A Very Important Piece of Blue Cardstock
by Doris Morgan Rueda

Riding with my mom to school registration in early August was always an exciting trip, it meant the start of a new school year and the revelation of my new class schedule. At this particular school district in the late 1990s, when census data had just begun more options for Latinx people, school registration was done in person. You would stand in a line designated with a range of letters and wait until it was your turn to drop off documents such as your vaccination records or perhaps a change of address. The volunteer would update any changes to your record before handing you a blue cardstock piece of paper printed with your name, school ID, your upcoming schedule, and your race and ethnic identity.

The routine never changed too much over the years. In middle school, you would also have to get in a line to get ugly gym schools, magenta pink shorts with a grey cotton shirt displaying our school logo and a white rectangle for you to write your name in. In high school, there would be a line to meet with school counselors to begin our plans for the future. But that first line, the registration line, to submit and update official school documents remained the same.

Most years it would be my mother accompanying me. A short, tanned-skinned, accented, Colombian immigrant who was predisposed to wearing hats and never letting anyone bully her, almost always took me to school registration. Her voice was never timid, pronouncing her y’s like j’s and rolling her r’s, and her presence was always confident, wearing her Colombian gold jewelry like royal adornments and never shy about offering her input. And me, her little mini-me, with the same bushy eyebrows and large brown eyes, at her side.

But one time, the routine was broken.

In place of my mother, my father brought me to registration. A looming six foot three inches pale man, with hazel eyes and greying hair that had once been dirty blonde in its heyday, I was not the usual mini-me, I had to become the unofficial tour guide. Unlike my mother who knew the routine like the back of her hand, this was not a space my father knew well. I was quick to point out the process, which line we would need to get in first. The ritual would continue.

At the registration table, I presented the volunteer with the forms and expected the process to go the same as the many times it had before. The volunteer looked at my registration information and her smile turned into a look of confusion, “there must be a mistake on your form. It has you down as Hispanic sweetie, let me change that real quick.” Within seconds, she had changed my racial categorization from Hispanic to White in the school records and handed me my schedule for 6th grade. Off we went to collect my new gym clothes as a newly classified white non-Hispanic child.

That moment stood out to me as strange and confusing, but as a barely 10-year-old child I could not comprehend the exact meaning. That would change the following year. Our routine returned to normal the summer before 7th grade. My mother was there at my side as we went through the process. Submitting the forms again, this volunteer got that same look in her eye. I remembered the confusion as she stared at the form, then at me, and lastly, at my mother. Confusion quickly passed as she declared the form updated and passed it to us for inspection. The box that had previously been listed as white was crossed out and the box listed as Hispanic filled in. And so ended my year of being classified as a non-Hispanic white.

Again, the interaction struck my child mind as odd, perhaps even funny. Nothing about me had changed. Nothing about my parents had changed. I did not get any tanner or paler. Just a small empty box got selected over another. What possible consequence could that box mean? If any? Did I know at that moment that it would impact my future decisions? That this tiny box was the key to access in my education? But it did.

As the school year ended, incoming 8th grades were given two options for English courses, the regular and advanced. As a child who loved to read and write, so much so that I was once disciplined for reading during class and therefore not paying attention, I desperately wanted to be in that advanced course. I had excelled in my English courses and did not imagine there would be any issue in requesting to be enrolled. Those boxes, seemingly arbitrary to a young child’s mind who had never given her racial identity much consideration until that point, were much more influential that I could have imagined in that moment. Those boxes had a power, a history, and that child is now a historian. Reflecting on my own past raised questions that I now had the ability to begin answering. What is the impact of experiencing those racial classifications in action, as a child or an adult? How does one make sense of those classifications on oneself? And lastly, how do we move beyond these classifications that have done demonstrative harm to our most vulnerable communities?

︎ ︎ ︎

A History of Ignoring, Mislabeling, & Misunderstanding

The history of Latinx people and the census is a subject that forces us to confront the complicated histories of immigration, race, colonization, and identity. The impact of these histories on the categorization of people of Latin descent has become an increasingly important topic as communities seek to define themselves in the 21st century as seen with the adoption of the term Latinx in addition to national confusion over the split in voting patterns among American Latino/as1. While this will not be a comprehensive history, it will provide an introduction to the study of Latinxs and the census and offers a tangible way to examine the loose and shifting categories of race and ethnicity that we too often and mistakenly take for unchangeable fact.

