“Todos Somos Latinos”: Ethnic Identity Constructions of Second Generation Latin-Australian Women

This paper was first published in 2005 by the Journal of Iberian and Latin American Research.

Abstract

The concept of a ‘pan-ethnic’ Latin identity is theoretically problematic, but its social significance is worthy of empirical attention. This paper presents a sociological analysis of the social construction of a pan-ethnic Latin identity using data from qualitative interviews with 25 young second generation women of South and Central American backgrounds living in Australia. This paper focuses on the way these women discussed the value of family in pan-ethnic Latin culture, their ideas about a pan-ethnic Latin ‘persona’, and the way they diminished differences between individual country-of-origin Latin groups in Australia, while emphasising their collective differences to ‘Australians’. Throughout their interviews, the women used the term ‘Australian’ to mean ‘Anglo-Australian’ (or, in their words, an ‘Anglo’ or ‘white Australian’), and I often had to clarify this with them when they spoke. In this paper, wherever the participants make reference to ‘Australians’ and ‘Australian culture’ the reader should be aware that the participants are referring to Anglo-Australians.

Introduction

Richard Jenkins argues that ethnic identification is based on ‘the belief shared by its members that, however distantly, they are of common descent… people come to see themselves as belonging together – coming from a common background – as a consequence of acting together’ in political and social life[i]. Aside from the belief in shared ancestry, Jenkins writes that ethnic groups are formed through the interdependent relationships between cultural groups. By this he means that the cultural differences usually attributed to ethnic groups are created by the group’s members to bind an ethnic group together. Jenkins terms this process ‘cultural differentiation’[ii], and this process describes the way that cultural traits are only socially meaningful if and when we want them to be.

Fredik Barth’s[iii] analysis of ethnicity highlights the contingency of ethnic boundaries. Barth argues that ethnicity is constructed through interpersonal ‘boundary transactions’. Ethnic boundaries are imaginary, but social actors believe that their ethnicity is defined through their content, or what Barth terms the ‘cultural stuff’. Barth goes against this conventional understanding, and he argues that more important than this cultural stuff is the social interaction signalling group membership and affirming ethnic boundaries. In this connection, Jenkins explains that the significance of ethnicity comes from ‘the social processes which produce and reproduce, which organise, boundaries of identification and differentiation between ethnic collectivities’[iv]. Ethnic identities are therefore socially defined, or ‘socially constructed’, entities that allow individual social actors to form a sense of belonging with others they believe share their ancestry and culture. Collective ethnic identities allow social groups to signal their sense of belonging with fellow group members while at the same time signalling their sense of difference to other people who do not belong to their imagined community[v].

Photo: Zuleyka Zevallos
Photo: Zuleyka Zevallos

Ethnic and pan-ethnic labels can obscure the political and historical differences within and between individual migrant communities [vi]. In particular, Latin pan-ethnicity is theoretically problematic. For example, in the American context, Alejandro Portes and Dag MacLeod have argued that pan-ethnic labels used to describe an all-encompassing and cohesive ‘Hispanic’ community are especially thorny, because such pan-ethnic labels describe a number of different cultural and racial groups under one unifying category[vii]. The authors argue that pan-ethnic labels are often imposed by researchers on categories of people who do not necessarily have a subjective sense of belonging to a common group. In a previous study, however, I interviewed 13 Australian women of South and Central American backgrounds, and I found that my participants actively constructed a pan-ethnic Latin identity, whose basis comes about ‘as a direct result of migration’:

The participants’ experiences lead them to believe that people who migrate out of Latin America overlook differences and rivalries that might attach to identities based on their countries-of-origin, in order to identify with a larger group. The participants believe that this [pan-ethnic identity] stems from the small overall Latin-American population in Australia…[viii]

