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2: Identities

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    Learning Objectives

    • Outline contemporary Chicanx and Latinx demographics and the factors that impact them.
    • Evaluate the historical, political, and social processes that have shaped the racialization of Chicanxs and Latinxs.
    • Summarize Chicanx/Latinx studies identity concepts, theories, and frameworks.


    What does it mean to be Latina/o/x/e and who gets to decide? What do the different word-endings––Latina, Latino, Latina/o, Latin@, Latinx, and Latine––mean? What is the difference between Latinx and Hispanic? Where did these labels come from? Is Latinx a race or an ethnicity? This chapter tackles these difficult questions and more in order to provide a general overview of the historical and contemporary meanings of Latinx identities to establish a foundation for understanding the communities that are the central focus of this book. 

    The labels that an individual uses to name their race, ethnicity, and other social identities is a personal choice, one that relies on shared understandings, imagined and/or real, of what it means to belong to that group. These meanings are socially constructed, that is, they are contextual and change over time and place as a result of social, political, and historical processes. While a person can choose to identify a particular way internally, they may also be identified externally by other people (usually arbitrarily based on phenotype and physiognomy), and by federal, state, and private agencies and organizations that collect demographic data such as the U.S. Census, the Department of Motor Vehicles, schools, universities, employers, and hospitals. The categories and labels assigned by these various entities may be at odds with or even contradict a person’s self-identification. Put another way, “social identity is regarded as a constellation of different and often competing identifications or ‘cultural negotiations.’”1

    In addition to examining race and ethnicity and how these social identities pertain to Latinxs, Chicanx and Latinx studies in general and this chapter, in particular, are concerned with the ways power structures (ideologies, discourses, institutions, systems) shape particular subject positions, experiences, access to resources, and life outcomes for Latinxs and how these vary based on the intersecting dynamics of gender, sexuality, class, language, religion, nationality, tribal affiliation, and immigration status. This mode of analysis––developed by feminists of color and popularized as intersectionality in the 1980s––is examined in detail in Chapter 5: Feminisms and illustrated in Figure 2.1 as a “Wheel of Power/Privilege.” This chapter investigates the ways privilege was cemented for a select few through the creation and maintenance of hierarchical identity categories across time and place and the ways that marginalized communities have resisted their oppressors' classifications.   

    A wheel including three concentric circles that are separated by category, each representing a social identity. The center circle is labeled power, and the outer circle is labeled marginalized, indicating who is marginalized (furthest from power) and who is privileged (closest to power) within each category as indicated in the table.​​​​​​

    Figure 2.1:Wheel of Power/Privilege,” by Sylvia Duckworth, is licensed CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

    Social identity categories' relationship to system of power, as shown in Figure 2.1

    Social Identity 

    Marginalized identity, furthest from power

    Identity between marginalized and power

    Identity closest to power 

    Skin colour


    Different shades


    Formal education

    Elementary education

    High school education



    Significant disability

    Some disability



    Lesbian, Bi, Pan, Asexual

    Gay men



    Significant neurodivergence



    Mental health


    Mostly stable


    Body size







    Owns property



    Middle class



    Non-English monolingual

    Learned English



    Trans, intersex, non-binary

    Cisgender woman

    Cisgender man





    • 2.1: Defining Latinx Demographics
      This section provides a demographic portrait of Latinxs in the U.S. as defined by the U.S. Census. It also illustrates some of the tensions between how Latinxs identify and the ways the Census categorizes and counts peoples of Latinx origins, historically and in the present, highlighting both the potential and the limitations of census data.
    • 2.2: (Re)constucting Latinidad(es)
      Section 2.2 paves the way for the remaining sections, which examine the perspectives, stories, and contexts that surround the census data. This section unpacks the questions: What is the difference between Hispanic and Latino and where did these labels come from? What does it mean to be Latinx and who gets to decide?
    • 2.3: A Brief History of Latinx Racial Formation
      This section explores the ways Spanish conquest and colonization and U.S. settler colonialism and imperialism have fashioned hierarchical identity categories inherited by contemporary Chicanxs and Latinxs. While settler projects of racial domination have attempted to cement social, economic, political, and national boundaries, marginalized communities have always resisted and subverted these projects, including the ethnic and racial classifications imposed on them by their oppressors.
    • 2.4: Xicana Feminist Ontologies- Indigeneity, Spirituality, and Sexuality
      Section 2.4 introduces readers to mestiza consciousness and Xicanisma, foundational Chicana feminist identity theories that center gender, sexuality, Indigeneity, and spirituality.
    • 2.5: Conclusion


    1 Linda Martín Alcoff, “Who’s Afraid of Identity Politics?,” in Reclaiming Identity: Realist Theory and the Predicament of Postmodernism, eds. Paula M. L. Moya and Michael Hames-García (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000), 315, quoted in Carla Kaplan, “Identity” in Keywords for American Cultural Studies (New York: New York University Press, 2007).

    This page titled 2: Identities is shared under a CC BY-NC 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Amber Rose González (ASCCC Open Educational Resources Initiative (OERI)) .