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Census: Masking Identities or Counting the Indigenous Among Us?

Created: 05 March, 2010
Updated: 13 September, 2023
4 min read

New America Media

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 Indigenous.

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 – that it was not Caucasians who built them.

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 bureaucrats.

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.

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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” –- 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 the indigenous, but to count “U.S. Indians.” If a more expansive view is embraced widely –- as advocated by the institute -– 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 ancestry.)

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.

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