What Makes a Hispanic Anyway?

"The connective tissue that binds Latinos and Latinas in the US is a shared culture and a clear identification with that culture. This heritage cannot be imposed, it has to be embraced."

Tony Mendez, the inspiration behind the Ben Affleck directed award-winning film, “Argo” may have a Spanish surname but please don’t get it twisted: he is not Hispanic. 

He told a reporter himself. 

I don’t think of myself as a Hispanic. I think of myself as a person who grew up in the desert. If I had been in a different family circumstance, I might have felt that way. But, mostly, my family was at odds with each other in a playful way, they weren’t talking about heritage in that regard. ~ Tony Mendez to Jack Rico

The nuance of being Latino was brought home by the ex Cia operative's story about the Iran hostage that just took top honors at the Golden Globes. He touches on something deep and unpacking such a loaded statement would make for a great doctoral dissertation.

When marketers talk about the Latino vote or the Latino market, I wonder how many Tony Mendez’ they are counting in their numbers? Of course, we know that race is a man-made social construct. We also know that when we speak about Latinos in the US we are not describing people from a specific race, rather people of different nationalities, ethnicities and yes, races that hail from the Spanish speaking Caribbean and Latin America. 

There was some heat in Hollywood because some folks who want more opportunities for actors of color were upset that Affleck played a “Latino” and this robbed a “real” Latino actor from a good starring role. Does the conversation change now that Mendez clarified how he defines himself? 

If a Black or Asian American declares herself as not Black or Asian would that not make her Black or Asian? Would you pass if you could?

The Mendez brouhaha reminded me of the time I edited Latina magazine when the marketing department would send mailers offering subscriptions to thousands of “Latinas” from lists bought from mass marketers. I would get nasty and racist calls from women with names like, Susan Garcia, Elizabeth Santos, Mary Gonzales, screaming into the phone, “I am not Hispanic, stop sending me that spic magazine.”   With names Rodriguez, Martinez, Rivera, how are marketers supposed to know anyway?  

It’s the cultura stupid

He makes it clear that what makes a Hispanic a Hispanic is not the Spanish surname. Yes, it does begin with your parents and abuelo’s country of origin, but more than that, it is the culture you were steeped in and it is your identifying with that culture. It is not necessarily your ability to roll our rrrrs like Modern Family’s Sofia Vergara’s character or dance bachata or salsa, though that certainly adds to the fun and full experience. 

The connective tissue that binds Latinos and Latinas in the US is a shared culture and a clear identification with that culture. This heritage cannot be imposed it has to be embraced.

I know a woman born to Mexican parents but adopted and raised by Anglo American Texan parents who learned to dance folkloric Mexican dance at the local community center and speak a few words in Spanish in school. She identifies passionately as a Latina. I also know a young man who graduated from Dartmouth, who is of Peruvian indigenous descent and who was adopted by Anglo American parents.  He says he is white American. I look at him and see Tupaq Amaru, he sees Thor.

The question of identity plagues Americans because our ancestors arrived from so many distant lands and there is not one kind of American. 

As Latino generations continue to grow up in this country, what will happen to Hispanics who are of mixed parents, who don’t speak Spanish, who hate eating Tacos or arroz con gandules (they don’t know what they are missing) and could care less about Daddy Yankee and Luis Miguel but have names like Ortiz, Menendez, or Cruz? And who even when looking like Frida Khalo would rather be played by Taylor Swift in a film.

This episode prompted me to ask my 10 yr old about his heritage and he said, “Puerto Rican.” And I said, “but you were born in New York City and don’t speak Spanish.” And he responded, “Mom, I am Puerto Rican 100 % because you are, because daddy is, because grandma is and because I love rice and beans.” And that was the end of that. My child embraces his heritage, a gift that we have shared and given him, fully and no one can take that away from him. Just like no one can take away Tony Mendez declaration that he is not Hispanic, even if he had a father that was and that being played by an Irish dude from Boston is fine by him. 


  1. Great post, Sandra! I hope many read it because your point is right on.

  2. You are so right! I know kids from.Chinese parents who were born and raised in Puerto Rico and they feel Puerto Rican. Who can contest that? And why should we condemn those who don't feel connected to their hispanic ancestry, even though they have a Spanish surname, as you explain? Identity is very personal, no doubt. Excellent article!