount of factionalism between themselves and groups on the island. By late 1972, the Young Lords repudiated this strategy, arguing instead that Puerto Ricans were an “oppressed national minority” in the United States, that Puerto Rico was a nation, and that mainland Puerto Ricans had to focus their energies and resources on their compatriots in the United States (Morales, 221-22).

18Besides such dreams of national autonomy and self-determination, Chicanos and Boricuas both espoused an ideology of self-help and sought the improvement of their fellow ethnics in material and psychic ways. Under the leadership of César Chávez they sought better wages and work conditions for farm workers of every nationality – Mexican, Filipino, Japanese, Puerto Rican. Under the banner of Reies López Tijerina, Chicanos militated to regain lands fraudulently stolen in New Mexico, Colorado and Texas. In places like New York City, Denver, Albuquerque and Los Angeles they protested against police brutality. In New York, Texas, New Mexico and California, the states with the densest Mexican American and Puerto Rican populations, they launched legal challenges against discriminatory schooling, housing and employment practices.

19Equally important to both Chicanos and Boricuas was an assault on racism, both in its material and psychological dimensions. Heralding a need to affirm their personal beauty and their pride, both movements emphasized that it was high time to abandon their sense of shame rooted in poverty and color, and to affirm in its broadest terms the beauty of their art, their language, and their culture. Pedro Pietri captured this sense of pride in his now famous book of poems, Puerto Rican Obituary. In a poem that has the same title Pietri wrote:

Here lies Juan

Here lies Miguel

Here lies Olga

Here lies Manuel

Who died yesterday today

And will die again tomorrow

Always broke

Always owing

Never knowing

That they are beautiful people

Never knowing

The geography of their complexion



20Rodolfo “Corky” Gonzales’s poem “I Am Joaquín,” which was eventually made into a short movie that was shown at many high schools, was similarly meant to incite Chicano rebellion and cultural pride. The poem, which is long and only excerpted here, begins and ends as follows:

Yo soy Joaquín,

perdido en un mundo de confusión:

I am Joaquín,

lost in a world of confusion,

caught up in the whirl of a gringo society,

confused by the rules, scorned by attitudes,

suppressed by manipulation, and destroyed by modern society…

in all the fertile farmlands,

the barren plains,

the mountain villages,

smoke-smeared cities,

we start to MOVE.

La raza!





Or whatever I call myself,

I look the same

I feel the same

I cry


Sing the same.

I am the masses of my people and

I refuse to be absorbed.

I am Joaquín.

The odds are great

But my spirit is strong,

My faith unbreakable,

My blood is pure.

I am Aztec prince and Christian Christ.



21El Plan Espiritual de Aztlán, the 1969 document that birthed the Chicano movement spelled out a capacious notion about how national unity and political empowerment could be achieved. It called for national unity among all racially oppressed groups, for community control of local institutions and communitarian management of their resources through responsible capitalism, for culturally relevant educational curricula with community control of schools, for the development of institutions that protected ethnic Chicano civil and human rights and guaranteed fair wages, for community self-defense through humanitarianism, for a contestational cultural policy “to defeat the gringo dollar value system,” and for the rejection of the two party system for a more equitable pluralist politics (see Rosales).

22In the 42 years since the Plan was issued many have repudiated it as vulgar nationalism, its fracturing of the liberal civil rights coalition, the culture of violence and hyper-masculinity it celebrated, and the homophobia and gender politics that structured the personal behavior of those who espoused Chicanismo, both in boardrooms and in bedrooms. The Plan nevertheless created an alternative vision of cultural incorporation and membership in a body politic, challenged unbridled capitalism, framing the local in relationship to the global, simultaneously linking local struggles for self-determination with global anti-imperialist ones. It also created organizations for community policing, food cooperatives, and educational campaigns for a safer food and healthier bodies. The thirteen-point platform of the Puerto Rican Young Lords made almost identical demands:

We want community control of our institutions and land. We want control of our communities by our people and programs to guarantee that all institutions serve the needs of our people. People’s control of police, health services, churches, schools, housing, transportation, and welfare are needed. We want an end to attacks on our land by urban renewal, highway destruction, and university corporations. LAND BELONGS TO ALL THE PEOPLE! (qtd. in Beltrán, 33-34)

23By now, attentive readers may be wondering about the place of Cuban immigrants in this history of the radicalization of Mexican Americans and Puerto Ricans in the United States. Recall that the Cuban Revolution occurred in 1959 and it was not until the early 1960s that significant numbers of Cubans left the island for residence ninety miles away in Florida. The Cubans who arrived as political refugees in the United States were of much higher class origin (mostly elites and middle class professionals), carried immensely more money and cultural capital with them, often already had homes and businesses in the United States, and quickly became beneficiaries of Affirmative Action programs meant for persons who had had lesser privileges and opportunities in American life. What radicalism Cuban refugees did express was focused on the regime of Fidel Castro on their return to Cuba to overthrow of the Cuban Revolution, and was almost entirely anti-Communist in nature. As we will see below, the Cubans who took refuge in the United States were instrumental in crafting “Latino” into an identity of consumption, but to this topic we will turn shortly below.

