Analysis | A census mistake reveals surprising details about U.S. Hispanics and Latinos (2023)

Department of Data

Analysis | A census mistake reveals surprising details about U.S. Hispanics and Latinos (1)

Analysis by Andrew Van Dam

Staff writer|

May 19, 2023 at 6:00 a.m. EDT

Analysis | A census mistake reveals surprising details about U.S. Hispanics and Latinos (2)


8 min


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If “Hispanic” were an ordinary ancestry, it would easily be America’s most common, well ahead of German. But it’s not. It’s a fantastically broad term whose meaning swerves and sways depending on whom — and where — you’re asking.

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Since 1997, the U.S. government has defined Hispanic (or Latino) as “a person of Cuban, Mexican, Puerto Rican, South or Central American, or other Spanish culture or origin, regardless of race.” In most of the United States, the largest Hispanic group is Mexican.

Of course it is! Mexico is the most populous Spanish-speaking country on Earth, by far, and it shares 1,954 miles of border with the United States. More importantly, a third of the continental United States — parts of 10 states that are now home to at least 1 in 4 Americans — used to be part of Mexico.

But a substantial share of Hispanic Americans also come from Puerto Rico, especially those living in the Northeast and Central Florida. Puerto Ricans also dominate Puerto Rico, of course — though at this point, Puerto Ricans on the mainland outnumber those in the Caribbean territory.

And there are large pockets of Hispanics from other places: Central Americans dominate in the D.C. area. Folks from South America and the Caribbean predominate in Florida and the New York-to-Boston urban corridor. And in New Mexico and southern Colorado, there’s a significant population of Hispanos — descendants of people who settled there centuries before Mexico gained independence from Spain and whose roots trace directly to that European nation.

Despite their different origins, these Hispanic groups share many similarities, both to each other and to the nation as a whole. Most Hispanic Americans were born in the United States (68 percent), for example. And while many speak Spanish at home, a third speak only English (32 percent).


These statistics come with a fat asterisk: As it turns out, they don’t include everybody who considers themselves “Hispanic or Latino.” We know this thanks to the demographic demigods at the Pew Research Center, who discovered a revealing aberration in a recent census data release.

For years, Census Bureau figures have shown that only about 3 percent of Brazilian-born U.S. residents claim to be Hispanic or Latino. But a whopping 70 percent of Brazilian-born Americans claimed “Hispanic, Latino, or Spanish origin” in the bureau’s 2020 American Community Survey.

Jeffrey Passel, a thoughtful demographer whose tidy white beard attests to a long career at Pew and Census, spotted this enormous shift last year. But what does it mean?

“Latino” is typically defined as someone from Latin America. Given that Brazil is easily the largest nation in Latin America — home to about 1 in 3 of its residents, according to the World Bank — it seems reasonable for Brazilians to consider themselves Latino.


But as a former colony of Portugal, Brazil has no Spanish heritage. It therefore doesn’t meet the government definition of “Hispanic or Latino.” So for decades, as Passel and his Pew colleague Jens Manuel Krogstad discovered, the folks at Census had been excluding Brazilians who claimed to be Hispanic or Latino from the official count.

Brazil wasn’t the only nation affected. People from Belize — a former British colony where English is the official language — and a few other non-Spanish places, mostly in the Caribbean, also failed to make the cut.

Few noticed this behind-the-scenes bookkeeping until 2020, when the astonishingly assiduous and all-but-infallible folks at Census neglected to reclassify the responses. As a result, the 2020 survey offers a window into how Brazilians and other folks view their identity, before Census overrides their choices.

To extent that Brazilian Americans do consider themselves Latino, their embrace of that identity has been gradual. As Claudia Barcellos Rezende of the State University of Rio de Janeiro told us, you don’t often encounter the notion of Latin American identity until you leave the region. In Brazil, folks simply think of themselves as Brazilian.

Once in the United States, however, the situation changes. Mark Costa, a Yale School of Medicine psychiatrist and researcher who grew up in Brazil, once considered himself what the Census Bureau might call “non-Hispanic White.” But then he came to the United States and learned — from Americans — that he was “Latino.”

