One Label Does Not Fit All

By David Montgomery
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 11, 2008

Geraldo Rivera -- who has gone from TV showman to defender of la raza with his new book subtitled "Why Americans Fear Hispanics in the U.S." -- warmed up a Latino luncheon crowd the other day with the one joke he says he knows in Spanish.

"The only difference among us Hispanics is the color of our beans," he said in Spanish, to appreciative chuckles. "We're all in this together."

Several hours later, the scene shifted to a Latino comedy night at the Warner Theatre, where comedian and writer Rick Najera was onstage channeling his fictional cousin Buford Gomez Najera, a "redneck Mexican Border Patrol agent."

"Not all Latinos are Mexican," the Buford character explained, to loud applause and cries of "thank you" from the predominantly Latino audience. "There are different kinds of Mexicans -- Puerto Rican Mexicans, Dominican Mexicans . . . Puerto Ricans, you got to remember, they are legal Mexicans!"

So which is it? Are Latinos all the same or all different?

Actually, they're both, depending on who's asking and who's listening.

What Latinos like to tell themselves is how much they have in common -- even as they laugh at their differences. What Latinos like others to notice about them is how diverse they are -- and they consider it politically incorrect if not downright hostile for outsiders to lump them all together.

This paradox was on display this week as another Hispanic Heritage Month rolls around. The shifting nature of Latino identity matters more and more as, with increasing desperation, everyone from would-be presidents to media czars and capitalist kings beseech Hispanics for votes, dollars and devotion.

The Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute and the National Hispanic Foundation for the Arts drew a couple thousand politicos, activists, lobbyists, celebrities and corporate sponsors to a series of seminars and celebrations around town this week -- capped by the Caucus Institute's gala last night at the Washington Convention Center, where Sen. Barack Obama gave a speech. Sen. John McCain had been invited but did not attend.

The caucus's theme was "The Power to Make the Difference," which is the fashionable way to think about Latinos these days -- the supposedly no-longer-sleeping electoral giant that might decide the presidential election; the nearly-trillion-dollar market that is helping salsa topple ketchup in the American kitchen.

But between the lines and around the edges of all the pontificating, venting, rallying, joking and posing, what the conversations really were about was: Who are we?

Are we English speakers or Spanish speakers? Bilingual? Foreign- or native-born?

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