The first census in American history took place in 1790 where participants were only asked six simple questions.2 When it came time to select identification, the only categories available were, “Free white males who were at least 16 years old; free white males who were under 16 years old; free white females; all other free persons; and slaves.”3 Census questionnaires for the next one hundred years would similarly continue the practice of only counting white and African Americans, with a slight change in 1850. Beginning in that year, the census questions would include a column for “state, territory, or country of origin.”4 The following census would additionally expand to ask about parental national origin. However, these changes did not mean any change to the available racial and ethnic categories. Rather, it meant that Latino/as of any origin, either from Spain, Central America or South America, would more likely than not be listed as white. This omission of Latinx people provides a false narrative. An erasure of a population that had been present in the United States since before Independence and whose impact is felt from language to ranching to the law. Tejanos and Hispanos lived and worked alongside Americans of European, African, and Indigenous descent throughout the 18th and 19th century, and in fact shared many of those same ancestral legacies.5 Yet the census would continue to skate around the issue of how to make sense of Latinx people and their mixed heritages. This discomfort and ignorance would only continue following the Mexican-American War from 1846 to 1848, resulting in the acquisition of states with large Latinx populations. Communities suddenly found themselves living in a new country overnight with a government that still did not want to acknowledge them despite their citizenship as Americans.6 Worse, in places like Texas, Tejanos, often found themselves the subject of abuse, harassment, and violence, at the hands of civilians and state officials. Despite their categorization as white U.S citizens, the category meant nothing outside of that census document. Targeted as foreigners, Latinx people found themselves in between a category placed upon them and the reality of how they were treated in the everyday.

The next census in 1890 added an additional column that expanded the questions about national origin to include language.7 This would lead to a conflation of Spanish the language with a new understanding of people of Latin descent. Spanish became the shorthanded way to make sense of a population that spoke Spanish, were primarily Catholic, and could have originated from Spain, Mexico, or any other Spanish speaking country. However, as it should be apparent, this shorthand omitted, ignored, and erased many who we now recognize and self-identify as Latinx. Additionally, the practice of categorizing Latinx people as white, unless the census enumerator determined the person to be of African or another category, continued. This occurred in the years following the 1898 Spanish-American War during the annexation of territories ranging from the Philippines to Puerto Rico. Another large group of people, with many of them Spanish speakers, had suddenly found themselves under the control of the United States. Unlike the case of Texas, not all territories were granted citizenship status. In the case of Puerto Rico, citizenship was granted with conditions based on racial assumptions and the growth of the United State as a colonial power in the 19th century, something explored in great detail by legal historian Sam Erman in his book, Almost Citizens: Puerto Rico, the US Constitution, and Empire.8 In some ways, by ignoring the very question of Latinx ethnic and racial categorization, the United States could continue the patch work of partial citizenship, colonial expansion, and segregation. This is best seen in cases of school segregation where Latinx communities had to fight against their status as “white” to prove that Latinx youth were subjected to school segregation in places like California and Colorado throughout the 1930s and 1940s.9 State officials found that they could easily segregate Latinx youth from their white counterparts in schools without fear of any consequence because on paper it would not look like segregation. Utilizing arbitrary measurements about alleged achievement and bilingualism, school districts across the west could easily segregate against Latinx people who were white on paper but obviously treated as a racialized other. However, this could only continue for so long.

By 1930, there was some development in the recognition of Latinx community with the addition of a new racial category, Mexican.10 While a step in the direction of acknowledgment after decades of erasure or downplaying, this new category conflated national origin from one country with the race and ethnicity of people from a diverse group of countries. However, this did reflect the increased visibility of Mexican Americans. Despite facing racism and discrimination, Mexican American communities continued to fight and work towards the goal of the American life. As decorated soldiers in World War I, as entrepreneurs and educators, and even as some of the first to fight the legal battle against school segregation, Mexican Americans and many other Latinx Americans, made a mark on the American landscape.11 However, the census continued to force a narrow view of Latinx identity, rather than acknowledge the diverse community or the discrimination it had been facing for decades.

