Blog Demographics and Culture

Beyond Heritage and Identity

In one of my earlier blogs I discussed the distinction between the ideas of ethnic heritage and ethnic identity. In brief, all Americans have ethnic heritage, sometimes multiple heritages through their various ancestries. Yet not all Americans have ethnic identity, which takes root when one dimension of your heritage evolves into an integral part of your very being. Identity, in short, is not something you choose. It’s something you feel.

Recent events, however, have caused me to consider still another possible option, although at this point I’m not sure what to label it. For now, I’ll simply call it an ethnic special interest. Let me explain.

My father was raised in Guadalajara, Mexico. His family fled to the United States in 1913 during the Mexican Revolution. Growing up in early post-World War II Kansas City, Missouri, I was immersed in Mexican lore by my father, who wanted to develop in me a robust Mexican identity. But he also helped imbue in me a deep love for my country, the United States. Maybe that’s the reason I don’t see any inherent conflict between having both a strong ethnic identity and a strong dedication to one’s nation.

My mother’s parents were immigrants, too: my grandmother from Austria; and my grandfather from Ukraine. They also raised me in an ethnic tradition, but not a nation-based one: a Jewish ethnic tradition. They seldom talked about Austria or Ukraine, places that mainly brought painful memories of anti-Jewish oppression, from which their families had fled. This brings me back to my earlier ethnic categorical musing.

Current events – the ousting of the Russian-leaning president of Ukraine, Russia’s occupation of Crimea, and continuing tensions involving the two nations – have provoked in me a sense of connection spawned by my ancestry. It’s not a Ukrainian ethnic identity, of which I have none. Rather it’s a special interest because events there may connect, in some yet-undetermined way, with part of my personal heritage.

I raise this topic because a rapidly-increasing number of U.S. Latinos have mixed heritages. Sometimes these are people with two or more national-origin Latino heritages. Sometimes they involve non-Latino along with Latino heritages. As we move further into the twenty-first century, issues of heritage and identity are likely to become even more complex.

The basic question is this: in what respects will future Latinos grow up as Americans with Latino identity, Americans with specific Hispanic national-origin identities, or merely Americans of Hispanic heritage? This question will become even more challenging as Latinos continue to intermarry and mixed Latinos – people like me – become an increasing part of the U.S. cultural kaleidoscope. The ways that Latinos address and wrestle with the complexities of ethnic identity amid multiple heritages could play a significant role in the future Hispanic trajectory.

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

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