WASHINGTON – Jean-Robert Lafortune considers himself Latino, but to the government he is not Hispanic. He checked off black as his race on his census form, but ask him directly and he will call himself Afro-Caribbean.
While the Census Bureau recently minted Hispanics as the nation's largest minority group, Lafortune is an example of the confusion over what it means to be Hispanic or Latino and the comparison with blacks and whites.
Hispanic first appeared in 1980 as a choice on a census questionnaire. The ethnic category is different from any other label the government uses in looking at Americans.
Hispanics can be of any race. There are white Hispanics, black Hispanics and Asian Hispanics, for example. Yet it is unclear what the category means.
Many, but not all, Hispanics speak Spanish. For some, ancestry in a Spanish-speaking country was many generations back.
"It's a little messy," said Sonia Perez, deputy vice president for research for the National Council of La Raza (search), a Hispanic advocacy group. "I don't think there's just one answer."
The Census Bureau (search) reported this month that the Hispanic population grew nearly 10 percent to 38.8 million between April 2000 and July 2002. The rate of growth was four times that of the overall U.S. population.
About two-thirds of the country's Hispanics are Mexican, 9 percent are Puerto Rican and 4 percent are Cuban. Hispanics can come from nearly 20 other places as well, including Colombia, El Salvador and Spain, according to the Census Bureau.
Some similarities arise among cultures. Hispanics tend to focus more on family, and many of the countries they come from are predominantly Roman Catholic, said Juan Bello, executive director of the Dominican American National Roundtable (search).
But those views often grow more liberal in the United States, especially among successive generations of Hispanic-Americans, Bello said.
Political differences exist as well within Hispanic groups. Cuban-Americans tend to be more conservative and vote Republican, while Puerto Rican-Americans lean Democratic.
Mexican-Americans tend to lean Democratic, although a large part of that population is younger than 18 or undocumented and therefore cannot vote.
Lafortune, who immigrated from Haiti in 1980, says the Census Bureau incorrectly groups Hispanic and Latino together as synonymous options. The government defines Hispanic as someone from a Spanish-speaking country, though hundreds of native dialects that predate the introduction of Spanish by colonists still are spoken throughout Central and South America.
In Haiti, which was once a French colony, roughly 9 in 10 people speak Creole although the official language is French.
Lafortune says Latino should refer to anybody from a Latin American country. He answered "yes" to the Hispanic/Latino question on the 2000 census and wrote in he was Haitian. He answered black as his race, but says he would have called himself Afro-Caribbean if given the option.
Census officials say such a response to the Hispanic question would have been changed to no because Haiti is not a mainly Spanish-speaking country.
"Latino is different from Hispanic," said Lafortune, head of the Haitian American Grassroots Coalition in Miami. "It's a wider definition of culture."
Much of the confusion stems over the government defining Hispanic as an ethnicity, instead of a race. The 2000 census, for the first time, offered the option of identifying with more than one race.
Before 1970, the bureau tried to measure the Hispanic or Latino population by discerning the origin of a person's last name or asking the country of birth.
As immigration from Mexico began to grow in the 1960s and 1970s, pressure mounted to more accurately count Hispanics. The Census Bureau first gave an "of Spanish heritage" option in 1970, and added the term "Hispanic" in 1980.
On the 2000 census, the question was phrased, "Is this person Spanish/Hispanic/Latino?" People who said "yes" were asked to check off a box that identified them as Mexican, Puerto Rican, Cuban or a write-in box for another country of origin.
"From almost day one, this confusion between race and Hispanic origin has been out there," said Dwight Johnson, a Census Bureau spokesman who has worked for the agency since 1975. Johnson gives presentations around the country about race and ethnic data.
"Now the discussions have intensified as the numbers have grown," Johnson says.
The Associated Press has used the non-Hispanic population figures for blacks and whites since data from the 2000 census was released in April 2001. The figures include those of one or more races.
Several other news organizations used the population of those who chose only black as their race, regardless of ethnicity.
The Census Bureau release included four pages of guidance to how to compare race and ethnicity data. The bureau recommended comparing Hispanics to all blacks, regardless of ethnicity or how many other races they belonged to.
It was the first time in more than a decade that the bureau issued such guidance.
About 1.7 million people in July 2002 were identified by the government as black and Hispanic, while 36.3 million said they were white and Hispanic.