The present paper examines the construction of a pan-ethnic Latin identity by another sample of second generation women of South and Central American backgrounds in the Australian context. Gillian Bottomley argues that there are three ways to define the ‘second generation’: statistically, socially and subjectively[ix]. A statistical definition of the second generation is provided by Census information on birthplace. Specifically, it defines a second generation migrant as a person born in Australia with at least one parent born overseas. A social definition of the second generation includes Australian-born second generation migrants as well as people who migrated to Australia during infancy and early childhood. A subjective definition takes into account the individual’s own construction of identity, and this definition includes people who hold ‘multiple identities’, for example, ‘Greek-Australian’. This paper is based on qualitative research on 25 Latin-Australian women aged 17 to 28 years who fit both the social and subjective definitions of the second generation. The study included 17 overseas-born women and eight Australian-born women who arrived in Australia from the ages of two to 10 years, and their mean age of arrival was age six. The 25 women came from six Spanish-speaking Latin American backgrounds: eight women’s families originated from El Salvador, five from Uruguay, four from Argentina, four from Chile, three from Peru, and one from Costa Rica. The women lived in the western and north-western suburbs of Melbourne, predominantly in Sunshine, St Albans and Broadmeadows. These suburbs are located between 40 to 90 minutes outside of Melbourne.

Dancing in Meyers Lane, Spanish Festival 2014
Photo: Zuleyka Zevallos

This paper is based on a larger study on second-generation migrant-Australian women. The data presented in this paper was gathered through in-depth, semi-structured interviews which were largely completed over a six month period between October 2002 and April 2003. The interviews were tape recorded and transcribed verbatim, and the participants were given pseudonyms. The sample was recruited using the snowball method which initiated through contacting student university groups and community groups catering to Latin American immigrants in Melbourne.

This paper presents a case study of the social construction of pan-ethnic Latin identities using an analysis of the participants’ discussion of the ‘value of family’ and the idea of a ‘Latin persona’. It also outlines how the participants constructed Latin pan-ethnicity in opposition to what they perceived to be the cultural practices, beliefs and identities of Anglo-Australians. This process of cultural differentiation, where Anglo-Australians were seen in terms of difference and individual country-of-origin Latin groups were seen in terms of similarity, deepened the women’s pan-ethnic Latin identities. The women said of their Latin identities, ‘todos somos Latinos’, a phrase that crystallised their pan-ethnic identification with an imagined collective community of South and Central Americans living in Australia.

This paper argues that individuals strategically construct pan-ethnic labels so that their social difference becomes a source of strength [x]. Pan-ethnic labels allow members of minority migrant groups to belong to a wider collectivity that gives them an added sense of social empowerment than could be achieved by identifying solely with their country-of-origin migrant communities.

Constructing Latin pan-ethnicity

Spanish Festival, 2013, Mexicana food
Photo: Zuleyka Zevallos

The 25 interviewees described five cultural practices as being constitutive of both their country-of-origin culture and of a wider Latin pan-ethnic culture shared by people from South and Central America living in Australia. These five cultural practices included food, the Spanish language, music, festivity and the value of family [xi]. In this paper, I focus on how the women spoke about the value of family in relation to pan-ethnicity and how they used this value to highlight their cultural difference to Anglo-Australians.

The women saw the idea of family as central their country-of-origin ethnicity. For example, Moira said: ‘Culture’s based on [pauses]: family to us is very important. Family, food, drinks and music’ [Salvadoran]. When the participants were asked to describe their country-of-origin values, they spoke about family as a ‘cultural’ value:

Xiomara: [Chileans] value family and that’s been a really important thing. My parents don’t really see eye to eye on a lot of things but that’s one thing that’s important. If anything does happen to any of us, we always deal with everything together…

In the quote below we see that, in addition to the way family was important to their own identities, the women perceived that Latin people outside their own country-of-origin group also shared the value of family:
Do you feel today that Salvadoran culture is important to you personally?

Ingrid: I think Latin people are just in general always very family-orientated and everything that has to do with our traditions and our culture is based on the family. So in some aspects I do try to keep up with that, I do try to keep my family being important to me and keep our traditions, our morals, our culture. I like to keep that for myself.

The women saw family as both a country-of-origin and a pan-ethnic Latin value. In particular, the participants would speak about family as a Latin value that was different to the way in which Anglo-Australian families worked, and they believed that Anglo-Australian families ‘aren’t as close’ as Latin families.

