Carlos Lozada is Outlook editor of The Washington Post. His most recent Outlook essay was “The end of everything.” Follow him on Twitter: @carloslozadaWP

‘Shut up, you stupid Mexican!”

The words spewed from the mouth of a pale, freckle-faced boy, taunting me on our elementary school playground.

I wish I could recall what I said to inspire the insult. But more than three decades later, I remember only my reply. “Stupid Peruvian,” I pointed out, wagging my finger.

My family had emigrated from Lima to Northern California a few years earlier, so my nationality was a point of fact (whereas my stupidity remains a matter of opinion). The response so confused my classmate that my first encounter with prejudice ended as quickly as it started. Recess resumed.

Today, my grade-school preoccupation with nationality feels a bit quaint. Peruvian or Mexican — does it even matter? We’re all Latinos now.

And don’t call us stupid. Latinos have become coveted, exciting, DREAMy. In the 2012 election, the Hispanic vote helped propel President Obama (71 percent) over Mitt Romney (27 percent). When politicians ride Hispanic ancestry to presidential short lists and convention keynote slots, when a stalemated Congress has a shot at immigration reform because Democrats need to keep us and Republicans need to woo us, and when Univision beats NBC in prime-time ratings, you know that America’s 51 million Latinos are officially marketable, clickable, unignorable. And if you’ve written a dissertation arguing that we’re dumber than white Americans, you’ll lose your job. Even at the Heritage Foundation, no se puede.

The attention is nice, I admit. Our background as immigrants or descendants of immigrants is no longer considered a liability; in the wonderful reductionism of American politics, it’s a great story.

But it’s a story with an odd plot twist: It’s not evident what being Latino — or Hispanic or hispano, take your pick — truly means, and most Hispanics, it turns out, don’t even identify with the term.

Is being Latino a matter of geography, as simple as where you or your ancestors came from? Is it the language you speak or how well you speak it? Is it some common culture? Or is it just a vaguely brown complexion and a last name ending in “a,” “o” or “z”? Politicians build Latino-voter-outreach operations, businesses launch marketing campaigns to attract Hispanic “super-consumers,” yet depending on whom you ask — politicians, academics, journalists, activists, researchers or pollsters — contradictory definitions and interpretations emerge.

If all ethnic identities are created, imagined or negotiated to some degree, American Hispanics provide an especially stark example. As part of an effort in the 1970s to better measure who was using what kind of social services, the federal government established the word “Hispanic” to denote anyone with ancestry traced to Spain or Latin America, and mandated the collection of data on this group. “The term is a U.S. invention,” explains Mark Hugo Lopez, associate director of the Pew Hispanic Center. “If you go to El Salvador or the Dominican Republic, you won’t necessarily hear people say they are ‘Latino’ or ‘Hispanic.’ ”

You may not hear it much in the United States, either. According to a 2012 Pew survey, only about a quarter of Hispanic adults say they identify themselves most often as Hispanic or Latino. About half say they prefer to cite their family’s country of origin, while one-fifth say they use “American.” (Among third-generation Latinos, nearly half identify as American.)

The Office of Management and Budgetdefines a Hispanic as “a person of Cuban, Mexican, Puerto Rican, South or Central American, or other Spanish culture or origin regardless of race” — about as specific as calling someone European.

“There is no coherence to the term,” says Marta Tienda, a sociologist and director of Latino studies at Princeton University. For instance, even though it’s officially supposed to connote ethnicity and nationality rather than race — after all, Hispanics can be black, white or any other race — the term “has become a racialized category in the United States,” Tienda says. “Latinos have become a race by default, just by usage of the category.”

So, being Hispanic might be about national origin, or it might be about race, or it might involve some combination that Hispanics define for themselves, if they even use the term, which most don’t.

Or is it about a pan-Latino culture?

Janet Murguia, president of the National Council of La Raza, listed its basic elements: “Culturally, we’re bound by language, a common affection for Spanish — even though we learn English,” she told me. “Strong faith, strong family, strong sense of community. These are values we hold in common.”

Sergio Bendixen, a Miami-based strategy consultant on Hispanic politics and media, agrees that a Latino culture exists but defines it entirely differently. It’s “not really language or the Catholic Church, or that we come from this country or that,” he said. It is “a culture that gives tremendous weight to human relationships and the celebration of life; you are free to show your emotion, more than suppress your emotion. That is what really unites all Hispanics.”

If most Hispanics are united in something, though, it’s a belief that they don’t share a common culture. The Pew Hispanic Center finds that nearly seven in 10 Hispanics say they comprise “many different cultures” rather than a single one. “But when journalists, researchers or the federal government talk about” Latinos, Lopez acknowledges, “they talk about a single group.”

The absence of a unifying culture makes even more sense as the Latino community evolves and spreads. The days when Hispanics could be broken down largely as Mexican American migrant workers in the Southwest, Puerto Ricans in New York and Cuban Americans in South Florida are vanishing. Salvadorans are catching up with Cubans as the third-largest Latino group in the nation, for instance. And guess the four states where the Hispanic population grew fastest over the past decade: South Carolina, Kentucky, Arkansas and Minnesota.

