The Roots of 'Hispanic'
1975 Committee of Bureaucrats Produced Designation
Wednesday, October 15, 2003; Page A21
By Darryl Fears Washington Post Staff Writer
During Hispanic Heritage Month, Grace Flores-Hughes did not dance at any
galas, sit on any panels or receive any awards. And when the annual celebration
ends today, the 57-year-old Mexican American will look back on another year of
Hardly anyone knows that 28 years ago, Flores-Hughes and a handful of other
Spanish-speaking federal employees helped make the decision that changed how
people with mixed Spanish heritage would be identified in this country.
In 1975, when Flores-Hughes was a baby-faced bureaucrat working for the
Department of Health, Education and Welfare, she sat on the highly contentious
Ad Hoc Committee on Racial and Ethnic Definitions.
"We chose the word 'Hispanic,' " she said proudly in a recent interview.
The choice resounded throughout the federal government, including at the Office
of Management and Budget, which placed the word on census forms for the first
time in 1980. But the decision touched off a debate in the wider community over
whether "Latino" should have been the designated term, and that debate still
Flores-Hughes, a federal appointee who lives in Alexandria, does not
engage in it. She is more concerned with setting the record straight.
"People keep saying that Richard Nixon is the reason why we're called
'Hispanic,' " she said. "And I think, 'Where did they get that from?' "
But no one can be blamed for not knowing. Few records survive to document the
committee's existence or its work. A search of the federal Education Resources
Information Center yielded a single report that includes a list of members and
the chairman, Charles Johnson of the Census Bureau.
Even former representative Robert Garcia (D-N.Y.), who worked diligently
for a "Hispanic" designation in those days, said, "I didn't know the committee
The story of how the term came to be embraced by government is more
important than ever, Flores-Hughes said, because it is crucial to the debate
over whether to identify people as "Hispanic" or "Latino," a debate that vexes
the Spanish-speaking and Spanish-surnamed community and non-Hispanic Americans
with connections to it.
"Latino" refers to the Latin-based Romance languages of Spain, France,
Italy and Portugal. The term embraces Portuguese-speaking Brazilians in a way
that the word "Hispanic" does not.
"Hispanic" is an American derivation from "Hispaña," the Spanish- language term
for the cultural diaspora created by Spain. That diaspora is the result of a
bygone age of conquest, which disturbs many of the people who prefer "Latino."
"For us Spaniards, there's always a very strong link to the
Spanish-speaking people across the Atlantic," said Javier Ruperez, the Spanish
ambassador to the United States. "They are part of the Spanish family."
Ruperez said he understands that people who prefer "Latino" "want to follow
their own path. But it hurts. I think it's untrue to say that 'Hispanic'
reflects imperialism. Our history is a part of human history. Empires come and
Abdin Noboa-Rios, a member of the ad hoc committee, said some members wanted to
use the Spanish-language term "Hispano," but were overruled by others who felt
that "Hispanic" would be less confusing, even though it is rarely used outside
the United States.
A survey by the Pew Hispanic Center and Henry J. Kaiser Family
Foundation last year found that a majority of Hispanics and Latinos -- 53
percent -- have no preference for either term. An overwhelming majority prefer
to identify themselves by national origin.
But among those who listed a preference, "Hispanic" was widely favored.
Activists, however, assert that "Latino" is fast becoming the favored term, as
students, intellectuals and scholars refer to it almost exclusively in their
Flores-Hughes said those activists wrongly insist that "Hispanic" was thrust on
them by white bureaucrats who knew very little about their culture.
Members of the ad hoc committee said it was hastily formed early in 1975, after
educators of Puerto Rican, Cuban, Mexican and Native American descent stormed
out of a meeting called to discuss a report at the Federal Interagency Committee
The group never got around to discussing the report, on the education of
Chicanos, Puerto Ricans and Indians. They were livid over how it wrongly
identified certain groups. As Flores-Hughes put it, "they came ready for bear."
Caspar W. Weinberger, secretary of Health, Education and Welfare at the time,
knew he had a problem. He ordered that a committee be convened to solve the
identity matter for good.
The committee included African Americans, Asians and Pacific Islanders,
Caucasians and Native Americans, in addition to Latinos. During the year they
met, arguments erupted over now-outdated terms such as "colored" and "Oriental."
But the most contentious arguments took place in the group that blended
Spanish and English. It included Flores-Hughes of HEW, Philip (Felipe) Garcia of
the Department of Housing and Urban Development, Noboa- Rios of the National
Institute of Education and Paul Planchon of the Office of Management and Budget.
"There was never any consensus in that group to the very end," said Noboa-Rios,
who preferred the term "Latino" and still does. "We came up with an agreement,
but . . . there were some bad feelings. I know two people who didn't speak for
up to a year after it was over."
Noboa-Rios said he agreed to "Hispanic," because "we had to transcend labels.
For the purposes of the census it was important to know who we were, because we
were an underrepresented population."
He remembered Flores-Hughes, but vaguely. Her name was Grace Flores then, and
she was 26 years old. She was a low-level employee in the Special Concerns
section of HEW, with only a high school education, serving on her first board.
"I was like a little kid involved in every aspect of the office," she said.
Flores-Hughes went on to earn a bachelor's degree in psychology from the
University of the District of Columbia and a master's in public administration
from Harvard University. She now lectures on managing a culturally diverse
workforce in the public/private sector and serves as an appointee to the Federal
Service Impasses Panel of the Federal Labor Relations Authority.
Flores-Hughes grew up in Taft, Tex., not far from Corpus Christi. Her
grandfather regaled her with stories about serving in the army of Pancho Villa.
He was originally from Spain, she said, and his family moved to Mexico.
"I was called a 'wetback,' a 'Mexkin' and a 'dirty Mexkin,' " she said. "In
public school, I had to be careful what I said. If I spoke Spanish, they would
send me home for three days." Her driver's license identified her as Latin
That was going through her mind when arguments were raging on the committee.
" 'Hispanic' was better than anything I had been called as a kid," she said.
"Latino," she said, would have included Italians, so she would not endorse it.
And "Spanish surname" would have given protection to people who had never been
discriminated against, she said. Besides, she said, not everyone in the Spanish
diaspora has a Spanish-sounding name.
"It was hard eliminating all those terms," she said. "I felt alone. But I was
determined to stick to 'Hispanic.' We kept going back to Spain. We couldn't get
away from it."
© 2003 The Washington Post Company