Temple students, faculty discuss diversity in the Census

The United States’ Census only had two options for ethnicity this year, Latino and Spanish.


As her mom filled out the 2020 United States Census, Micaela Canelo-Martinez noticed she was faced with a difficult question.

Canelo-Martinez, a senior marketing major and co-director for event programming for Temple’s Asociación de Estudiantes Latinos, found that none of the racial options fit her perception of herself and her family. Her ethnicity, however, was its own question. 

“I always put ‘refuse to answer’ or ‘not specified’ or ‘other’ [for race] because being Latino is a separate question,” Canelo-Martinez said. “Because I don’t want to put white and I can’t put anything else. It just feels weird having to have a separate section for that.”

Oct. 15 marked the end of data collection for the 2020 Census, which measures population sizes in all U.S. states and five territories to determine distribution of federal funding, congressional representation and more, The Temple News reported

Despite the constant fluctuating levels of diversity within the U.S., the census, which had more than a dozen options for racial identification, had only the two ethnicities of Latino and Spanish. 

Sociology professor Rebbeca Tesfai explained that the reason for this census question is that Hispanic origin is more accurately considered an “ethnicity.” 

“While the ideas of race can vary from place to place, ethnicity is usually much more static because it’s based on something that’s actually a lived experience,” said Tesfai, who teaches Ethnicity and the Immigrant Experience in the United States.

In sociology, race is considered a social construct that depends on where a person is born and raised and ethnicity is based on culture, Tesfai said.

While some find the categories constraining, others find it allows them to connect with multiple parts of their identity. 

“Being Latina to me means that the most important thing in my life is my family,” Canelo-Martinez said. “And that’s a very big value in the Latino community.”

Gaby Duran, a junior global studies major and vice president of AdEL, identifies as Hispanic because her parents are from the Dominican Republic, and emphasizes the importance of community in Hispanic culture. 

“I think [being Hispanic] is just understanding that your community is a big part of your life,” Duran said.

Throughout time, however, the census’ definitions have changed drastically.

In 1980, a question asking if someone was of Spanish or Hispanic “origin or descent” was added, and some variation of that question has been on every census since. 

In 2020, the only ethnicity option is Hispanic, Latino or Spanish origin. This may be more political than logical, said Pablo Vila, a sociology professor who teaches Race and Ethnicity. 

“There’s no science behind the categories,” Vila said. “You don’t accept differences within the white category, for instance. How many ethnicities do you have within the white category? Hundreds. But you have only one racial category without ethnicity differences [on the census].”

Tesfai said a reason Latino is kept separately on the census is that the population is less homogenous than most ethnic groups. 

“Among the Latinx population, you have people who consider themselves white or Black or mixed race or other or Indigenous,” Tesfai said. 

For Duran, not having an ethnicity option would erase part of her identity. While she is white, being Hispanic is an integral part of her heritage and selfhood, she said. 

“I am white but I’m also Hispanic, so having that distinction is nice,” Duran said.  “And it feels good to be like I’m seen here and this is who I identify as.”

The current definitions of Hispanic and Latino are not perfect, as the U.S. Office of Management and Budget defines Hispanic or Latino as “a person of Cuban, Mexican, Puerto Rican, South or Central American or other Spanish culture or origin regardless of race.” 

This definition equates Spaniards and groups that Spain colonized, Vila said. For this reason, he said many people of Latin American descent would mark “yes” for Hispanic and then fill in the “any other race” category with their nationality. 

“My way to answer the census and to resist it?” Vila said. “Put ‘Hispanic, yes’ and ‘other,’ and I put ‘human being.’”

1 Comment

  1. Lies, lies and more lies. The census form allows Hispanics to identify as such and allows checking boxes for Mexican, Puerto Rican and Cuban. It also allows one to check “other” and to write in a specific origin. There is a separate question on race.

    And while we’re on the subject, what is so special about Hispanics that this question is even asked? How are Spaniards so different ethnically than other Europeans? And if Hispanics can expand on their origins because they are “ethnically diverse”, why not have multiple origins for Caucasians who differ ethnically among Swedes, Italians, Lebanese and Egyptians and others?

    Here’s a solution. Let’s stop collecting information that divides us into arbitrary tribes.

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