Even the Spanish language is losing its power as a cultural marker for this community. About 80 percent of U.S. Hispanics say they read or speak Spanish “very well” or “pretty well,” according to Pew, but only 38 percent claim it as their primary language, while another 38 percent say they are bilingual, and 24 percent say English is their dominant tongue. By the third generation, nearly seven in 10 Latinos say they are English-dominant. Little surprise that the latest battleground for Hispanic media companies is over the English-speaking Latino market.

Is fluency in Spanish a precondition for full Latino-ness? If so, then people such as Republican Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval and Democratic San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro would not be in the club.

I, for one, would not presume to revoke their membership.

If neither language nor race nor a common culture is enough to define or unite us, perhaps politics can help.

A stark vision of a Latino political identity emerged last month from former New Mexico governor Bill Richardson, who suggested to ABC News that Sen. Ted Cruz, a Cuban American and conservative Republican from Texas, should not be “defined as a Hispanic” because he doesn’t support immigration reform. Soon afterward, Richardson told Fox News that it was a misunderstanding: “All I was saying is, I don’t consider myself just a Hispanic, and he shouldn’t be defined just as a Hispanic. We’re other things.”

Yes, the notion of a political litmus test for Hispanic identity seems bizarre. But Richardson’s words made clear how, in the political world, that identity has evolved from a broad ethnic and cultural category to include an implied liberal sensibility.

For Republicans, the challenge appears straightforward. In his breakdown of the GOP’s shortcomings in March, Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus emphasized the need to elevate Latino leaders in the party, cultivate Latino media outlets and craft a message on immigration that considers “the unique perspective of the Hispanic community.” Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina has put the GOP’s plight more bluntly: “We’re in a demographic death spiral as a party,” he said on “Meet the Press” last week, “and the only way we can get back in good graces with the Hispanic community, in my view, is pass comprehensive immigration reform.”

Fix immigration and Hispanics will love you. Simple, right?

“The great problem for the Republican Party with Hispanics is not about immigration,” Bendixen counters. “The problem is that they’re looking at a Hispanic electorate that is further to the left than just about any group. They believe strongly in a government role in the economy and basically in every aspect of life — national health insurance, social services, a government role in creating jobs.”

In a 2012 survey, Pew found that immigration reform was not the key issue for registered Latino voters. When asked what subjects they considered “extremely important,” Hispanics rated education, the economy, health care and even the budget deficit before immigration.

Not that different from the rest of America.

Nearly a decade ago, Harvard political scientist Samuel Huntington wrote a biting 6,000-word essay in Foreign Policy magazine arguing that Latino immigrants threatened America’s “cultural and political integrity.” Titled “The Hispanic Challenge,” the article elicited countless responses in the national and international media, accusations of racism, and much scowling at Washington think tanks. Nearly a decade later, it is still ritually flogged in debates over immigration.

A confession: I helped make that essay happen. As a Foreign Policy editor at the time, I worked with Huntington over several weeks as we prepared the piece for publication. In our many phone conversations and e-mail exchanges, he never asked if the piece offended me, and I never asked if he was uncomfortable that some guy named Carlos was editing him. (The closest we came to broaching the subject: Half in jest, I suggested one day that we use “Jose, can you see?” as one of the sub-headlines in the piece. He paused on the phone and then deadpanned, “No way, Jose!”)

Looking back, I wonder why I wasn’t more offended by his arguments. Part of it is the editor’s trade; over the years, I’ve likely worked on hundreds of essays I disagree with. But maybe I didn’t think Huntington was really writing about me. I didn’t identify with the label.

Sure, I’ll check the “Hispanic origin” box on official documents — doing so feels less wrong than not — but other aspects of my identity, whether my birthplace, my faith, my alma mater, my profession, or my roles as a father, husband, son or brother have all felt more vital at different moments. A pan-Latino identity is too broad to feel essential. I read Latin American novelists and speak to my kids in Spanish, but as Richardson might say, I’m also other things.

Besides, others play identity politics for me. I’m Hispanic when census forms and my children’s birth certificate documents nudge me to choose. I’m Hispanic when junk mail arrives at my house trumpeting special offers for my Irish American wife and ofertas especiales for me. I’m Hispanic when the Jehovah’s Witnesses come knocking on my door with a pitch for salvation ready in Spanish. I’m Hispanic in America because people I don’t know have decided that is what I am.

There is one moment, however, when assuming the Latino label feels right, even urgent. When the political debates over immigration turn ugly, when talk of self-deportation and racial-profiling laws and anchor babies permeates campaigns, the distinctions and nuances seem to dissipate.

“When one of us is under attack, we identify, we come together,” Murguia says. “When one of us is singled out because of their accent, their skin color, our people come together out of a sense of justice. People say, ‘That can be me.’ ”

This is why the anti-Latino sentiment that has emerged in some quarters of American politics is self-defeating. It fosters unity among the otherwise disparate peoples it targets. It strengthens, even creates, the very identity it seeks to dislodge.

“The meaning of Hispanicity is not identifiable by culture or language, but by experiences of inclusion or exclusion, by opportunities for education, whether they can live the American dream,” explains Princeton’s Tienda. “Are they a class apart, or are they going to be part of all the classes?”

Read more from Outlook:

Five myths about Latino voters

How did we build an immigrant movement? We learned from gay rights advocates.

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