24Once oppositional consciousness and militant nationalism had developed among Chicanos and Boricuas in the United States, three other factors contributed to the development of Latino panethnicity in very specific places: demography, language, and residential patterns. As far as I have been able to surmise, Chicago was the first place an explicit Latino identity emerged. It did so among Mexican Americans and Puerto Ricans, who despite their respective small numbers and dispersion in different parts of the city understood that if they were to enhance their material lives they had to come together for collective gains. In the early 1970s this took the form of the La Coalición Latinoamericana de Empleos, which instead of literally translating the Spanish name of their association as “The Latinamerican Coalition for Jobs”, chose “The Spanish Coalition for Jobs”. The principal goal was to demand that companies such as Illinois Bell Telephone and Jewel Tea Company honor affirmative action policies put in place by the federal government. Composed of 23 Puerto Rican and Mexican American community organizations, the Coalition explicitly militated for the improvement of “Latinos”. As the Coalition’s foundational document explained, they had united because “the racist attitude of employers triggered us into utilizing our consumer power as a tool or bargaining device […] to compete in the job market.” (qtd. in Padilla, 89-90)

25Illinois Bell was their first target. In 1971 Coalition representatives repeatedly met with the company’s management to question why its workforce of 44,000 individuals included only 300 Latinos. The Coalition demanded that this number be increased by 1,000 per year for a three-year period, or the addition of 3,000 new Latino workers. When Illinois Bell offered only 115 jobs in response to the demand, the Coalition staged its first mass action for and by Latinos, picketing the company’s headquarters in Chicago starting in mid-September 1971. On June 14, 1972, a settlement agreement was reached. Illinois Bell would hire 1,323 more Latinos by the end of 1976, including two top-level executives, and would form a community review committee to chart the company’s progress toward this goal (Padilla, 96-97). Chicago’s Jewel Tea Company was the Coalition’s next target and presented it with similar demands in March 1972. The company had received more than a quarter of a million dollars from the federal government to train minority workers, yet only 140 Latinos had been so prepared. The Coalition cited statistics about Jewel’s workforce and the under-representation of Latinos. After almost a year of picketing, in the summer of 1973, Jewel agreed to hire more Latinos through an independent job placement agency (idem).

  • 3 “Latino Strategies for the 70’s – Report,” as quoted in Padilla, 105.

26The initial successes through direct action intensified the Coalition’s sense of unity and on March 16, 1973, it convened a “Latino Strategies for the 70s” conference. Their press release for the event proclaimed: “The brown skin Latino has awakened and he will never be the same again […] he will never be the same again because he knows that to live is to enjoy freedom. He has learned that to be a Latino is good.”3 Among the many outcomes of the conference was the formation of the “Latino Institute” in 1973 to function as an organization and a space that would gather all the initial Coalition’s constituent groups. The Latino Institute took as its major goal the education of Latino parents about bilingual education. They would teach parents how to advocate for it, the range of bilingual education models to choose from, and how to evaluate a school’s progress on educating their children.

27Since the emergence of a Latino panethnic consciousness in Chicago in the early 1970s, a number of studies have been published that chronicle different aspects of Latino identity in other cities of the United States. What makes it difficult to compare these works is that when they speak of Latino panethnicity they have very different aspects of Latinidad in mind. To help pinpoint exactly what is being spoken about, it is important to categorize Latino panethnicity into four types, of course fully cognizant that behavior does not always fit nicely into these ideal categories and that these distinctions often overlap. For purposes of analysis it is important to think of Latinidad as being ideological, institutional, experiential and categorical. The first two forms, ideological and institutional, were already mentioned above with concrete examples when we noted that the oppression Mexican Americans and Puerto Ricans experienced in Chicago was so intense that leaders of community organizations came together to form the Spanish Coalition for Jobs and shortly thereafter began calling themselves Latinos instead of Chicanos, Boricuas, Mexican Americans or Puerto Ricans.

