Heritage, Identity and Culture.

by Carlos E. Cortés – Professor Emeritus of History at the University of California, Riverside. 
 
In my last blog I discussed the words, Hispanic and Latino. As I explained, while technically these terms can be construed as covering slightly different cohorts, in current practice they are generally used interchangeably.  But those labels raise another issue. 
 
Once we get past the words themselves, is there any real substance behind them?  My short answer is “Yes,” but first we need to unpack three other terms:  heritage, identity and culture.   
 
Everybody has ethnic heritage, whether or not they know it or care about it.  Many Americans, maybe most, have multiple ethnic heritages.  Those willing to try can probably uncover at least some strands of their ethnic ancestries. 
 
But while all Americans have ethnic heritage, not all have ethnic  identity.  Identity means that this heritage is part of you.  It’s not something you choose; it’s something you feel.  It suggests a sense of connection with your ethnic past and contributes to a sense of commonality with others of the same ethnic identity.
 
If someone asks the question, “What is my ethnic identity?,” they probably doesn’t have one.  If they did, they wouldn’t need to ask because they’d feel it and know it.  There’s nothing wrong with not having ethnic identity.  Some people have it, some don’t. 
 
Then there’s ethnic culture, which stretches well beyond mere identity.  Culture influences your values.  It affects the way you live, think, feel, and perceive.  It’s something you may draw upon while analyzing and making decisions.  It encompasses the speaking of heritage languages, the following of heritage customs, and the maintaining of heritage traditions.
 
Ethnic heritage, identity, and culture are related but not identical.
 
So what about Hispanics?  Obviously we share Hispanic heritage, although that heritage may stretch back to different nations, be grounded in different root cultures, and reflect different racial strands.
 
U.S. Hispanic identity is more recent in origin.  Until the last forty years, Latinos usually identified ethnically only with their heritage nations or groups, not with a broader sense of Latinidad.  The League of United Latin American Citizens was formed in the 1920’s.  Yet, despite its title, it was primarily Mexican American.
 
The last forty years have witnessed the rise of Hispanic and Latino as umbrella identities – for example, the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.  But these umbrella terms have not replaced specific national-origin identities.  Rather they now co-exist.  It’s not either/or; it’s both/and. 
 
This brings us to U.S. Hispanic culture.  Does it really exist beyond the mere sharing of a common umbrella identity?  Again my short answer is yes, but with reservations.
 
U.S. Hispanic – or Latino – culture is relatively new and slowly evolving.  The development of Hispanic identity and shared Latino culture (as differentiated from Latin American culture) is likely to be one of the fundamental stories of 21at century multicultural America.  It’s a story I’ll address throughout this series, beginning with my next blog.
 
Dr. Carlos E. Cortés is Professor Emeritus of History at the University of California, Riverside. 
 
 
 

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