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January 2021 | Keeping Our Community Together Maintains Our Strength and Influence

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Keeping our community together maintains our strength and influence

A group’s strength (and power) is measured by the bonds that brings it together, while its weaknesses are measured by the differences that divide it. The stronger those bonds are, the more powerful the collective organization can be. The more the organization fragments itself into smaller subgroups, the weaker it gets until it becomes irrelevant.

The Hispanic community comes together under one umbrella. We all have a common ancestry with the people of Spain and Latin America, which share the Spanish culture as a common thread. Some of us don’t speak Spanish, but some of us do; some of us never been to Latin America, much less to Spain, but some of us have; some of us were born in the U.S. and some of us emigrated here. Some of us are Black, some of us are White, some of us are Asian, and some of us are every possible mixture in between. But we all carry the same culture and to great degree, values. We represent the Hispanic culture, a rich and mature culture equivalent to the majority Anglo culture in this country.

The term Hispanic was given to us as a community in the 70s by the Nixon administration to describe people of Spanish descent for the U.S. Census. Over the years, some people felt uncomfortable that the nomenclature was given to us without our input. For example, my mother always defined herself as an American of Spanish descent, never as “Hispanic” since she didn’t choose that descriptor. For others, it represented the culture of the conquistadores (it does), and they resented that. For this reason, during the early 90s the term Latin (or Latino), emerged out of the West Coast. The Los Angeles Times was the first to use it instead of Hispanic, although it didn’t replace it. Today the East Coast predominantly uses Hispanic while the West Coast predominantly uses Latin or Latino to describe our community.

Industry and government agencies over time have evolved to using Hispanic and Latino interchangeably. Further, in the name of inclusion, during the early 2000s, the term was expanded to include also Portuguese and Brazilian, which while technically not Spanish culture, their culture is similar enough to appear the same. As such today the term Hispanic applies to people whose culture originated in the Iberian Peninsula and all of Latin America.

Lastly, it is important to note that the terms Hispanic and Latin apply to people living in the U.S. and not to people worldwide who speak Spanish. For example, there are no “Hispanics” in Spain, there are Spanish or Spaniards. There are no Hispanics in Latin America, there are Latin Americans (or Colombians, Mexicans, Argentinians, etc.). Additionally, the term Latin (or Latino), outside the U.S. means anyone whose culture and language comes from the original people of Rome. As such Italians are Latin, and so are for example Albanians, Spanish, Moldavians, French, Romanians, Portuguese, etc. So, be careful while using these terms outside the U.S. as it can be confusing to the country you may be visiting.

But, in this country, for the last 50 years, Hispanic and Latin/Latino have united us into a common strong and powerful community and getting more so year on year. It is from this community that our organization was born: The Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers. And it is this community what gives us the needed presence and voice in all things STEM in front of the government and industry. They pay attention to our mission because of our size and strength, and this allows us to raise more money and send even more students to school to study STEM. It’s a virtuous cycle. The more we grow, the more we influence we have and the more we can help the community grow, which in turns gives us more influence, etc.

It is for this reason that I worry about a growing trend in the community, the efforts to rename and rebrand us into ever smaller, more confusing terms. This constant need to fracture ourselves seems to be ingrained in who we are and has always been. It is a full-time effort just trying to keep us together as a community.

Other communities are not like this. For example, at certain company, 3 or 4 African Americans get together and decide to form an Employee Resource Group to work issues of common interest, and they form the AA ERG. The AAs at the plant hear about this and they immediately join the AA ERG and create a larger and stronger ERG. Then the AAs in the sales force hear about it and join and strengthen the team. As the AAs at the satellite offices around the nation do as well, until one day, the company has a very strong AA ERG that provides good cohesive and critically important feedback to the company about issues that impact the AA employees. Every time the company asks for feedback, they get single clear input, and the community thrives.

But our community works differently. For example, at this certain other company, 3 or 4 Hispanics get together and decide to create the Hispanic Leadership Team, a Hispanic ERG to address issues of importance to Hispanic employees at the company. The Hispanics at the plant hear about and immediately create the Mexican Leadership Team, an ERG to address issues of importance to Mexican American employees. The Hispanics in the sales force across the nation hear about it and immediate create the Puerto Rican Leadership Team, an ERG to address the needs of Puerto Rican employees. And at the satellite offices they hear about it and they create the Venezuelan Leadership Team, and the Cuban Leadership team, and the Colombian Leadership Team, and so on. As a result, none of them have any critical mass or influence, and when the company ask these ERGs for input, they get 7 or 8 different and possibly contradictory input. They have fractured themselves into irrelevance.

The latest descriptor we are in love with these days is LatinX. Proponents of it say it is created to have a descriptor that is gender neutral. And that may be true, but so are the existing Hispanic and Latin descriptors! True, Latino and Latina are not, but we have Latin which serves the same need. Importantly, according to the Pew Research Center, only 20% of Hispanics know what LatinX means, and only 3% use the term. That leaves a huge 76% with no idea what the term is or how it is used. Additionally, La Real Academia de la Lengua Española, which decides what words belong to the Spanish language, rejected LatinX as a Spanish word. That is not to say it can’t be used in English since the English language doesn’t have an equivalent official body and relies on dictionary companies to add words when needed, but is confusing to the community. And yes, I know in a small microcosm like a college campus it may not be confusing since everyone there uses it, particularly with the younger population. But that is not representative of the 60+ million Hispanics in the country, and clearly unknown to the current generation of immigrants.

Critically important, if you think Hispanics are confused by the term, imagine Anglos. They already have difficulty with having Hispanic and Latin/Latino/Latina, now we are adding yet another descriptor, which once again fractures the community. And I haven’t addressed [email protected], Latins, Latin’, Chicano, Mexican American, Boricua, and a host of other versions of descriptors we love to use.

My concern is that the more we add different nomenclature and fracture ourselves, the more we find ways to describe ourselves different, the more we will confuse the majority in the country and reduce our influence and ability to support the community. When the government wants to talk about STEM amongst the Hispanic community, who they talk to? The Hispanics? The Latinxs? The Latinos? The Latins? Who?

Interestingly, someone told me once while talking this same point, “that’s a silly argument since they are all the same.” Well, if that is the case, if they are all the same, why do we keep creating new labels to define the same?

I know this point of view may not be popular, and I know as just one person I’m not going to change this emerging trend and further fracturing of the community any time soon. But I must make sure we understand the big picture impact of the things we do and the decisions we make.

We truly are in love with LatinX particularly amongst younger generations. But as a SHPE member, ask yourself what is more important, what’s more critical to you? Improving the community, adding more students to STEM, getting more professional Hispanics in the workforce and eventually in the C-suites across the nation, or is it to find ever more creative labels to describe ourselves? Is it more important to have the national presence and power that comes from the size of the community, or adding yet another descriptor to the list? I know my answer – do you know yours?

Miguel Alemañy
Chair, SHPE Board of Directors