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What's in a Name?

A day at the races: Census 2000's Adriana Zorrilla Velasquez paints by the numbers.
John Johnston

Whenever someone asks Marcus Roybal about her ethnicity, which seems to be happening a lot these days, she simply glances at the back of her 82-year-old hand and checks the color of her skin.

"Chicano," she says.

But if you really want to know the truth, she's part Sioux and part Pueblo Indian, with a dollop of Spanish.

"So my maiden name is Garcia," she says.

Then again, when she was growing up in rural Colorado, she often said "white" when asked that same question.

"A lot of the time, American-Indians were more American than whites," she explains. "So I used that."

But whenever restaurant owners tried to kick her out because of her dark complexion, she showed them the green.

"I'd pull out a dollar bill," she remembers, "and say, 'What color is yours?'"

And her kids, well, you don't want to know about her kids.

"Some of them are Chicano and some of them are Latino and some of them are Hispanic," she says. "I have nine, you know. And they all say something different."

Which is why she likes the Census 2000 forms that hit mailboxes earlier this month. For the first time, the demographic survey not only includes boxes for Spanish, Hispanic, Chicano, Mexican-American, Cuban and Puerto Rican, but Latino as well.

"Oh, it's lovely," Roybal says. "They've got everything all right there together. Now people can stop arguing."

Yeah, right.

Or in the context of this story, "Oh, s."

But that's the plan, census officials say. By adding Latino, demographers hope to include almost everyone of Spanish-speaking descent, offering not only the standard meatloaf-and-mashed-potatoes menu, but a buffet of enchiladas, paella, plátanos, black beans and rice and chicharrones.

"It's a big thing," says Adriana Zorrilla Velasquez, a Census 2000 spokeswoman. "I'm getting a lot of calls about it. I think that's the most interesting part of this census. We're trying to paint a better picture of Hispanics because we're not just one thing. We come from many places and many backgrounds. Latinos can be of any race."

For instance: She knows people from Panama who are Chinese but consider themselves Latino, and she knows people from the Dominican Republic who are black but also call themselves Latino.

"As for me, I have four different races," Zorrilla Velasquez says. "I have some Colombian Indian, my father is Spanish, and my grandmother on my father's side is Italian. And I probably have some Arabic, too, because we come from the southern part of Spain. So that means I probably have some black, also. So that's five. I'm Latino and my skin is white. Actually, I'm yellow, but there's no category for that."

I know the feeling.

I'm Hispanic on my mother's side and Scottish/French on my dad's. My wife is full-blooded Hispanic (I'll use the meatloaf version for simplicity's sake). And my fifteen-month-old daughter is three-quarters Hispanic. I don't know what the hell we are.

Back where we come from -- New Mexico -- census-box categories never seemed to matter much until relatives gathered in the backyard over a cooler of beer and paper plates covered with hamburgers, potato salad and green chile.

"We're Spanish," my wife's grandma would say.

"No, we're not," her grandpa would counter. "This land belonged to Mexico, so we're all Mexicans, vieja."

"Well, you might be Mexican, but I'm Spanish!"

The story was the same in my family: My mother's mother was Spanish and Grandpa was Mexican. In the '70s, my mom was a Chicana, but then she became Basque when she attended art school. After a while, everyone got tired of fighting and settled on the generic compromise of Hispanic.

Then my wife and I moved to Los Angeles, where the preferred term was Latino. Not Spanish. Not Mexican. Not Chicano. And certainly not Hispanic.

Since I look like my Scottish-French dad, and have his last name, my opinion didn't really matter. But my wife became a lightning rod.

"Whenever I said 'Hispanic,' I got some lecture about how I was denying my Indian roots," she recalls. "I started saying 'Latina' to avoid the lecture."

Eventually, we returned to New Mexico as Latinos and started the argument all over again.

Since we moved to Denver, my wife has started calling herself "New Mexican." But that doesn't seem to work, either. In Colorado, the bloodlines are just as murky as they were in New Mexico -- about as clear as a bowl of menudo. And despite efforts to the contrary, the Census 2000 forms have only stirred the pot.

For example, Molly Martinez, like my grandma and my wife's grandma, believes her roots stretch all the way to Madrid.

 

"I consider myself Spanish," she says. "But since I was born here, I guess that makes me Spanish-American. Latino? Hispanic? I think those are just things made up by the younger people. Just call me Spanish."