28The interplay of similar ideological and institutional forms of Latino panethnicity are evident in the descriptions Cristina Mora’s dissertation, “De Muchos, Uno: The Institutionalization of Latino Panethnicity, 1960-1990,” offers of the transformation of the Southwest Council of La Raza. This organization, which was founded in 1968 as a Mexican American civil rights organization with a very specific regional focus on Texas and California, in the late 1970s evolved into a national organization modeled after the NAACP. Hoping to serve as the interlocutor for the entire Latino population of the United States, it changed its name to the National Council of La Raza, opened a headquarters office in Washington, D.C., and began to advocate not only for Mexican Americans, but on behalf of all the social, political and economic concerns of Latinos as a whole. As Mora argues, the organization’s transformation occurred by first recognizing and harnessing popular identification with “Latino”, developing a national vision and mission that included the issues that affected all immigrants in the United States of Latin American origin. With an organization, a national office, and an emergent political identity the National Council of La Raza created the infrastructure and authority to get philanthropic groups, such as the Ford and Rockefeller Foundations, to recognize them as the interlocutors for the Spanish-speaking population of the United States, and accordingly generously fund their work. Finally, with such national visibility and economic support, it became logical for the federal government to seek their advice as well, calling upon them to help the U.S. Census Bureau to craft the ethnic and racial categories that would be used in subsequent decennial counts. Mora argues that for Latino to emerge as a national panethnic identity, it needed not only an ideological and institutional foundation, which it quickly harnessed, but it also needed a source of diffusion, which it got in the form of Univision, a Spanish-language television network in the United States, which generated it own programming aimed to appeal to American Latinos, which supplemented the shows the network purchased for broadcast from other countries in the Spanish-speaking world.

29Earlier we noted that in most local contexts in which a Latino panethnic consciousness emerged, Cubans did not participate in this identity primarily because of their class positions and their laser-like focus on the overthrow of the Castro regime in Cuba. Cuban refugees active in advertising were nevertheless instrumental in domesticating and neutralizing the use of the category “Latino”, which had first been used as a reactive and oppositional identity by social movement activists and transforming it into a broader depoliticized category meant primarily to target the consumption of ethnic products by a particular group of people. In the 1950s much of the advertising by American firms that took place in Latin America was based in Havana, Miami and New York. After the Cuban Revolution, many of the Cuban advertising executives that had once worked in Havana emigrated to New York and Miami, whence they resumed their activities. In the 1970s and 1980s, these mostly Cuban Americans started lumping together and homogenizing Latin American national identities into a larger marketing sector, which they also called Latino. If they could create a clearly identifiable “Latino” market, identifying its needs and desires, they stood to profit enormously as the individuals and ad firms that knew how to sell to this group. They were then in the position to persuade the large corporations that produced food, beverages, and a host of domestic goods that Latinos constituted a significant mass market that needed special ad campaigns and that only their advertising agencies were expertly prepared to address. This is exactly what happened, argues Arlene Dávila in Latinos Inc.: The Marketing and Making of a People. They began educating the manufacturers of products about what the Latino market wanted and would consume. These producers then purchased advertising campaigns targeted to the Latino market the ad agencies had invented. Quickly, then, beer, soda pop, cooking oil, even bleach came to embody lo Latino, that unique Latino essence that only the Coors Brewing, PepsiCo, General Foods and Clorox could deliver to this group.

30The imposition of a categorical identity from above, that is, an invented Latino unity that then got disseminated broadly throughout the Americas because of the power of the advertising dollar and the reach of the global media, was no different than what the state itself did when it created Hispanics and Latinos as official United States government categories of analysis and data-gathering. Thus, even though immigrants may hail from Guatemala, Peru, Argentina or the Dominican Republic, and think of themselves as nationals from these places, in the eyes of census takers and data keepers, they are Latinos, pure and simple (see Rodríguez). Thus, when one applies for a job, seeks admission into a university, or obtains medical care in the United States, the paperwork that one must fill for these usually asks for ethnic classification. When the forms give one only the option of Latino or Hispanic, the government has imposed a categorical identity from above, which it hopes individuals will embrace in time.

31Two rather well regarded studies of Latino identity give experiences of daily social interaction in places of residence, markets, houses of worship and workplaces a great amount of importance in creating a sense of commonality and Latinidad among immigrants from many Latin American countries. Both Carol Hardy-Fanta’s Latina Politics, Latino Politics: Gender, Culture, and Political Participation in Boston, which focuses on language politics surrounding bilingual education and campaigns to elect Latino candidates there, and Milagros Ricourt and Ruby Danta’s Hispanas de Queens: Latino Panethnicity in a New York City Neighborhood, which studies how women in Corona and Queens interact, maintain that women are the active agents that diffuse and cement Latino experiential identity. When women gather in the stairwells of their apartment buildings to gossip about local affairs, when women commiserate about the poor education their children receive when they gather at the local laundromat, when they wrangle over the price of tomatoes and potatoes with a local vender and then chat about their respective worlds, they enter into interactions in the Spanish language, connect with Latin Americans from different places and by so doing give a tangible experience to Latinidad. Of course, immigrants from Ecuador, the Dominican Republic, Mexico and Guatemala do not quickly or easily lose their natal national identities, but by constantly interacting, or so these female authors contend, women are creating the tangible foundation for Latino identity.