What are the sorts of traditions that your parents have taught you about Uruguayan culture?
Cecilia: [Thinks] I’m not too sure about traditions. I guess we’re a lot more family-orientated than [what] you’d sort of call your basic Australian family. Like even now [that I’m married], I’ll see my parents once a week, whereas with some of my Australian friends, it’s sort of when they can. It’s not expected of them…

What about the values that you hold compared to the values that Australian people hold, do you think there’d be any difference there?
Estella: Um [thinks] when I compare my family to other more Australian families, I think family’s just so important. I think friends who aren’t from Latin American backgrounds, family doesn’t play such a big role in their lives. They don’t gather together as family as often as we do. [Uruguayan]

The participants believed that Anglo-Australian families did not place as much importance on ongoing quality family interaction. They believed that Anglo-Australian family members were ‘more closed off’ emotionally from one another in comparison to Latin families. Gracie felt that Anglo-Australian families were different in this respect to most ‘immigrant’ families:

Would you think that Argentinean family life is similar to Australian family life? Or in what ways would it be different?
Gracie: [Thinks] Nah, they’re different but [thinks] I guess, not only Argentinean but immigrants have more of a dialogue with their families than Australians. I just find them very closed off. They wouldn’t really want to sit down and drink tea with their parents. Whereas we all sit down and drink tea or talk or talk shit, but they don’t really care. They don’t really care about their families.

Implicit in the participants’ discussion about family as a cultural value was that they did not think it positive that, as far as they could see, Anglo-Australian families had less of an emphasis on family connectedness. This was evident in Gracie’s comment that ‘they don’t really care about their family’.

Families at the Spanish Festival on Johnston Street in Melbourne, 2013
Photo: Zuleyka Zevallos

 

In addition to perceiving the Latin value of family as being different to Anglo-Anglo-Australians’ family values, the participants constructed Latin pan-ethnicity by describing the Latin persona as being different to the Anglo-Australian persona. As the women saw it, the Latin persona rested on two personality traits: being proud and loud. First, pride was a recurring theme in the interviews.

Poppy: We’re a very proud culture [and] people… [Chilean]

Devi: We’re a very proud people… [Argentinean]

Violeta: I’m glad to say that I’m Latino… I’m proud to say I’m Salvadoran…

Lorelei: …Now that I’m here [in Australia], I’m proud of the South American part of me. [Uruguayan]

The women were not just proud of their country-of-origin ethnicity, but they were also proud of their Latin pan-ethnicity. Being passionate about their Latin ethnicity went hand in hand with such ethnic pride. To be proud and passionate about culture was to be actively involved with it and to take great pleasure in it. This was contrasted with Anglo-Australians, who were seen as less passionate because they were ‘very laid back’ when it came to their culture.

Moira: …I think our culture’s very passionate about the things we do, whereas Australian culture’s very laid back. They’re not so passionate. When it comes to our music – God we’re passionate! [Laughs] You know, in the Australian culture you just don’t see that passion.

 

Because they were so proud of their pan-ethnicity, the women presumed that people who drifted away from their Latin ethnicity must have had some ‘bad experience’ with their country-of-origin community to allow their culture to slip away. Such a perception shows the interlocking emphasis the women placed on their individual country-of-origin groups and a wider Latin pan-ethnicity. In contrast to these people who must be ‘ashamed’ of their background, the participants described that they were ‘proud’ to be Latin.

Does being ‘Latin’ mean something to you?
Rosa: Yeah I enjoy it [laughs] I enjoy being Latin. There are some people that don’t want any Latin in them or have totally forgotten their culture, I know some people like that here. But no, the more alive we keep it the better, I think. And I’m proud to be Latin.

Why do you think that some people that you know would forget their culture?
Rosa: Mainly because they’ve had bad experiences with our own people, our own culture, that’s why they tend to not want to be any part of it, and they keep away from that community and form part of the Australians, and live the way Australian people live. [Costa Rican]

Rosa’s belief that forgetting one’s culture leads one to ‘form part of the Australians’ highlights that remaining proud of their ethnicity was crucial to these women’s resistance to assimilate.

Dancing at the Latin Summer Festival, 2015
Photo: Zuleyka Zevallos

The second aspect of the Latin persona related to being ‘loud’. The participants generally laughed about the ‘attitude’ and ‘ego’ at the heart of the Latin persona. The participants saw Latin people as loud and outspoken and thus ‘livelier’ people in contrast to others. It is implicit in the comments below that the ‘others’ with whom the participants were comparing themselves were Anglo-Australian people.

