In high school I worked at the local Santa Cruz County Immigration Center in Watsonville, California, an agricultural town inhabited largely by Mexican immigrants and their descendants. One service we offered was assisting clients in filling out immigration paperwork, as the majority of them did not speak English and a number of them could not read or write, even in their native language. A peculiarity that stood out to me was how, when filling out the race and ethnicity section, we instructed all our clients to check Hispanic for ethnicity and white for race. Clients were periodically confused at the race box: why did they check white when in the United States they were constantly made aware of their non-whiteness?

The U.S. government census officially recognizes the following racial categories:


Hispanic, or Latino, is considered a racially diverse ethnicity. Therefore marking the box for Hispanic requires checking one of the given races above.


The Hispanic ethnicity denotes a cultural or historical identity with the Spanish peninsula. In the United States, the Hispanic ethnic community is bonded by a common history of Spanish conquest rule in their country of origin. This imposed culture and language constitutes the uniting point for immigrants and their descendants, who may identify with nations ranging from Central and South America, the Caribbean’s, or the Philippines. Despite the varied origins of its members, a shared culture among Hispanics fosters a sense of community in the United States.

For our clients the decision to check the Hispanic box is obvious. Culturally and linguistically it makes a lot of sense. The race box causes confusion because the Hispanic ethnicity is not associated with a particular race. Hispanics span a range of races: black is common for Hispanics of Caribbean descent, while Pacific Islander is used to describe those of Filipino descent.

A great majority of Hispanics originating from the Americas is of mixed indigenous and Spanish descent. When we consider the varying degrees of mixing with the ruling Spanish population alongside the vast geographical variation of the continent, it quickly becomes understandable that the resulting population includes a wide array of aesthetic racial qualities. Hispanics of continental American origin may appear entirely of European descent or of indigenous roots, and every shade in between. This spectrum of racial aesthetics explains the hesitation to check an all-encompassing white box.

It is important to distinguish race from ethnicity because, as previously implied, ethnicity is invisible: it is cultural, lingual, and historical.

Race is visual.

Race is defined by aesthetic qualities of the face and body.

Race is the basis of prejudice.

Race is the basis of discrimination.

The range of visual races within the Hispanic ethnicity leads to differing treatments in terms of prejudice and discrimination. Historically in Hispanic countries, lighter skin tones signified more opportunities. A social hierarchy based on skin tone was commonly constructed in Spanish colonies of the Latin Americas, where only those with lighter skin could access elite classes. Coming to the United States has not meant escape from this social stratification. Currently in the United States, race still plays a key role in discrimination faced by immigrants of Hispanic origin and their descendants. Social constructs of race induce negative psychological perceptions of darker skin color and indigenous racial features. Consequent negative discrimination means that Hispanics with features closer to the indigenous end of the spectrum are less likely to succeed in education and the workforce than those closer to the white end. Thus racially based disadvantage is propagated within Hispanic immigrant and descendent populations ascribed with indigenous aesthetics.

While the Hispanic ethnicity connects its community members through common language, culture, and heritage, the spectrum of levels of discrimination, which follows the racial spectrum, creates a serious complication. Although my heritage is a racial mix of primarily Hispanic origin, I am blond with blue eyes and very pale skin. Aesthetically, I look quite similar to Americans of pure European descent.  Often in interactions with Hispanics that look less “white” than me, I am told I am “lucky” to speak Spanish and share a similar culture to them in my own home.

Despite feeling it’s unfair for people to take surprise at our shared Hispanic culture and heritage, I feel it is far more unfair that my white skin has secluded me from racial discrimination that less “white” Hispanics have endured. I am lucky to reap the benefits of language and culture while sidestepping less pleasant prejudices. It is most certainly not fair.

The contrast in experiences between Hispanics of differing racial features illustrates why it is important to take a closer look at the race and ethnicity boxes. These boxes are used to examine socioeconomic achievement as measured by education levels or occupation. They tell us that Hispanics are an underrepresented minority in higher education and high-paying jobs. In response, institutions, public and private alike, make efforts to counter this achievement gap through the recruitment and retention of underrepresented minorities. Yet including these two boxes, race and ethnicity, may be dodging the root of the problem.

Underrepresentation corresponds with disadvantage, which in turn is closely knitted to racial prejudice and discrimination. On paper a light-skinned and dark-skinned Hispanic of mixed indigenous and Spanish descent look identical: Hispanic, white. Yet in real life, the two have experienced different treatments based on their aesthetic features. It is safe to say that one will do better than the other. Without discouragement or discrimination-based obstacles, it is easier to succeed. In terms of selecting between these two candidates on paper, it is statistically likely that the one who has faced fewer disadvantages will be chosen. As such, light-skin privilege is still encouraged.

The fact that there exists a range of colors and features within the white Hispanic category means that using these boxes to battle underrepresentation evades the real root of the problem: race. Through the hundreds of forms I’ve had clients fill out and through the many forms I’ve filled out myself, I know that the Hispanic box encompasses those who have faced many hardships and those who have faced none, simply based on our aesthetics. By confining a racial spectrum to the white box, programs intending to boost underrepresented Hispanic participation are really boosting the represented, those who have not been held down by the oppression of prejudice.

-Tamara Pico