Samantha Saghera Reviews G. Cristina Mora’s “Making Hispanics”


In ‘Puerto Ricans and the Other Side of “Making Hispanics,”Samantha Saghera reviews G. Cristina Mora’s Making Hispanics: How Activists, Bureaucrats, and Media Constructed a New American (University of Chicago Press, 2014). Here are excerpts with a link to the original below:

There are claims of power at stake in the historical accounts of popular social phenomena, and I often wonder about those involved who do not get heard.  Salsa is attributed to Cuban rhythms, and yet some of the most popular songs were recorded by Nuyoricans, and with a very distinct sound (Morales, 2003). Hip hop is often attributed to African Americans, and yet Puerto Ricans made up the majority of residents in the South Bronx neighborhood from whence it came (Rivera, 2004).  And Hispanidad, often attributed to actors representing broader entities (such as the Census Bureau, marketing firms, and select non-profits), was actually already present in an everyday sort of way in Spanish-speaking New York City, prior to any formalized intellectual, bureaucratic, or corporate process taking place (Mora, 2014; Davila, 2001).

In her book, Making Hispanics: How Activists, Bureaucrats, and Media Constructed a New American, G. Cristina Mora argues that in the 1970s “the Hispanic category became institutionalized as bureaucrats, activists, and media executives forged networks and worked together to build panethnic organizations that popularized the notion of a Hispanic identity” (Mora, p. xiii, 2014). But what if Hispanics already “were” by the time certain actors became interested in “making” them? Mora points to certain organizations as the sites of agency in creating the Hispanic category in the 1970s; however, by January of 1970 the term was already quite prevalent in El Diario-La Prensa, at the time the highest circulation Spanish-language newspaper in New York City. Based on content analysis I conducted for the period as part of my dissertation research, I found that although the term “Puerto Rican” was the most popular with respect to the number of articles and captions containing the descriptor, “hispana/o” was the second most popular — more popular than “Dominican” and “Cuban” (my dissertation title is The Politics of (Pan)ethnicity: Puerto Ricans, Hispanics, and the New York City Ballot 1970-2013) [1].  In fact, even the slogan of this important Spanish language news source contained the term “hispano,” further illustrating the significance of the term to its readership.

The implications of this are profound. If, as Mora seems to argue, Hispanic identity was meaningless until certain actors brought it to center stage, then why was it already so commonplace in New York City’s Spanish-language press? Furthermore, why was there already a New York City government organization representing Hispanics by 1968?  At the time, the New York City Commission on Human Rights maintained a “Puerto Rican-Hispanic Affairs” division (Kihss, 1968).

In the New York City case, the making of Hispanics, rather than the result of the broad national actors and processes Mora identifies, seems to have occurred in reaction to an increasingly racialized Puerto Rican (and Dominican) identity playing itself out in the Spanish- and English-language media in different ways (Grosfoguel and Georas, 2001). It appears that there were smaller scale developments on the part of local Spanish language journalists and editors, as well as local political actors that contributed to Hispanic identification in New York City possibly as an attempt to negate Puerto Rican racialization.

[. . .] The specific implications for Puerto Ricans are also quite profound.  In 1970 not only were the majority of New York City Hispanics Puerto Rican, but most mainland Puerto Ricans lived in New York City (Rivera-Batiz, 2004; Falcón, 2004). Thus, New York City played a very integral role in shaping stateside Puerto Rican identity.  So, the rise in Hispanic identity in the New York City context would have disproportionately impacted Puerto Ricans in 1970.  The same might be said for Dominican-Americans, given the dominant role New York City has played in their immigration experience. [. . .]

[Samantha Saghera is a doctoral candidate in the Sociology Department at The Graduate Center at the City University of New York.]

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