The practice of listing Latinx people as Mexican continued for another forty years before the census of the 1980s offered a new model for Americans. Chicano activists in the 1960s and 1970s saw the lack of representation of an inclusive Latinx identity, and came together to form the National Council de La Raza.12 With support from Mexican American groups and congressional representatives, activists were able to add a new question to the census. This question, while separate from race, would ask participants if they identified as Hispanic or of Spanish descent. If yes, they would be given four additional groups to select from: Mexican/Chicano, Puerto Rican, Cuban, or other.13 By 1990, the census would add several more options including Argentinian, Colombian, Dominican, Honduran, and several others.14 It is this version of the census that continues through the 2020 census. The census that also included the question about immigration status.

As seen in Muhammed’s The Condemnation of Blackness, the census is a useful tool for the state to justify scientific racism. In the case of Latinx communities, the census weaponized selective omission to dismiss and obscure Latinx people when it was useful and beneficial to the state. In recent years, the census became a part of a presidential campaign promise to “solve the immigration crisis” by a candidate who in 2015 described Latinx immigrants as “bringing drugs.. bringing crime.. they’re rapists.”15 The dehumanizing rhetoric that painted Latinx immigration as a threat would horrifically reemerge four years later in the manifesto of the El Paso shooter who railed against a “Hispanic invasion” before committing one of the worst mass shootings that took the lives of twenty-three people.16 It is in this context that we must evaluate the adding of the immigration question to the census. Does the question come off as innocuous? When the state has openly stated its embrace of a policy of cruelty towards refugees young and old, when the president has declared his disdain for “shithole” countries, or when Border Patrol agents are caught harassing U.S. citizens for merely speaking Spanish in a convenience store in Montana.17 The adding of this question was another tool in a campaign of intimidation towards Latinx people of any and all descent or immigration status. However, this story of changing categorization, the state, and Latinx identity cannot simply be understood from the perspective of the census. The impact of these changes is felt on the level of family conversations, personal decisions, and the day to day.

︎ ︎ ︎

The Consequences of a Small Box

“We don’t believe you have the language structure at home to succeed in this class.”

That was the rationale I was given by the school’s academic counselor.

I did not understand what that could possibly mean. My family was not taking the class, I was. My grades were above average. And I clearly demonstrated interest in the class. What could possibly disqualify me from this opportunity?

If the above rationale seemed vague, seeing the makeup of the incoming advanced class versus the regular class solidified what I was beginning to understand. The advanced class I was so desperate to join was filled with my white peers. Myself and the majority Latinx peers, including our future middle school and high school valediction, made up the seats of the so-called “regular” class. This experience would only be horrifically compounded by a teacher who seemingly loathed her Latinx students. She routinely called on me and other Spanish speaking students to translate for her on the phone when she had to call parents and rolled her eyes at us, her unpaid translators. Instead of encouraging us, we were subjected to being told why we weren’t going to do well in our future English courses. Because we didn’t speak English at home, because we listened to music in Spanish, and sometimes because she just didn’t think we could do the work.

This traumatizing experience still sits with me as one of the absolute best examples of how not to be an educator. With years between me and that classroom, I now think in horror of the many other children subjected to blatant racism and bullying by a white educator who had no business being in a classroom or around children. That was the consequence of the small box that had gone through decades of change and manipulation. That arbitrary categorization had collateral damage.

︎ ︎ ︎
Virginia Woolf once wrote in her essay A Room Of One's Own, “I thought how unpleasant it is to be locked out; and I thought how it is worse, perhaps, to be locked in.”18 Where once she felt terror at being kept out of the opportunities due to her gender, Woolf recognized something new, the entrapment of recognition. The census at its core is a way for the state to understand its constituents, identify patterns, and make decisions that best fit its people. Yet, history demonstrates its potential and record for becoming a weapon against marginalized communities. The census must be unpacked and examined. Above all, we must listen to those communities most impacted.