Whether or not those labels are made up, don't call Joaquin Gonzales Spanish-American. A child of the civil-rights movement, he vividly remembers Corky Gonzales, the Crusade for Justice and the battles for self-determination. As far as he's concerned, there's only one word that describes him.

"Chicano," says Gonzales, who's an inspection supervisor with the City of Denver. "I grew up in the inner city and was involved in things at an early age. To me, Chicano is a statement of struggle and self-identity. You say the word Chicano and it changes how people look at you. And I enjoy the fact that it makes people uncomfortable. That was one of the reasons we use it. To us, it was an identifying factor, something we used to come together. The word Chicano is a rallying point."

And in his dictionary, the opposite of Chicano is Hispanic.

"I consider Hispanic as a derogatory term," Gonzales continues. "It was a term that was given to us, a term that was passed down by federal agencies who just wanted to lump us all together. We'd rather name ourselves than have someone impose a name on us. The Hispanic thing is something everyone jokes about. You know like, 'His Panic.' Remember when George Bush said his greatest fear was the border? Well, his greatest fear has come true. To me, the only ones who call themselves Hispanics are the ones who aspire to be part of the system, the ones who want to be accepted. Latino is all right, but it's better than Hispanic. At least Latino is something we came up with ourselves."

Who's "we"? asks Lorenzo Garcia, owner of the Hatch Chile Wars produce stand on Brighton Boulevard. Garcia is no more Latino than he is French. The way he looks at it, regardless of where people come from originally, they're in the United States now.

"I'm a Vietnam vet, and I consider it an insult to be called a Latino," Garcia says. "I'm not from South America or Central America, so I'm not Latino. And I'm not from Mexico, either, so I'm not Mexican. I'm an American. I'm a Hispanic-American, but I'm an American first."

Susana Herrera, owner of La Popular Mexican foods, breaks it down further: "We should all put down 'human race,'" she says. "I agree with that."

For her, Hispanic doesn't quite cut it. Neither does Latino. And the word Chicano baffles her. Her mom is from California and her dad is from Denver, but she was raised in El Paso -- and at the border, Chicano means this: "Mainly a person who is Mexican, but doesn't speak Spanish very well. You know, Mexicans who have been Americanized."

So which box will she check?

"Mexican-American," Herrera says. "I grew up on the border and I still have my culture. I speak Spanish, I have an accent and sometimes I mispronounce things in English, but that's what I am -- Mexican. What really gets me is people of Mexican descent saying they're Spanish, like Mexican is a derogatory term. To me it's not. I'm Mexican and proud of it."

So is Geri Martinez, who runs the Aztlan rec center in northwest Denver. Her grandparents were born south of the border, and her parents spoke mostly Spanish. During the '60s and '70s, she considered herself a Chicano -- in fact, she still does. But last week, she checked the Latino box on her Census 2000 form.

"I like Latino because it includes all the different cultures," she says. "It pretty much covers everything."

Not quite, says Pat Vigil, director of GANAS, a family center in the La Alma/Lincoln area. Although his 84-year-old mother insists they are descended from the conquistadores, Vigil did a bit of research and found that he has not only Spanish blood, but also "one-eighth French and even more Indian than French."

"You really want to know the truth?" Vigil asks. "The word that satisfies me most in terms of my genetic and racial heritage is mestizo. But I don't get mad about it anymore. I like Mexican-American, and I'm not opposed to Latino. I still prefer Chicano because that's what we used when we were growing up in the barrio, but I've reached point where I say, 'Mom. I'm not going to argue with you. I'm a human being. You're a Spanish-American chihuahua and I'm a Mexican chihuahua. Let's leave it at that.'"

If everyone did, Zorrilla Velasquez would be satisfied. The goal of Census 2000 is to get people to respond, and if providing boxes that say Latino, Chicano or Spanish-American raises the response rate, that's fine.

 

"It's a self-identification process," she says. "Whatever you feel like you are, that's what you are. America is not just black and white anymore. It's a whole rainbow of colors. And that rainbow just keeps getting bigger and bigger and more beautiful."

Besides, Zorrilla Velasquez says, the census evolves as much as the population it reflects.

"It's a learning process," she concludes. "We don't think this is the definite form. We learn from past mistakes. So next time, there might be even more options available."

That's good to know. For my family of mixed blood, there's a word in New Mexico that describes us perfectly. And by the time 2010 rolls around, maybe I'll finally find a box that says Coyote.


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