Today’s Essay

Checking the Box

It’s time for my annual rant about Hispanic Heritage month.

If you’ve read my essays over the past few years, you know the history of the word Hispanic as a catch all for Latin people and my distain for it. You’ve learned the history Latino Heritage Month. You’ve read my gripe about everybody and everything else; books, gardening, pets, food and diseases getting an entire month, start to finish, first day to last, set aside for them while Latinos get the last half of September and the first half of October. So, what’s new?

According to Diversity Central, an online group whose mission is to “educate its readers and assist their development of Cultural Intelligence,” there are several months that are not designated for any particular ethnic group; January, April, July, August and December. There are also groups that share a month, like women and Irish Americans, who share March, Pacific Asian Americans and Jewish Americans share May and Latinos sharing the first half of October with Italian Americans. There are also ethnic and religious groups that don’t have any monthly recognition. Persian Americans, Chinese Americans, and peoples from the rest of Asia; citizens of Afghanistan, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Georgia, India, Indonesia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Laos, Malaysia, Maldives, Mongolia, Myanmar, Nepal, North Korea, Pakistan, Russia, Singapore, Tajikistan, Timor-Leste (East Timor), Turkey, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Yemen.

So how did some groups get recognized in American culture when others did not? One word. Organization.

I have been asked a dozen times when applying for a promotion, a raise, a job, or contract that someone thought I might be qualified for if I ‘checked the box.” The box is that space on the application that asks how you identify yourself. Are you White? Are you Hispanic and if you are Hispanic, what kind of Hispanic are you? The race/ethnicity questions have become standard to make sure employers maintain non-discriminatory, ethical, and legal hiring practices, but according to the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission “employers should not request information that discloses or tends to disclose an applicant’s race unless it has a legitimate business need for such information,” like working in another country or speaking a second language. So which rule is it?

Collecting this type of data has been around forever. In the second grade, we were all given one of those fill-in-the-circle tests to determine where our paths might lead us. I remember kids comparing their results when we got them later that day. For some reason, all of the white kids were destined to be professionals while all of the Mexican kids were destined for the trades. Even at the age of seven, I found that quite odd. (Mrs. Yarasheski informed us that this was perfectly normal. She was also the woman who told us about a man who drove around the country in a big limousine “stirring up the coloreds.” Years later I found out that she was referring to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

We’ve been asked to answer these questions on applications to universities, for jobs, RFPs for public and private contracts. You name it. The idea is to make sure that minorities are not passed over for a job that they may be qualified for. It can, in some cases, just tip the scales between two equally qualified candidates. One white. One Latino. But here’s the rub.

The ethnic breakdown in America puts white people on top at 75%, but that includes Latinos. On the form for the census bureau, once you choose your ethnicity, you must also choose your race and the choices given are White, Black or African American, American Indian or Alaska Native, Asian, and Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander. The only non-specific category is Some Other. Latinos don’t fit into any of those categories. I don’t identify as White, and neither do most Latinos. I don’t know about anyone else, but I’m of Mexican heritage. Adding something like Latino American to the census form would make sense, but it would result in White people becoming a minority and guess who would replace them?

I have never checked the box. Not from the very first time I filled out a paper application for a roofing job to the last government contract I had. I don’t use pronouns and I don’t offer any ethnic data when I purchase something online or fill out a government form. I simply check the “prefer not to answer” box now provided and move along.

Years ago, my father told me that I would have to work twice as hard as the next guy, no matter who the next guy might be. He didn’t specify that the next guy was White, but he might have implied it. He told me that there would always be people that would make assumptions about me because of the way I looked. I had an employer once ask me where I had gone to school. When I gave him the name of a local high school, he commented that must be the reason I “spoke English so good.” I replied that my English was impeccable because my parents’ English was impeccable. He never commented on my intelligence again.

Oddly enough, most of the assumptions about me have come from my girth and not because of my skin color. I have, on occasion, been asked to get someone another cup of coffee or clear a table at a restaurant (I’ve learned to stop wearing white shirts when I go out to eat) or to go find a manager at a grocery store. Years ago, when there were separate lines for paying with a credit card or cash, I was asked to move to the cash line. I waved my credit card in the air. It never occurred to the cashier that I might actually have a credit card. I have usually handled these incidents as calmly as possible while doing my best to embarrass the person making the assumption. These days, the assumptions come because of my age.

The questions remain and continue to be there on everything from health questionnaires to simple online purchases. The data collected paints a target on you, but does knowing if I’m Latino really help someone understand why I sprinkle ground flax seed on my yogurt? At every turn, I am asked for my pronouns and within many government divisions, employees are required to provide them on their electronic correspondence. Many people are now being forced to check the box.

Latinos used to clamor for respect. We changed the face of the labor movement and land reclamation in America. We were at the forefront of the Civil Rights Movement and fought for self-determination, something that is front and center in the LGBTQ community. Since the 60s and 70s, we have been pretty quiet.

There are groups that demand recognition, demand to be celebrated. There are people that will always be overlooked, always be crowded out by the loudest voices. We could get the government to give us all of September to celebrate our respective Latino heritages, from the South American continent to Spain, from Baja to the Caribbean Islands with shouts and threats of adding names to the cancel culture, but what’s the point? We know who we are and really don’t need validation from the federal government. We’ve outgrown that.

There are still a few months available for other so-called marginalized people. Latinos don’t need that. We know what we have accomplished. We’ve never needed to check the box.

Copyright 2023 by Jose Antonio Ponce