INS to Disband

Census to eliminate 'Hispanic' category, once and for all

By Patrisia Gonzales & Roberto Rodriguez
Published on LatinoLA: April 1, 2002

INS to Disband

President W. Bush is set to issue an executive order on March 31 that will disband the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS). In issuing the executive order and making the announcement on Cesar Chavez's birthday, President W. Bush will cite the historical mistreatment of Mexican people as the cause.

"As my good friend Cesar used to say, 'Ya Pasta!'" On the same day, the U.S. Census Bureau will itself issue a controversial directive that henceforth eliminates the "Hispanic" category.

Due to the major recent embarrassment regarding the INS approval of visas for two dead al-Qaida operatives, the first announcement was widely anticipated, whereas the census directive has taken many bureaucrats by surprise.

The census decision was reached as part of an out-of-court settlement with the Mexican American Lawyers in Defense of Freedom (MALDEF). The human-rights organization filed a class-action lawsuit (Rodriguez X v. U.S. Census Bureau) in 1979, challenging the accuracy and appropriateness of the category.

Rodriguez X initially petitioned the bureau -- on the basis of his primarily indigenous ancestry -- to allow him to be excluded from the Hispanic category. In denying his request, the bureau stated: "While not challenging the indigenous character of the plaintiff, the new category includes Mexican Americans, which is intended to better count people of Spanish ancestry."

In filing the class-action lawsuit, Rodriguez X charged: "As someone of Mexican origin -- whose indigenous heritage is rooted on this continent for thousands of years -- I have nothing to do with 'Hispania.'"

In 1986 and 1989, the lawsuit was amended to include Central Americans and Puerto Ricans, respectively.

Canek (Charlie) Bonampak, a bureau official, admitted that his agency had come close to accepting the Rodriguez X petition, but worried that other Mexican Americans might follow suit. "Without Mexican Americans, there is no Hispanic category," said Charlie, noting that they constitute two-thirds of all those classified as Hispanic.

"When Central Americans and then Puerto Ricans joined the lawsuit, we already knew that there was not a single group within that category that preferred Hispanic as a primary form of identification. We did, however, find a small group in Northern New Mexico and Southern Colorado that preferred 'Hispano,' but even they rejected the Hispanic designation. Frankly, we pressed on because that was the institutional mode we were in. Elimination of that category would have meant a lot of unemployed bureaucrats," admitted Charlie.

"By the 1990s, we also knew that the Hispanic category had become a Frankensteinian nightmare, primarily because even we were treating it as a legal and scientific category, which it isn't. We had created a category of some 30 million people that had begun to define the other 270 million. Of course, Hispanic is not a racial category either. But as a result of our ineptness, we created the nonsensical 'non-Hispanic white' term, which caused bureaucrats to assume that most Hispanics are white. In fact, the opposite is true. It became so confusing that even we were confused. My own children, Maya and Balam, were being classified as 'non-Anglo, non-Hispanic Mayans.' So we were convinced, but we couldn't agree upon an alternative."

One plan included placing Mexican Americans, Central and South Americans (a la 1930) into their own indigenous category. Tom Ridge, director of Homeland Security, suggested color codes (black, brown, yellow, white and rainbow) in place of racial categories. However, Attorney General John Ashcroft objected, insisting that Arabs might slide into the brown category undetected, though he denied that his opposition constituted racial profiling.

"All the options create bureaucratic nightmares," said Charlie. "We began in 2000 by creating a group called 'Latin American Indians,' and while somewhat helpful, it didn't address the Rodriguez X petition. After 23 years, this mess created nothing but panic for us -- his-panics, her-panics, high-spanics, hic-spanics, house-panics and even mouse-panics. In the end, it does still sound like 'spics.'"

"As of April 1, rather than accept the Rodriguez X petition, we will be eliminating the governmental Hispanic category altogether," said Charlie. "There's no substitute. People will be free to choose whatever identity they want."

Co-plaintiff Olga Gonzalez, who gave birth to her child Citlamina recently in Denver, noted that hospital officials tried to classify her child as Hispanic and white. When she informed them that they were from the Mexican Otomi nation, the hospital refused to count her as indigenous and instead left her birth certificate blank. "It's indicative of what this country thinks of us," said Gonzalez.


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