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Latino Leaders on Latino Racial-Ethnic Identification

By Angelo Falcón

The NiLP Report (December 3, 2017)

Are Latinos a racial and ethnic group, or something else? This issue of the racial identification of Latinos is a recurring one that has important implications for how Latinos view themselves within (and are viewed by) the broader American society. Among Latino opinion leaders there appears not to be a consensus on this question, This was a major finding of a national survey of 322 Latino opinion leaders conducted in November 2017. This online poll, the National Latino Opinion Leaders Survey, conducted by the nonpartisan National Institute for Latino Policy (NiLP) provides a unique view on the opinions of the nation's Latino community leadership not available elsewhere.


Racial or Ethnic Identification

Pan-Ethnic or National-Origin Labeling




Racial or Ethnic Identification

There has been a long-term debate over whether Latinos are a racial or ethnic group in an attempt to get a sense on how the American process of racialization affects this community. We asked the Latino opinion leaders if they thought Latinos were basically a racial minority like Blacks and Asians, an ethnic group like the European immigrants, or something else. The results were mixed.

The largest percentages of the Mexican opinion leaders (41 percent) and Other Latinos (42 percent) viewed Latinos as a racial minority, compared to 37 percent of the Puerto Ricans who were evenly split. This indicates the lack of a consensus by Latino leaders on the role of race in the Latino community. This leads us to use the hybrid term, "racial-ethnic" to characterize the Latino population.

Do these different racial-ethnic characterizations influence how the Latino opinion leaders define issues? Taking the example of the question of whether racial discrimination is a problem within the Latino community, we find that those who identified Latinos as being "American, period" thought so (46 percent) more than those who identified Latinos as being a racial minority (35 percent) or an ethnic group (29 percent). This raises the possibility that racial or ethnic solidarity serves to somewhat paper over the problem of internal Latino discrimination.

LabelsPan-Ethnic or

National-Origin Labeling

We also asked the Latino opinion leaders to identify which labels they prefer in referring to their community. The majority of the Puerto Rican opinion leaders (55 percent) preferred that of national-origin, with only 23 percent of the Mexicans and 8 percent of the Other Latinos agreeing. The largest percentage of the Mexican opinion leaders (25 percent) and of the Other Latinos (35 percent) preferred "mostly Latino. " The Puerto Rican opinion leaders were, therefore, more nationalistic than the Mexicans and Other Latinos, who were more "pan-ethnic."

We recoded the results of this labeling question to a smaller and more manageable number of categories: pan-ethnic, national-origin, hyphenated-American and non-ethnic.

This more sharply shows how the Puerto Rican opinion leaders are the most nationalistic, the Mexicans more pan-ethnic and hyphenated-American, and the Other Latinos divided between seeing Latinos as both pan-ethnic and non-ethnic. These differences are greater than expected. In the Puerto Rican case, the crisis in Puerto Rico could be seen as influencing a more nationalistic concern among its opinion leaders. In the Mexican case, this division could be the result of generational and immigration status differences. For the Other Latinos, it could reflect the pressures of assimilation in a hostile immigration environment.

Looking at the question of the existence of racial discrimination as a problem within the Latino community from the perspective of these labels, we found no real difference between them. Large majorities of all three groups of Latino opinion leaders felt that it is a "very" and "somewhat serious" problem.



The question of how to characterize Latinos racially, ethnically or as something else continues to arise as an issue as to how to view this community within an American context. Is the status of Latinos closer to that of racial minorities like Blacks, or closer to ethnic groups like the European immigrants? Are Latino claims on American society based on a collective history of racial discrimination, or on that of the atomalistic individual? And, does this make any difference in terms of political and policy preferences?

This NiLP survey found that among Latino opinion leaders, this question remains unsettled. No majorities of the three groups of Latino opinion leaders emerged supporting any one position. The responses of the Latino opinion leaders also varied according to national-origin: although the largest percentages of the Mexicans and Other Latinos viewed Latinos as a racial minority, the Puerto Ricans were almost evenly divided between racial minority and ethnic group.

We found that how the Latino opinion leaders viewed the identity of Latinos had a surprising influence on how they viewed the extent of the problem of racial discrimination within the Latino community: the least racial or ethnic thought it was a greater problem than those who saw the community in racial or ethnic terms. This raises the question of does racial or ethnic solidarity serve to paper over the problem of racial discrimination within this community, or is some other factor at play? The inability to find a consensus on the degree of Latino racialization prompts us to propose using the term "racial-ethnic" in characterizing Latinos as a group.

Another approach used in this survey to look at Latino identify was through the use of ethnic labels. This, in part, tried to address the "Latino versus Hispanic" debate as well as the "pan-ethnic versus national-origin" one. As with the role of race discussed above, the survey found no consensus on these issues. While the Puerto Rican opinion leaders took the more nationalistic view of national-origin, the Mexicans and Other Latino tended to view their communities in more pan-ethnic terms. But both the Mexican and Other Latino opinion leaders were divided, with the Mexicans also seeing Latinos as hyphenated-Americans and the Other Latinos as non-ethnics. The only clear tendency was the Latino opinion leaders' preference for viewing their communities in pan-ethnic terms much more as "Latinos" rather than as "Hispanics."

The Latino opinion leaders in this survey demonstrated that questions of Latino identity remain unresolved from their point of view. Is, one might ask, this disagreement on defining Latino identity a good or bad thing? Does it reflect confusion about the Latino role within an American racial context or a healthy diversity of thought? It also points to the need to further explore the reasons behind these differences in characterizing this community.



This survey was conducted on November 16-22, 2017 and includes 322 respondents from throughout the United States Since this is not a scientifically derived sample of community leaders, our results are only suggestive but we believe they can be useful in putting the issues involved in some context. The pool for these respondents is made up of experienced Latino professionals and academics in all fields. Please note that their views are not generalizable to the entire Latino adult population in the United States but may be to this particular activist/professional stratum.

The National Institute for Latino Policy (NiLP) has been trying to track elite Latino opinion on the Trump Administration through our National Latino Opinion Leaders Survey. Previous to the current survey, we conducted one in March, May and July also focusing on Trump. The purpose is to see if Latino leadership views of this Administration have worsened, improved or stayed the same. This approach is an effort to go beyond the opinion of only specific individuals and organizations to a wider range of leaders from throughout the country.

To our knowledge, no comparable ongoing survey of Latino opinion leaders exists at present. The National Latino Opinion Leaders Survey, therefore, is a unique resource that provides yet another window into the views of this important segment of the national electorate. Because there are no clear parameters for determining the precise demographic mix of Latino opinion leaders, we do not report on the results of this survey for the total respondents but rather report on specific subsets. The main subsets we use consists of the main racial-ethnic groups represented --- Puerto Ricans, Mexicans and Other Latinos (which consists of other Central and South Americans).

Angelo Falcón is President of the National Institute for Latino Policy (NiLP). He can be reached at afalcon@latinopolicy.org.

The NiLP Report on Latino Policy & Politics is an online information service provided by the National Institute for Latino Policy. For further information, visit www.latinopolicy. org. Send comments to editor@latinopolicy.org.