Nowadays, Costa told us, “I don’t like identifying myself as White because I’m not seen as White.”

Costa’s wife, Graziela Reis, project coordinator at the Yale School of Medicine, said it was shocking to discover that Americans viewed her as having a different ethnic identity. She said she suffers a tiny existential crisis every time she’s asked to check a box to state her race and ethnicity.


In a new review in the International Journal of Social Psychiatry, Costa and Reis worked with Elizabeth Brisola of St. Edward’s University and Yale’s Chyrell Bellamy to explore the mental health consequences of being ethnically “invisible” in much of the United States’ data and administrative programs. They argue that this cloak of invisibility may help explain why Brazilian immigrants are twice as likely to report anxiety as other immigrants.

The enormous Brazil-shaped hole in our data fosters systemic discrimination, Costa said, adding that Brazilians are often overlooked by targeted efforts of all kinds, including in the health-care sector. That would change, researchers told us, if they were officially categorized as Latino, one of America’s most influential demographic groups.

“I am glad we are embracing the identity,” said Cileine de Lourenco, a Brazilian immigrant and professor emerita at Bryant University in Rhode Island.


If these questions of identity sound exceedingly complicated, you don’t know the half of it. For 30 years starting in 1970, the Census Bureau asked simply whether you considered yourself Hispanic. The “or Latino” bit was added in 2000, after officials noticed that some people of Hispanic origin weren’t identifying with that specific term.

In a 2013 survey asking Hispanic or Latino Americans how they described themselves, Pew Research found that “Hispanic” was twice as popular as “Latino.” But words describing specific national origin — “Cuban” or “Mexican” or “Dominican” — beat both terms, said Mark Hugo Lopez, director of race and ethnicity research at Pew.

(It’s worth noting that virtually nobody chose Latinx, the gender-neutral form of Latino that has gained traction mostly in academic and media circles. “It is a term that the public itself is relatively unaware of,” Lopez said.)


Part of the complexity stems from the government’s decades-old decision to treat ethnicity (Hispanic or Latino) as something separate and distinct from race (Black, Native American, White) and even ancestry (German, Egyptian, American). This odd tripartite sectioning of the messy American melting pot forces folks to run a multi-question gantlet of overlapping notions when they fill out the census survey. Census staffers then step in to untangle the results.

During the Obama administration, there was a push to consolidate race and ethnicity into a single category, and to expand that category to include options for people with Middle Eastern and North African (MENA) heritage. Supporters argued the move would paint a clearer and more useful picture of the population.

That idea was shelved during the Trump administration. In researching his baby boomer book, “The Aftermath,” our colleague Philip Bump interviewed people who said they suspect Trump officials were concerned that the move would serve to further shrink an already shrinking White population. Most MENA Americans are counted as White and, until recent changes boosted the count of mixed-race people, so were about two-thirds of Hispanic Americans.


Under President Biden, the proposal to consolidate race and ethnicity has been revived by the White House Office of Management and Budget, and it now seems on track to be adopted next year. As currently proposed, the changes would eliminate the need for Hispanics or Latinos to select a separate race such as “White,” though they could still choose to mark multiple backgrounds.

As it stands, the proposal would not change the government’s definition of Hispanic or Latino, which Pew’s Lopez points out could be constrained by a 1976 law requiring statistics on “Americans of Spanish origin or descent.”

That may mean that, despite the frustration found in at least a few of the 20,000-plus public comments that have roared in, Brazilians still may not be considered Latino.

“That doesn’t make sense,” said Luciano Tosta, a Brazilian American professor at the University of Kansas who identifies as Latino. “They haven’t done their homework correctly.”

Ahoy there! The Department of Data covets quantitative queries. What do you wonder about: How our country-of-origin maps would look for America’s Asian or African populations? What’s the low point of most people’s days? What places have the most animals named after them? Just ask!

If your question inspires a column, we’ll send an official Department of Data button and ID card.

The Department of Data


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