32Open up any newspaper, listen to any talk radio show, or turn on the television pundits, what they repeatedly announce is that Latinos are an emerging majority that everyday is becoming more potent in politics, commerce and the very racial make up of the United States. But how much unity exists among Latinos? How operative and decisive is Latino identity in the lives of people who claim it or are denominated by it? The simple demographic fact, as discussed above, is that the Latino population of the United States is large and diverse, encompassing over 20 national identities, spanning various class positions, and racial make up that includes the entire hue of complexions. Nothing specifically unites these groups as Latinos, except their use of the Spanish language, and in the past, a Roman Catholicism that is being supplanted in many places by Protestant evangelical religions. In areas where the two largest Latino groups – Mexican Americans and Puerto Ricans – have been in close contact for long periods of time, relationships of affiliation and trust, as of chauvinism and antagonism exist. As Nicholas de Genova and Ana Y. Ramos-Zayas make clear in their study of relations between Mexicans and Puerto Ricans in Chicago during the late 1990s, which focuses on a period twenty years after the exuberance of Latino cooperation in the 1970s chronicled above, relations between the two groups were tense, marked by suspicion and antagonism. Mexicans resented Puerto Ricans because of their citizenship, which entitled them to welfare and government assistance and thus constantly demonized them as lazy, welfare dependent and abusers of state benefits for the poor. Mexicans suffered the stigma of illegality, of being unauthorized immigrants in the United States and thus Puerto Ricans saw them as persons who allowed themselves to be easily exploited, accepting uncompetitive wages and operating in an underworld of illicit drugs, prostitution, and gangs to make their way in the United States. Thus, whatever unity and political cohesion Latinidad provided these two groups in Chicago in the 1970s, by 2000 that sentiment had evaporated.

33The scholarly literature concludes that for panethnicity to emerge, one first needs a population that is significantly marginalized and exploited and that comes to see itself as such, in opposition to majority white identities. Once such a reactive ethnicity is in place, demography and geographic isolation has brought together ethnic groups that previously had no common history. Much of the world’s ethnic politics are language politics; that Mexican Americans and Puerto Ricans, or for that matter any other combinations of Latin American national groups shared a common language and sometimes also a common religious culture, made it easy for panethnicity to emerge and channeled into an oppositional consciousness. But as the evidence from Chicago over a period of forty years also shows, state action, a changing demographic balance, more intense competition between national/ethnic groups of local resources can just as easily breed antagonisms and hatreds, where once mutuality was deemed the political necessity for communal advancement.

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1 Oxford English Dictionary, accessed on line on 9.2.2010 at

2 Garis claimed that Mexican minds “run to nothing higher than animal functions – eat, sleep, and sexual debauchery. In every huddle of Mexican shacks one meets the same idleness, hoards of hungry dogs, and filthy children with faces plastered with flies, disease, lice, human filth, stench, promiscuous fornication, bastardy, lounging, apathetic peons and lazy squaws, beans and dried chili, liquor, general squalor, and envy and hatred of the gringo [...] Yet there are Americans clamoring for more of this human swine to be brought over from Mexico.” (Mexican Immigration… , 436).

3 “Latino Strategies for the 70’s – Report,” as quoted in Padilla, 105.

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Ramón A. Gutiérrez, « Reactive Ethnic Formations and Panethnic Identities: The Creation of Latinos in the United States »Revue LISA/LISA e-journal [En ligne], Vol. XI – n° 2 | 2013, mis en ligne le 30 juin 2013, consulté le 22 juillet 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Ramón A. Gutiérrez

Historian Ramón Gutiérrez is the Preston & Sterling Morton Distinguished Service Professor at the University of Chicago. He first established his reputation with an ambitious chronicle of the Spanish conquest of New Mexico in the book, When Jesus Came the Corn Mothers Went Away: Marriage, Sexuality and Power in New Mexico, 1500-1846. He has authored numerous publications on race and ethnicity in American life, Latino Studies, Mexican immigration and Indian-White relations in the Americas and has received many academic awards, including the John Hope Franklin Prize and the Frederick Jackson Turner Prize. He was an associate vice chancellor in the University of California system and a faculty member at the University of California, San Diego, where he founded the Ethnic Studies Department in 1989. In addition, Gutiérrez served as founding director of University of California San Diego’s Center for the Study of Race and Ethnicity.

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