About US is a new initiative by The Washington Post to cover issues of identity in the United States. Look for the newsletter launching this fall.
The National Council of La Raza, one of the most respected Latino activist organizations in the country, set off a wave of introspection within the community recently when it announced it would change its name to “UnidosUS”.
What message was the organization telegraphing by dropping the term that carried so much historical significance and pride among generations of Latino activists? La Raza is a traditional Chicano term meaning literally “race,” and colloquially, “the people.” It became popular during the Mexican American and Chicano civil rights movement in the late 1960s and early 1970s, around the time UnidosUS was founded.
Leaders of the organization dismissed speculation that the name change was an effort to ease tensions with conservatives, who have long complained that the term “la raza” is racist. Instead, they said it is aimed at addressing the current needs of an increasingly diverse Latino community, a way for Latinos across the spectrum to feel united.
But at a time when Latinos are underrepresented in a political system that, with President Trump’s election, appears hostile to not only their concerns but their very presence in this country, it will take more than a new name to mobilize the community to fight for its interests. Younger Latinos already have been gradually distancing themselves from legacy activist groups in favor of digital organizing and more inclusive leadership.
UnidosUS leaders didn’t make their decision lightly.
“The Latino community led us to our name change,” said Lisa Navarrete, the adviser to UnidosUS President Janet Murguía. “After a three-plus year process, we came to understand that our name had become a barrier for deeper engagement with our increasingly diverse Latino community. For us, our new name, UnidosUS not only represents a call-to-action for all Latinos, but also signals a message for others to join us, to come together united in the best interest of our country and all Americans.”
Aside from rebranding for the sake of being more inclusive of America’s Latino community, UnidosUS acknowledges that it also is hoping the name change will help connect with millennials.
Although a name change for a spearheading organization such as UnidosUS is politically and socially symbolic, it’s not what motivates young Latino activists. What’s in a name is important, but more pressing to today’s Latino activists is figuring out how to unite a complex and populous group of people — something especially hard to do when so many young Latinos are still trying to figure out their own personal narrative.
“We don’t know what to make of the millennials,” said Angelo Falcon from the National Institute of Latino Policy. “We’ve been failing when it comes to educating [them] about the heritage we have of struggle in the United States and with other Latinos coming outside of the Mexican American or the Puerto Rican experience, that’s an even greater challenge because their reference points are even harder to pinpoint in history.”
For almost five decades, UnidosUS has led the fight against hurdles the Latino community face in such areas as immigration, educations, jobs and civil rights, with an approach and style that reflects core Latino values but not necessarily full representation of the Latinidad spectrum. Mainstream issues championed by national legacy groups did not always address the concerns of a whole other, marginalized segment of the Latino community that has been awakened by millennials.
In contrast to UnidosUS, newer organizations like Mijente, which has a large millennial following, have been built to reflect the new-age Latinx activist.
“We saw a big gap in Latino activism and leadership at the national level,” said Marisa Franco from Mijente. She said that closing that gap “involves connecting the dots between the identities we hold and the different issues we care about. Oftentimes we’re asked in movement to leave certain parts of ourselves — our race, our sexuality, etc — at the door in order to participate in Latino activism. This opens the door to show the spectrum of politics and vibrancy of culture and language inside the Latinx community. It is becoming more and more difficult to paint the Latinx community with one brush as a single issue community.”
While issues such as immigration and deportations stay at the top of the Latino priority list, for younger activists, such as William Camargo, a photojournalist who grew up in California and now lives in Chicago, success within the Latinx community means reaching outside of it, being more accepting of women leading movements and black and brown communities coming together to fight injustice and inequality.
“I want to see the Latinx community embrace black unity because a lot of these Latin American countries have their own black communities — like Puerto Rico, like Cuba like the Dominican Republic — it could help bring really good steps for the future,” said Camargo.
But the biggest hurdle the Latino community needs to overcome, according to In the Thick co-host, journalist and founder of Latino Rebels, Julio Ricardo Varela, is Latinos themselves.
“People who are searching for their roots and their ancestry and figuring out what their identity is — that’s what these young people grapple with all the time,” Varela said. “And they want to have real honest, sometimes uncomfortable, sometimes raw conversations … If you’re not true, if you’re not authentic, they see right through it and once you lose them, they’re not going to come back.”
Bianca Betancourt is a writer and curator living in Chicago. Follow her at @bybiancabee.
An earlier version of this story had an incorrect title for the pod cast hosted by Julio Ricardo Varela. The correct title is “In the Thick,” not “In the Mix.”
More from About US: