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Hispanics, Latinos face confusion in the 'race box'

'We are not a race. We are so different, and that's the problem,' magazine founder says
Posted at 1:27 PM, Feb 24, 2021
and last updated 2021-02-25 19:04:59-05

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — If you've ever had to fill out a job application form or a form at your doctor’s office, you've likely come across a box asking you to pick a "race."

Most people don't think twice about how they identify, but it's not black and white for certain groups of people who fit somewhere in between.

The Merriam Webster dictionary defines the word "race" as a "category of humankind that shares certain distinctive physical traits."

If you ask young podcaster Cristina Areu, 9, her race, she won't say white, Black, Asian or Pacific Islander.

"At first I only l knew I was Cuban, then when I learned I was Latina, I thought that meant I couldn't be Cuban anymore," Cristina said.

In the "race box," many Hispanics and Latinos are lost.

"We are not a race. We are so different, and that's the problem too. We are so many countries. You're trying to just bottle us up," said Cathy Areu, Journalist & Founder of Catalina magazine.

Catalina magazine

Cristina's mom, Cathy, has battled with this topic since she started her magazine 10 years ago.

"I called it Catalina because there was such a controversy on what to label ourselves, so I went with my name Catherine in Spanish,” Areu said.

Hispanic refers to those who are from a Spanish-speaking country, but Latino or Latina includes people from countries in Latin America who may speak Spanish, Portuguese or other indigenous languages. Often the two terms are mistakenly used interchangeably.

"Words matter," said Dr. Cristobal Salinas, associate professor at Florida Atlantic University.

Salinas studies and researches social change on race and ethnicity. He said the issue is complicated by the fact that the words "Hispanic" and "Latino" identify ethnicity and not race.

Dr. Cristobal Salinas
Dr. Cristobal Salinas says the race box can be confusing to Hispanics since the term denotes ethnic background and not a race.

"When it comes to the data collected, we have limited options. When we think about race, we are either white, African American/Black, Asian American, and we can choose one of those races while Hispanic/Latino becomes an ethnicity. I think that's where we struggle, many of us, is where do we fit in?" Salinas said.

The Health Department Director for Palm Beach County also notes the struggle in COVID-19 vaccine data collection. A report from the state health department showed that as of late February, 4.4 percent of the total local population vaccinated is Hispanic, but 20.7 percent identified as "unknown" in the race category.

"The unknown are the people who can't decide which one they fit into, which is a lot of people in our county because we have a very wide variety of people from the Caribbean, people from South America," said Dr. Alina Alonso, Director of the Palm Beach County Health Department in a county commission meeting held Jan. 26.

In some cases, choosing ethnicity is not even an option on a data collection form. Identifying race and ethnicity gets more complex in cases when Hispanics and Latinos can also identify as white or Black. But what happens when you're in between?

Cathy Areu
Cathy Areu has battled with the topic of race in the Latin and Hispanic community since she started her magazine.

"My 11-year-old found a mug. It was a coffee mug, café con leche, and there were different colors. It went from pale to darker and it depends how much milk you add to your coffee, and that's how we've been able to explain our colors in our family, but there are no boxes for that," said Areu.

Salinas believes new words need to be introduced to the race box.

"I think we will eventually become a race. It's just a matter of time and who is making that decision for us," Salinas said.

It's going to take Hispanics and Latinos to use their voices, to open the box.

"We're not making those forms. We're still not making those forms," Areu added.