In the early 00s, the term Latinx began gaining ground with Latin American communities in the United States. The term replaced the gendered Spanish word Latino and Latina, with a gender inclusive ending that breaks away from Spanish grammar rules.19 The term, which is pronounced La-tin-ex, represented a new consciousness among the community. A generation of immigrants, as well as the children and grandchildren of immigrants, is increasingly inclusive, embracing the intersectionality of our identities and the optimism that comes with the orgullo and pride of a term that comes from our communities. Our struggles with the census, with anti-immigrant, and anti-Latinx state actions are far from over. Rather, it is an opportunity to study and learn about the mistakes of the past. Activists across the country, and the world, are rising up daily to make a more inclusive world a reality. Let our past and present inspire our future actions.

︎ ︎ ︎

It is important for all of us to appreciate where we come from and how that history has really shaped us in ways that we might not understand.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor

︎ ︎ ︎

Doris Morgan Rueda is a doctoral candidate at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas in the Department of History. Prior to UNLV, she completed her B.A. in Criminology, Law & Society from the University of California, Irvine in 2013 and her MA. in History & Digital Media from California State University, San Marcos in 2016. Her research focuses on the development of juvenile justice systems in the American Southwest with a special interest in international juvenile justice, pop culture, and race in the 20th century.  Additionally, she is a multimedia artist who experiments with blending traditional acrylic painting with digital collages using historical photographs and popular culture. Her writing has been featured in Nevada Humanities, the National Council on Public History, the Journal of San Diego History, and Journal of the West. Additionally, she will have a chapter focusing on the history of Nevada’s juvenile justice in the upcoming edited volume, History & Crime: A Transdisciplinary Approach, under contract with Emerald Publishing.


'Latinx' : Why people are split on using the term - CNN and Election 2020: How Latinos Around the U.S. Voted (bloomberg.com)

2  The First US Census Only Asked Six Questions | Smart News | Smithsonian Magazine

3 Ibid.

4 1850 - History - U.S. Census Bureau

5  Rodrigo Lazo ; Jesse Alemán. The Latino Nineteenth Century. NYU Press, 2016.

6  Olguín, B. V. "Sangre Mexicana/Corazón Americano: Identity, Ambiguity, and Critique in Mexican-American War Narratives." American Literary History 14, no. 1 (2002): 83-114.

1890 - History - U.S. Census Bureau

8 Erman, Sam. Almost Citizens. Studies in Legal History. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2018.

9 Brilliant, Mark. The Color of America Has Changed How Racial Diversity Shaped Civil Rights Reform in California, 1941-1978. Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press, 2010, and Schumaker, Kathryn. Troublemakers : Students' Rights and Racial Justice in the Long 1960s. New York: New York University Press, 2019.

10 Rodriguez, Clara E. "Contestations Over Classifications: "Latinos", The Census and Race in the United States." Journal De La Société Des Américanistes 95, no. 2 (2009): 175-205.

11  Texas Mexican American Soldiers with the American Expeditionary Forces in World War I – Education Updates (archives.gov) and The Lemon Grove Incident - San Diego History Center | San Diego, CA | Our City, Our Story

12 Cross-Field Effects and Ethnic Classification: The Institutionalization of Hispanic Panethnicity, 1965 to 1990 Author(s): G. Cristina Mora Source: American Sociological Review , April 2014, Vol. 79, No. 2 (April 2014), pp. 183- 210.

13 1980_short_questionnaire.pdf (census.gov)

14  1990_questionnaire.pdf (census.gov)

15 https://www.nbcnews.com/think/opinion/trump-s-anti-immigrant-invasion-rhetoric-was-echoed-el-paso-ncna1039286

16 Ibid.

17 Trump referred to Haiti and African nations as 'shithole' countries (nbcnews.com) and https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2020/11/25/women-speaking-spanish-montana-settle-border-patrol-lawsuit/6419004002/  and Stephen Miller, the Man Behind Family Separation - The Atlantic.

18 Woolf, Virginia. A Room of One's Own. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1957.

19  The Word History of Latinx | Merriam-Webster.