SAN DIEGO — I’ve heard it all now. It seems that Americans have come full circle on matters of race and ethnicity. What was once considered a liability is now thought to be an advantage.
Sixty years ago, as my parent’s generation was growing up in the cities of the Southwest — from McAllen, Texas, to Carlsbad, N.M., to Tucson, Ariz. — it was not uncommon to run across Hispanics who yearned to be white.
And why not? Back then, Hispanics were second-class citizens. They were picked on, warehoused in segregated schools, excluded from most colleges and kept away from the best jobs. White people had it easier.
So Hispanics anglicized their names — Maria became “Mary,” etc. They tried to lighten their skin by rubbing lemon juice on it. They stopped speaking Spanish. They moved into predominantly white neighborhoods where they were the only Hispanics on the block. All to be accepted in the mainstream. That is when you knew you had arrived, when people saw you as white.
Now, in an age when Colombian-born Sofia Vergara is the highest-paid actress on television, Dora the Explorer is ubiquitous and corporations spend billions of dollars every year trying to tap into the $1.3 trillion that Hispanics spend annually, there are signs that that some whites yearn to be Hispanic. Que?
This trend is showing up in, of all things, the names that parents decide to give their children. These days, many white parents are avoiding names such as John or Mary and giving their children Hispanic-sounding names such as Diego, Maria, Juan or Isabella. Other popular names for children include Santos, Carmen, Sierra and Luis.
According to Latina Lista, a Dallas-based news site, a new study of children’s names by Belly Ballot, a social-media baby-naming website, found that white parents are trying to give their kids some ethnic flavor.
When asked why, some parents cited shifting demographics and the fact that the United States is unmistakably becoming more Hispanic. The parents said they felt their children’s future would be far brighter if their kids found it easier to “fit in” with their changing surroundings.
The new mainstream, it seems, will flow right through Hispanic America. One mom from Tennessee told a reporter she thought giving her daughter a “Latino name” would help her make friends, and have a better profession given that “her future bosses will be Hispanic.”
There is also another reason, a more cynical one. (There usually is.) Whereas my parents’ generation was not exactly welcomed on college campuses in the 1950s and ’60s, my children are growing up at a time when there are tons of scholarships and grants reserved for Hispanic students, and many colleges and universities have aggressive affirmative action programs to make their campuses more diverse.
While these types of outreach programs are often challenged in court — in fact, the Supreme Court is expected to issue a ruling on another affirmative action case this term — there is a segment of the population that seems to have adopted the view: If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.
According to the Latina Lista article, there are some parents who feel that giving their kids a Spanish name will grant them that extra advantage in life by allowing them to apply for scholarships and grants that were intended for people who don’t look anything like them. I’m skeptical this may be a huge trend. We may be talking about a very small group of opportunists.
But for anyone who thinks this way, whom do they think they’re fooling? These people do know that they’re encouraging their children to commit a fraud, don’t they? Impersonating a Hispanic. Why, it ought to be a crime.
All kidding aside, this is the one part of this story that is not so amusing. These programs did not come easily. They are the result of hard-fought battles during the civil rights movement. And the fact that some people think they can be manipulated for their benefit is a sad indicator that the system of racial and ethnic spoils needs to be fixed. Perhaps, it should be scrapped altogether.
For now, I’ll just revel in the thought that, for all they went through and endured in a darker era, my parents’ generation of Hispanics is — because of stories like this — finally getting the last laugh.
Ruben Navarrette is a columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group.