She Made ‘Hispanic’ Official
A Conversation With Grace Flores-Hughes, Hispanic wordsmith
Sunday, July 26, 2009, Washington Post
While success has many fathers and failure is an orphan, bureaucrat-ese, it turns out, sometimes has one proud author. During her long career in government, Grace Flores-Hughes spent some time working as an assistant in what was then called the Department of Health, Education and Welfare. It was there, in the early 1970s, that she helped establish “Hispanic” as the government’s word of choice for people of Spanish origin — a term that made it onto the official U.S. census form in 1980. Flores-Hughes, who recently left a federal job as a Bush political appointee, spoke with Outlook’s Rachel Dry about why some people think “Latino” sounds cooler, who should really count as Hispanic and whether Sonia Sotomayor was wise to talk about “wise Latina” women. Excerpts:
What did you think when you heard about the nomination of Judge Sotomayor — by a president whose politics don’t align with yours?
I was terribly excited. She’s Hispanic. And obviously well qualified as far as I’m concerned. Politics came last with me in terms of seeing her nomination. Sure, I’m wary of future decisions, but I figure that she’s going to do her work based on what she said during the hearings, based on the Constitution.
You just said: “She’s Hispanic.” Why did you use that term instead of “Puerto Rican” or “Latina”?
Because I coined the term, and I’m faithful to my work.
Fair enough. But besides pride of authorship?
I believe that it represents the Hispanic Americans of this country. It best describes who we are based on our Hispanic surnames. . . . The reason I am not in favor of “Latino” or “Latina” is that those terms can represent the people of the Mediterranean. Then you’d be including Portuguese and Italians, if you take it literally. And then it takes away from the Hispanic people of America that need to be counted: Who are we; how are we being served by the government; who do we vote for? How are you going to come to a conclusion if you’re mixing apples and oranges?
There are many Hispanic activists who think that Richard Nixon did it. Well, no, Richard Nixon was very busy — he didn’t have time to be doing this. When I explain it, they get relieved. They were holding this anger that some nasty Anglo named them. Well, no, it wasn’t. It was this little Hispanic bureaucrat.
You were on an ad-hoc committee in what was then the Department of Health, Education and Welfare. How did that come about?
A department within [HEW] had funded a report on the education of Hispanics and Native Americans. And in the report they referred to them — they were all Anglos who did the report — they referred to them as Puerto Ricans, and then Native Americans they called Indians, and then they called us Mexican Americans. And when the authors asked educators and community activists to come in and comment on the report, they screamed and said, “We don’t like the way we’re called.” And the report never went anywhere because they were so preoccupied with what they were called. Caspar Weinberger, who was the secretary of HEW at the time, said, “Okay, that’s it, we need to get some definitions.”
So you and others in your office joined a committee to come up with the best name.
It was very contentious. Others were pulling for the word “Latino.” I wanted “Hispanic.” And I was the youngest one in the group. They said: ” ‘Latino’ and ‘Latina’ is what we all are, that’s why we should be called that.” But to me the only way to accurately count us is by using the term “Hispanic.”
When I was growing up in South Texas, they used to call me Latin American, and I wasn’t Latin American. So we wouldn’t answer on the forms because we’d say: “We’re not Latin. We’re Spanish.” That’s when “Hispanic” started coming up.
The biggest concern was in those days they were beginning to hire a lot of minorities, especially Hispanic Americans, and if somebody would say, “Well, I’m Latin and they’re from Portugal, they’re going to get hired.” And I said, “That’s not the point of what we’re trying to do here. We’re trying to open the doors for Mexican Americans.”
It was an affirmative action decision?
Essentially it was guiding any affirmative action that was going to evolve.
From a standpoint of my having suffered discrimination as a Mexican American in South Texas, I understood what she was trying to do and what she meant. But there are times when you just have to ignore that and say, “Is this really the best decision I can render?” You have to look at the bigger picture. I fully understand her thinking, but I would never have made the decision she made.
Who is Hispanic in your mind? Who were you thinking of when you fought for the term?
All the people in South Texas I grew up with. So many of them were poor, so many were disenfranchised. I thought: How can we argue for more federal funds or more federal help if we don’t know how many they are?
Today, the census will count someone as Spanish/Hispanic/Latino if that’s who they say they are. Is that the right way to do it?
I think that all the slashing that they do — the Hispanic slash Latino slash — is good. If you just put “Hispanic,” somebody’s going to say, “I’m not Hispanic; I hate that term,” and they won’t answer. And we would lose the count. The slashing allows all of us, kicking and screaming, to check the right box.
What did you think of all the attention paid to Judge Sotomayor’s “wise Latina woman” comment?
I thought: It’s a slow summer so we’re going to make this into a big issue when everybody knew darn well and good what she meant. I wished she had used different words so we wouldn’t have to keep bringing it up over and over.
What if it had been “wise Hispanic woman”?
I would have liked it better.
If she is confirmed, do you hope that the headlines say “First Hispanic Justice”?
Oh, I would like that. I don’t know if they’re going to do it. They may say “Latina.” Has anybody asked her? Does she prefer “Latina” or “Hispanic”? A lot of Democrats use “Latina.” It’s the chic thing to do.
Why are “Latina” and “Latino” chic?
Well, “Hispanic” they think is a much older term. More young people use “Latino.” And it seems like Democrats call themselves Latinos; Republicans call themselves Hispanics. It’s getting divided that way — I don’t like that. In many print media that I see, they’ll say “Hispanic,” and they’ll say “Latina” later on just so they don’t upset anybody.