Josefina: I find them [‘Latins’] more livelier people. They’re very sociable people, we’re very straightforward people – oh, don’t get me wrong there are hypocrites out there too – there’s a bit of everything. Just their style, the way they are, it’s different. [Peruvian]

Pandora: Part of the South American culture is sometimes being really loud and being a bit too in-your-face and if you don’t have anyone around you that’s like that, you’re seen to be kind of rude. So you want to make sure you level out the attitude [laughs]… Plus, we just rock! [Laughs] [Argentinean]

Claudia specifically spoke about the Latin persona, with its loudness and sense of fun, as being at odds with the Anglo-Australian persona. She said: ‘All South American and Spanish people – they’re fun! They love to dance, go out, they have fiestas everywhere. It’s a very happy culture and quite enjoyable. Very adventurous’. Claudia said that she did not find Anglo-Australian culture ‘as enjoyable as South American culture’. She continued:

I say South American instead of Uruguayan because Uruguayans are like all South American people. We know what we like. We’re party people. We like to party all night, and I don’t think they’re [‘Australians’] as much fun. They’re more – they call having fun going to the pub and having a beer or a good ol’ barbies in the back or going to the footy. I’ve been to Australian parties, like typical Aussie parties and I feel out of place. I don’t feel like I fit in… They like to be more quiet. Me – I’m not like that. I like to be loca. I like to have fun, party, have fun and I don’t find that Australian culture’s really like that.

Crowd in front of a sign readg "South American Barbecue," at the Spanish Festival 2013
Photo: Zuleyka Zevallos

Ultimately, the participants constructed Latin pan-ethnicity by contrasting the differences between Anglo-Australian culture and a collective Latin American culture. In so doing, they were actively diminishing the differences between individual Latin groups and emphasising their cultural similarities. There were times when the participants would suggest some differences between the various South and Central American cultures. For example, while the participants were willing to acknowledge the differences between different Latin nationalities, such as colloquialisms and variations in cultural traditions (especially with specific country-of-origin dishes), the participants were eager to reduce the impact of such differences. Similarity triumphed over difference in the construction of Latin pan-ethnicity.

Do you find that there’s any differences there [between different Latin cultures]?
Rosa:
Oh yeah, not a lot, but there is. In the way that we speak, we speak the same language except that their accent is different, and some words mean something different. Foods they vary, not much, just a little bit. Not a great difference. [Costa Rican]

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The emphasis upon pan-ethnicity is contingent on the Australian context. The participants have an interest in adopting pan-ethnic labels. The construction of Latin pan-ethnicity was an exercise which allowed the participants to broaden their in-group boundaries[xii] in a social context where there were not many other people who were like them. Pan-ethnicity enabled the participants, who come from a minority country-of-origin community, to join a slightly larger minority, that being a pan-ethnic Latin community. This process of constructing Latin pan-ethnicity is one of cultural exchange: it sacrifices cultural, political and historical differences of the individual countries in order to establish a bigger community that gives them distinction within multicultural Australia[xiii]. Josefina summed this up quite nicely. While she admitted that there were some differences between the individual Latin communities, she said, ‘at the end they’re all basically the same’. Josefina saw that pan-ethnicity allowed Latin people to form ‘a big culture’ in which ‘we’re all Latin’:

Why aren’t those differences very important here as they might be over there?

Josefina: Over there? [Thinks] It’s really hard to say. Basically if you put us together, todos somos Latinos [we’re all Latin]. We get a big culture, that’s a big culture, all of us together. If you start separating them, it’s like you get little separate cultures. So [thinks] I don’t know [laughs]. [Peruvian]

It would seem that Latin pan-ethnicity was ideally suited to the Australian multicultural context, because as Devi noted, ‘we’re a community of communities’:

The special thing about Latin communities is that we’re a community of communities. There are not many other ethnic communities that are made up of many, many communities like your main ones, like Indians… And that’s a very distinct thing that Latin Americans have, because… we’re from all over the place; so we’re a community of communities. Within our community we’re a multicultural community, because as an Argentinean I can go to a Salvadoran’s [house] and it’s a completely different culture practically… [Argentinean]

