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Today in the US, people from Spanish-speaking countries in the Americas are called by various names: Hispanic, Latino, Chicano, etc. What was the term used by Americans for such people in the 1800s?

If you answer the question, please also let me know if the term you give is/was considered derogatory, so I'll know if I have to be careful to put it in the right context.

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Interesting. As I worked my answer, it changed a lot, and ended up completely different from what I thought it would be. That's the mark of a really good question in my book. +1 –  T.E.D. May 16 '12 at 13:58
    
When you downvote, it's best if you leave a comment explaining why. This helps improve the quality of questions on the site. –  Joe May 16 '12 at 16:47
    
what about just calling them "people"? Why are Americans so obsessed with putting race labels on people while at the same time claiming to be a melting pot and not care about race? –  jwenting Apr 18 '13 at 6:44
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@jwenting, make that a question, and you might get some great answers. As a comment, it just sounds snarky. –  Joe Apr 19 '13 at 2:55
    
@Joe make that a question and it gets downvoted a hundred times as being "racist" by the same people who claim to be colour blind and don't want to get it rubbed in their face that they're anything but. –  jwenting Apr 19 '13 at 5:29

2 Answers 2

up vote 7 down vote accepted

There just weren't a lot of such people in the US in the 1800's, at least until the Mexican/American war. No census bothered to count them, which is a pretty good indication right there. At the beginning of the century the census just counted "free white", "slave", and "free colored". After the Civil war, they dropped slave, and split non-white into "black" and "mulatto" for a while, then "mulatto" was dropped and "indian" was added, then at the end of the century "Chinese" was added.

That gives you a pretty good idea of how the 19th century mind looked at the composistion of the USA.

In the 70's where I grew up in Oklahoma it was common to refer to "Mexicans". Some would say this was reasonable due to that country's preponderance in what we call the "Hispanic" demographic today, while others considered it a kind of ugly ignorance. The later attitude won out, and referring to groups of people as "Mexicans" is now considered offensive by a lot of people. I still today get in trouble sometimes for referring to "Mexicans" on my soccer team, even though the people I am referring to are in fact Mexican citizens.

However, this clearly goes further back. The first attempt by the census to count this demographic back in 1930 was in fact a new "race" category called "Mexican". The 1890's are just as close to 1930 as 1970 is, and they most likely didn't invent that "race" name on the spot. So I think its fair to extrapolate that in the later 1800's this was probably already going on, and in fact "Mexican" was being used for what today we would call "Hispanic".

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I agree, "Mexican" or "Cuban" was the common term I heard when I was growing up and what my Grandparents used. Most of the derogatory terms I've heard about from earlier eras centered around Catholicism (papist, etc.). –  jfrankcarr May 16 '12 at 17:50
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Disagree. Here in the Northeast, any Spanish speaking immigrant was known as Spanish, regardless of their country of origin - Spanish Harlem (actually Peurto Rican), the old Spanish Bakery in Providence (actually Dominican), etc - trying to run down something more definite. Will post an answer once I do. –  RI Swamp Yankee Apr 18 '13 at 4:02
    
In northern Michigan, every year we'd get the (migratory) "Mexicans", up to pick cherries and apples. We never knew, nor cared, whether they were really Mexican or not. I never heard wet-back or any other derogatory terms growing up, just Mexican. Other than them, and the obligatory town drunk Indian, it was pretty wonder bread. –  CGCampbell Nov 17 at 4:07

My answer is that there was no such umbrella term in common use in the 1800s that corresponds directly to our "Hispanic" or "Latino" category. I think T.E.D.’s answer is correct in that people with Mexican origins were called Mexicans. And if you lived in an area where most people who have Spanish names were of Mexican descent, then residents may have assumed that a Cuban strolling through town was a “Mexican.” But for the most part, there was no distinct “Hispanic” identity, and so Mexican-Americans in the Southwest thought of themselves as Mexican-Americans, Cuban-Americans in Florida and Louisiana thought of themselves as Cuban-American, and Puerto Ricans as Puerto Ricans. This jives with jfrankcarr’s comment: People would use “Cubans” or “Mexicans” based on whichever ethnic group they were most familiar with, or based on their assumption about the background of the person in question.

