Grace Flores-Hughes Interview -- She Made 'Hispanic' Official

Sunday, July 26, 2009

While success has many fathers and failure is an orphan, bureaucrat-ese, it turns out, sometimes has one proud author. During her long career in government, Grace Flores-Hughes spent some time working as an assistant in what was then called the Department of Health, Education and Welfare. It was there, in the early 1970s, that she helped establish "Hispanic" as the government's word of choice for people of Spanish origin -- a term that made it onto the official U.S. census form in 1980. Flores-Hughes, who recently left a federal job as a Bush political appointee, spoke with Outlook's Rachel Dry about why some people think "Latino" sounds cooler, who should really count as Hispanic and whether Sonia Sotomayor was wise to talk about "wise Latina" women. Excerpts:

What did you think when you heard about the nomination of Judge Sotomayor -- by a president whose politics don't align with yours?

I was terribly excited. She's Hispanic. And obviously well qualified as far as I'm concerned. Politics came last with me in terms of seeing her nomination. Sure, I'm wary of future decisions, but I figure that she's going to do her work based on what she said during the hearings, based on the Constitution.

You just said: "She's Hispanic." Why did you use that term instead of "Puerto Rican" or "Latina"?

Because I coined the term, and I'm faithful to my work.

Fair enough. But besides pride of authorship?

I believe that it represents the Hispanic Americans of this country. It best describes who we are based on our Hispanic surnames. . . . The reason I am not in favor of "Latino" or "Latina" is that those terms can represent the people of the Mediterranean. Then you'd be including Portuguese and Italians, if you take it literally. And then it takes away from the Hispanic people of America that need to be counted: Who are we; how are we being served by the government; who do we vote for? How are you going to come to a conclusion if you're mixing apples and oranges?

How did the federal government come to use the term "Hispanic"?

There are many Hispanic activists who think that Richard Nixon did it. Well, no, Richard Nixon was very busy -- he didn't have time to be doing this. When I explain it, they get relieved. They were holding this anger that some nasty Anglo named them. Well, no, it wasn't. It was this little Hispanic bureaucrat.

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