Latinos are the fastest-growing minority group in the U.S., in fact, in 2008 California alone was home to 13.5 million Latinos. By 2050, the U.S. Latino population is expected to make up 29% of the U.S. population. Despite the fact that Latinos represent a sizable percentage of the population, many individuals continue to have the false notion that we are a homogeneous group. Although I am Mexican-American and have lived in Mexico and Spain, I continuously encounter new knowledge affirming the rich diversity of the Latino population that I serve. As healthcare interpreters, we should not limit ourselves to a solely linguistic understanding of the population we are serving. Language is a reflection of culture, and hence without an in-depth understanding of the culture, it would be impossible to interpret accurately.
Latinos share a geographic and linguistic heritage, however by simply analyzing the ten largest U.S. Latino population groups (Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, Cubans, Salvadorans, Dominicans, Guatemalans, Colombians, Hondurans, Ecuadoreans and Peruvians) we can see that Latinos vary in reference to country of origin, citizenship, and degree of acculturation due to differences in immigration history and cultural background. Latinos also vary in educational attainment, income, and political ideologies. Sociolinguistics has shown us that these previously mentioned social variables influence our usage of language, for this reason interpreters should be sensitive to these differences and not make generalizations about Latino's educational attainment or language fluency.
Another common misconception is that Latinos are of the same "race." Contrary to what many think, Latino is not a race, neither is it a particular ethnic group. So then, who are we? What do we look like? We are white, black, Asian, indigenous, and mestizo. In general, Latinos represent a mix of racial and ethnic lines from 22 different countries of origin who share a geographic, historic, and linguistic tie to Latin America and Spain. Latinos are multireligious, multiethnic, and multiracial. As such we are Catholic, Christian, Mormon, Muslim, and Jewish and we speak a variety of Spanish dialects, Portuguese, and indigenous languages. I have witnessed many healthcare providers assume that patients are limited-English proficient or Catholic simply because of their Hispanic surname or because they "look" Latino. When serving Latinos in the healthcare setting, it is best to clarify whether they in fact need an interpreter and ask if they have a religious preference, instead of assuming and possibly causing offense. Religious diversity is especially important because for some Latinos, spiritual beliefs and medicine are often intertwined with the usage of healers and other folk medicine.
Considering such a rich diversity, it is easy to understand why the umbrella classifications Hispanic and Latino established by the Office of Management and Budget continue to be a source of contention. While both Latino and Hispanic are generally acceptable, some people have a strong preference, others don't like either term and instead prefer their country of origin or the political term Chicano. Furthermore many second and third generation Latinos regard themselves as simply “American”. A 2006 survey by the Pew Hispanic Center found that 48% of Latino adults generally describe themselves by their country of origin first; 26% generally use the terms Latino or Hispanic first; and 24% generally call themselves American on first reference. As for a preference between “Hispanic” and “Latino”, a 2008 Center survey found that 36% of respondents prefer the term “Hispanic,” 21% prefer the term “Latino” and the rest have no preference. Although there is a lack of consensus, we should respect those preferences as much as possible in referring to individuals and groups.
Regardless if you are Latino or not, if you are serving the Spanish-speaking population as a healthcare provider or interpreter, the best way to meet the medical or linguistic needs of Latinos is by understanding the culture first. On October 21st and 22nd, CNN will be airing a special report titled Latino In America, which will provide much insight and controversy about what it means to be Latino in America. If you would like to continue this conversation, feel free to post a comment.