Thursday, March 4, 2010

Rodriguez: Census: Masking Identities or Counting the Indigenous Among Us?

Census: Masking Identities or Counting the Indigenous Among Us?

New America Media

Commentary, Roberto Dr. Cintli Rodriguez

Mar 04, 2010

It was when I first stood atop the Pyramid of the Sun in Teotihuacan,

Mexico in 1976 that I was finally able to grasp something my parents

first communicated to me when I was five years old; that my roots on

this continent are not simply Mexican, but both ancient and


My red-brown face should have been enough to teach me this. However,

that was not the message I received in school at the time, nor is it

the message little red-brown kids receive today.

I experienced a similar kind of reaffirmation this past month when I

stood in front of the world-renowned, ancient Mayan observatory at

Chichen Itza, on Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula.

Upon my return to the United States, I received a message from a

colleague regarding the U.S. Census Bureau. My mouth soured; another

decade and another story about how the bureau paradoxically insists

that Mexicans are Caucasian. I will have to explain to them again that

Mexicans are the descendants of those who built the pyramids at

Teotihuacan and Chichen Itza – that it was not Caucasians who built


The genesis of this nonsensical “misconception” goes back to the era

when the United States militarily took half of Mexico in 1848. At that

time, the Mexican government attempted to protect its former citizens

by insisting that the U.S. government treat them legally as “white,”

so they would not be enslaved or subjected to legal segregation. That

strategy only partially worked, because most Mexicans in this country

have never been treated as “white,” or as full human beings with full

human rights.

That era is long over, yet the fear, shame, denial, and semi-legal

fiction of being “white” remains, perpetrated primarily by government


Despite the bureau policy of racial categorization, the Indigenous

Cultures Institute in Texas, a Census 2010 partner, has advanced an

alternative: It asserts that Hispanics, Mexican Americans, and

Indigenous people of Mexico are native or American Indian. After

answering Question 8, regarding whether one is Hispanic or not, the

institute suggests: “If you are a descendant of native people, you can

identify yourself (in Question 9) as an American Indian in the 2010

Census… If you don’t know your tribe, enter “unknown” or “detribalized

native.” If tribe or identity is known, fill it in, i.e., Macehual,

Maya, Quechua, etc.

This may not be the best option, but the bureau has never made it easy

to recognize the indigenous roots of "Mexican Americans/Chicanos" or

"Latinos/Hispanics." The long and sordid history of the census has

been to direct or redirect them into the white category, even--and

especially--when they have asserted their indigenous roots or when

they have checked the “other” race category. (Since 1980, about half

of Hispanics/Latinos have checked the “other” race category and are

virtually the only group that chooses this category.) This has been a

standard practice of the bureau since the second half of the twentieth

century. Coincidentally, this is also when government bureaucrats

imposed the term "Hispanic," a tag that generally masks the existence

of indigenous and/or African roots in many peoples of the Americas.

In 2000, the Census Bureau finally recognized a Latin American Indian

category, but it did not create an educational campaign to go with it.

The bureau now recognizes peoples who are traditionally viewed (using

arbitrary criteria) as indigenous in Mexico, Central and South

America, but it does not recognize those who are considered "mestizo"

–- peoples who are at least part, if not primarily, native. The

mestizo category, borne of a dehumanizing racial caste system in the

Americas, is also a troublesome category, yet it is how most people of

Mexican and Central American descent identify, comprising

approximately 75 percent of all “Latinos/Hispanics.”

The Indigenous Institute promotes its idea as a means by which Mexican

Americans or Latinos/Hispanics can honor their indigenous ancestry. If

this option is widely embraced, it remains to be seen how the bureau

will count this information. The same question arises if people choose

the American Indian category and write in “mestizo.”

Traditionally, the bureau has taken a narrow view of who is

indigenous, because the “American Indian” category was designed not to

ascertain Indigeneity, but to count “U.S. Indians.” If a more

expansive view is embraced widely –- as advocated by the institute -–

it would result in an increase from 5 million (the 2009 census

estimate) to perhaps 30 to 40 million people. (Not all of the nation’s

close to 50 million Hispanics/Latinos can or would claim indigenous


If done correctly, the institute’s suggestion need not negatively

affect the allocation of resources to specific tribes. Neither should

the way people identify be subject to government approval. Yet, the

ramifications of exercising such an option should indeed be studied.

Rodriguez, an assistant professor at the University of Arizona, can be

reached at:

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