Census: Masking Identities or Counting the Indigenous Among Us

The Census bureau has never made it easy to recognize the indigenous roots of Mexican Americans/Chicanos or Latinos/Hispanics

By Roberto Dr. Cintli Rodriguez
Published on LatinoLA: March 9, 2010

Census: Masking Identities or Counting the Indigenous Among Us

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 ‘«Ű 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"
‘«Ű- 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 ‘«Ű- as advocated by the institute -‘«Ű
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.

About Roberto Dr. Cintli Rodriguez:
Rodriguez is an assistant professor at the University of Arizona.
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