Hispanics find Census race question hard to answer

Miriam Garcia, 61, is part Mexican, Filipino, and

Miriam Garcia, 61, is part Mexican, Filipino, and Japanese. (March 26, 2010) (Credit: Joseph D. Sullivan)

Question 9 on the 2010 Census form seems pretty straightforward: "What is Person 1's race?"

But it's anything but for many Hispanics like Miriam M.E. Garcia.

She's filled out her Census form, but hasn't "sent it in because I'm still debating" the race question, Garcia said recently. "I am Mexican but I'm also part Filipino and part Japanese," said Garcia, 61, executive director of Adelante of Suffolk County Inc., a local social service agency.

Even though the form allows people to check more than one race - and she has - she thinks the categories don't quite fit.

She isn't alone.

"My own personal opinion is it just doesn't make any sense, the way race is separated from Hispanic," said Nadia Marin-Molina.

Federal law describes Hispanics as an ethnic group, not a race. So Marin-Molina, executive director of the Hempstead-based Workplace Project, an immigrant advocacy group, said she simply checked the "some other race" box and wrote in "Latino." She is of Colombian heritage.

Roberto Ramirez, the Census Bureau's ethnicity and ancestry branch chief, said the agency is aware of the confusion many Hispanics - as well as those with multiracial heritage - have over the race question.

Ramirez said about 40 percent of Hispanics are foreign born, and may "come from countries that have different concepts of race and ethnicity, so they struggle with the U.S. race classification system."

Ramirez emphasized that people have the freedom to "write in whatever they like" to identify their race. But he said the Census is required by law to ask for race information - and has done so since the very first Census in 1790. It has asked about Hispanic origin since 1970.

Race and Hispanic origin data are used to monitor compliance with anti-discrimination laws.

Still, confusion lingers.

"I think Hispanics just don't see themselves fitting into the white/black/Asian classification we use here in the United States," said Mark Hugo Lopez, associate director of the Pew Hispanic Center, a Washington, D.C., think tank.

Lopez said the center, in a 2009 survey, found "26 percent of all Hispanics identify themselves as white and about 8 percent as African-American or something else." He said 65 percent identified themselves as either "some other race" or as Hispanic/Latino.

"I don't feel that I'm white or any of the other races mentioned," said Amy Ortiz, 30, of Central Islip, a case worker at Adelante. She checked "other" on her form. Though she had already marked her Puerto Rican heritage on the Hispanic origin question, she entered it a second time on the race question.

Luis Valenzuela, 57, who marked "Latino" on the race question, advised "the federal government to catch up with the 21st Century and recognize that [its] binary construction of race is in need of repair. We live in a multiracial society."

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