Blog Demographics and Culture

Ethnic Umbrellas

In my last blog, I discussed the distinctions between ethnic — particularly Hispanic — heritage, identity, and culture. I ended by posing this question: beyond the sharing of a pan-Latino identity, does a U.S. Hispanic culture really exist? Or are Hispanic and Latino merely convenient umbrella terms for embracing the various U.S. ethnic cultures rooted in Spain and the different Spanish-American nations?

Let’s begin by comparing Hispanic with four other common ethnic umbrella terms: European-American, Asian-American;, African-American and Native-American. Certainly they all share the characteristics of having a geographical reference point. But beyond that, distinctions appear.

European-American is probably the least complicated term. It refers to Americans whose ancestry derives primarily from Europe. Yet European-Americans spring from nations with vastly different languages and cultures.

Similarly, Asian-American refers to Americans whose ancestry derives from Asia. They, too, spring from myriad languages and cultures. Yet there is disagreement over where to draw the line between Asian Americans and Middle Eastern Americans or whether they should all be placed within one convenient cohort.

Like the previous umbrella terms, African-American refers to Americans whose ancestry derives from a continent, in this case Africa. In U.S. popular parlance, however, African-American does not refer to all people of continental African ancestry, but rather only to those categorized racially in the United States as Black Americans.

Native-American refers to Americans whose ancestry derives from the hundreds of Indian cultures, with a myriad of languages, currently situated within the current boundaries of the United States. However, as commonly used, Native-American does not generally include those of Latin American indigenous origins.

So what about Hispanics?  Unlike European-Americans and Asian-Americans, Hispanics generally share a common ancestral language — Spanish. Unlike African Americans, Hispanics do not all come from one racial origin (race as used popularly in the United States, not as a scientific term). Like Native Americans, many Hispanics have familial roots in this land before it became part of the current United States. However, unlike most Native Americans, tens of millions of Hispanics have immigrant roots.

In short, Hispanic is a unique umbrella concept. It is unique because it embraces both those with immigrant roots and those whose ancestors were here before the United States came to them. It is also unique because, unlike the other umbrella terms, it refers to a multiracial people with a common ancestral language and, in some respects, widely-shared cultural characteristics. It is that uniqueness that I will further explore in my next blog.

Dr. Carlos E. Cortés is Professor Emeritus of History at the University of California, Riverside. He can be reached at

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