To get social scientific for a second before turning to the history, ethnic and racial categories are not essential categories, but are always constructed through political, social, and cultural struggles. Put another way, neither Mexican-Americans nor Anglo-Americans in the 19th century saw a need to talk about “Hispanics” as a single class. Cuban-Americans, after all, were likely to respond differently to the Mexican-American war than would Mexicans and Mexican-Americans. Because large scale Puerto Rican immigration and Cuban immigration to the US are primarily 20th century phenomena, there was no need for a national discourse around "Hispanic" issues and so that category did not emerge as a useful or meaningful term in national discourse. (As jfrankcarr notes, Catholicism was a hot issue in the 19th century, so "papist" was a socially meaningful term, but this covered many non-Hispanic ethnic groups.)

So when did Americans begin to think that it made sense to lump Mexican-Americans, Cuban-Americans, and Puerto Ricans together into one ethnic group? As Cristina Mora argues in a recent book and journal article, the emergence of the Hispanic identity is a recent historical process spanning the 1970s and 1980s, which was due to 1) increased immigration to the US by non-Mexican Spanish-speaking nationalities, 2) the state’s tendency to want to make society “legible” through simplifying classifications, 3) activists in the various communities realizing that they would be more powerful as “Hispanics” than as many different groups, and 4) the development of national media markets, so that companies realized it was more profitable to market to “Hispanics” than to many different groups.

Mora writes:

As late as 1969, the U.S. Census Bureau classified Mexican Americans, Puerto Ricans, and Cuban Americans, the nation’s three largest Latin American groups at the time, as white, effectively lumping their information in with data on Anglo Americans. A third-generation Mexican American, for example, would be classified in the same category as a person of Irish descent. By the mid-1980s, however, the Bureau had instituted a new Hispanic category that sorted persons of Latin American descent into their own panethnic classification. (ASR)

And it wasn’t just that the Census was behind the times. People of Latin American decent similarly did not embrace a panethnic identity:

Indeed, differences among the various Latin American ethnicities were so vast that attempts to unite them in the early 1970s often failed. For example, a prominent Spanish-speaking political unity conference held in 1971 disintegrated as Puerto Ricans accused Mexicans of trying to impose their agenda on them, and both groups questioned whether they had anything in common with Cubans (Foley 1971; see also Rosenthal 1971). During the same period, former census officials recall conducting focus groups on the East Coast and in the Southwest and finding that Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, and Cubans did not identify panethnically: “People didn’t even know what Hispanic meant!” recalled one official. (ASR)

But from Mora's book, today: “Hispanics in the United States represent different national origins, skin colors, socioeconomic classes, regions, generational statuses, and even languages.”

What happened in the interim? From the book:

A profound shift occurred in American history between 1960 and 1990. During this period, federal agencies developed a separate Hispanic category that effectively lumped together all Latin American communities. At the same time, large Mexican American activist organizations began courting Puerto Rican and Cuban American constituencies in an effort to develop the nation’s first panethnic, Hispanic political advocacy groups. Additionally, media executives began connecting Spanish-language television stations across the country to one another, forging a national “Hispanic” network that reached Mexican America, Puerto Rican, and Cuban American audiences alike.”

In particular, the organizations she identifies as having set out to establish a “Hispanic” identity are the Cabinet Committee on Opportunities for Spanish Speaking People, the Census Bureau, the National Council of La Raza (a social movement), and Univision Communications Corporation (a media organization). Interestingly, she finds that these four organizations often coordinated their efforts to forge a panethnic Hispanic identity, and that some key figures even moved from one organization to the other.

As an aside, RI Swamp Yankee’s comment is probably correct, although the use of “Spanish” as a category may be regionally specific. Mora writes: “Other categorizing labels – Raza, Spanish Surname, Spanish, Latino, and Spanish-Speaking – were also employed by these actors from time to time, but none was as popular as Hispanic was between 1960 and 1990.” New Englanders may have gravitated toward “Spanish” as a general term because the Spanish/Portuguese distinction is more salient in New England due to the large Portuguese-American and eventually Brazilian-American population there.

As another aside, a similar story can be told about the creation of a pan-Asian racial group – and the pan-European "White" racial group as well.

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