Conclusion

Photo: Zuleyka Zevallos
Photo: Zuleyka Zevallos

This paper discussed the way that 25 second generation women of South and Central American backgrounds constructed Latin pan-ethnicity in Australia. The women saw their country-of-origin culture as complementary and mutually exclusive to a wider Latin culture shared by migrants from Latin America. The women’s discussion of the value of family, the Latin persona and their affirmation of their similarity to other Latin people in Australia had a common theme of cultural differentiation. Cultural differentiation describes the process whereby cultural differences are accentuated between groups, and while such differences may be imagined, they become socially significant because they bind an ethnic group together. As the women described it, Latin pan-ethnicity was constructed by signalling the differences of Latin cultural values and characteristics in relation to Anglo-Australians, while at the same time overlooking the cultural differences between Latin Americans within and across national origin.

This paper has argued that the women’s construction of Latin pan-ethnicity was strategic: the women actively constructed a pan-ethnic Latin identity that gave them an added sense of pride and it was an identity that held special meaning for them. This paper has suggested that the construction of Latin pan-ethnicity may be linked to the small overall population of migrants from South and Central America in Australia. Rather than having the individual country-of-origin communities fracture into ‘little separate cultures’, as one participant put it, the construction of a pan-ethnic Latin culture rests on the idea of a ‘multicultural [Latin] community’ which unified Latin people together despite their differences. One woman said in reference to Anglo-Australian parties that she did not feel like she ‘fit in’ within a social space composed by Anglo-Australians. In light of this sense of misfitting, Latin pan-ethnicity becomes a vehicle for resisting assimilation with the Australian majority. Specifically, the women used the idea of Latin pan-ethnicity as a means to celebrate their difference to the majority group and to carve a wider space for themselves in Australian society where they could fit in with others whom they believed were more like themselves.

Notes

[i] Richard Jenkins, Rethinking Ethnicity: Arguments and Explorations, London, Sage Publications, 1997, p. 10, emphasis in original.

[ii] Jenkins, Rethinking Ethnicity, p. 14.

[iii] Fredik Barth, ‘Introduction’, in Fredik Barth (ed.), Ethnic Groups and Boundaries, Boston, Little, Brown and Company, 1969, pp. 9-39.

[iv] Jenkins, Rethinking Ethnicity, p. 12.

[v] Refer to Bennedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, revised ed., London, Verso, 1991.

[vi] Beryl Langer, ‘Globalisation and the Myth of Ethnic Community: Salvadoran Refugees in Multicultural States’, in David Bennett (ed.), Multicultural States: Rethinking Difference and Identity, London, Routledge, 1998, pp. 136-177.

[vii] Alejandro Portes and Dag MacLeod, ‘What shall I call myself? Hispanic Identity Formation in the Second Generation’, Ethnic and Racial Studies, 19:3, July 1996, pp. 523-547.

[viii] Zuleyka Zevallos, ‘“That’s my Australian side”: The ethnicity, gender and sexuality of young women of South and Central American origin’, Journal of Sociology, 39:1, March 2003, p.88.

[ix] Gillian Bottomley, ‘The second generation’, in Stephen Castles, et al. (eds) Australia’s Italians: Culture and Community in a Changing Society, Sydney, Allen and Unwin, 1992, pp. 155-156.

[x] Greg Noble, Scott Poynting and Paul Tabar, ‘Youth, ethnicity and the mapping of identities: strategic essentialism and strategic hybridity among male Arabic-speaking youth in South-Western Sydney’, Communal/Plural, April 1999, 7:1, pp. 29-44.

[xi] For a comparison regarding a previous study on Latin culture see Zevallos, ‘That’s my Australian side’.

[xii] Refer to Barth, ‘Introduction’.

[xiii] Zevallos, ‘That’s my Australian side’, p. 91. See also Langer, ‘Globalisation’.

CREDITS

Access the original publication as a PDF from the link below.
Citation for published article:
Zevallos, Z. (2005) ‘“Todos Somos Latinos”: Ethnic Identity Constructions of Second Generation Latin-Australian Women”, Journal of Iberian and Latin American Research 11(1): 141-149.

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