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WHAT ARE YOU? -- Trying to answer the United States' most asked question is not always easy
What are you?
--Trying to answer the United States' most asked question is not always easy

by

One of the Lusiads

January 4, 2001


Just like every other resident of the United States, I am forced to answer the most-asked question in the country on a regular basis: "What is your ethnic background?" Well, I am Portuguese. Since I live in the United States, I am a Luso-American. For those of you who are not familiar with the Portuguese culture (and that would be most of you), you must be confused. Why "Luso-American" and not "Portuguese-American"? In reality, both terms are used, mostly because most Americans are not aware of the fact that Portuguese people have always been called "Lusos." It is also because of this fact that people who speak Portuguese are called "Lusophonic." Why is that? If you don't know, then you must be one of those people who assume Portuguese people are Spanish or Hispanic, or even Russian. People in Lisbon, Portugal Yes, you read it right -- Russian.

I have been living in the United States for twelve years, and whenever people ask me what my background is and I tell them that I'm Portuguese, they usually have a variety of reactions. Among some of the questions that are asked following my response is: "Is that like Spanish?" Or, "Oh, Portuguese! The Spanish you guys speak is different, right?" And the most common question: "Portuguese? So you're from... from... from where?" The reactions I "enjoy" the most are the ones that people have whenever they hear me speak Portuguese. Besides the usual "What language is that?," I have been asked questions like "Is that Russian?" or even "You speak German?" So therefore, according to all these people, a Portuguese person is a Hispanic who speaks a different Spanish that is actually a little Russian or German. All of these could not be farther from the truth.

In the United States, the most ethnic diverse country in the world (the "melting pot"), it is only natural that people ask others about their ethnic background. However, that shows that although everyone promotes equality, we are always being reminded that we are all different. Our "differences" seem to be important. They sure are important to the government. Why else would the "race/ethnicity" question be included in the Census? Well, accoring to the Census Bureau, the race/ethnicity question is there
"for the implementation of a number of federal statutes such as the enforcement of bilingual election rules under the Voting Rights Act and the monitoring and enforcement of equal employment opportunities under the Civil Rights Act."
Fine. OK then, but the terms used to define the races and ethnicities are confusing, not to say innacurate. Whatís an "African-American"? We all know it refers to the black population in the country, but isnít Egypt in Africa? Isnít an Egyptian-American an "African-American"? Most Egyptians are not black/negroid. Arenít there "white" people in Africa? (South Africa has many of them). Even "white" is a term that gets everyone confused. Some people consider a "white" person to be an Anglo-Saxon. That leaves out most Europeans such as the Italians, the Greeks, the Portuguese, the French, the Spaniards, or even the Nordic people. Others think "white" means "European." Everyoneís confused. No one can find the "perfect" term for all the races and ethnicities. However, the biggest confusion seems to be involving the term "Hispanic." The most ignorant view of a "Hispanic" is that it means someone Spanish-speaking "of a mixed race coming from North, Central, or South America." Well, "Hispanic" is not a race. "Hispanic" defines a culture. What exactly is a "Hispanic" culture? Well, that depends on which definition of the word you take, or simply, make up.

What's a Hispanic?
The word "Hispanic" comes from "Hispania" -- the name of the Iberian Peninsula at the time of the Roman Empire. (For those really ignorant, the Iberian Peninsula is located in southwestern Europe, and it is the land where the countries of Portugal and Spain are located). Therefore, at the time of the Roman Empire, anything from what is now known as the Iberian Peninsula was called "Hispanic" (there was no such thing as the country of Portugal or Spain at that time, although the peninsula was divided by the Romans into several regions). It makes sense doesnít it? Anything from "Hispania" is "Hispanic"!!!!!!!! However, if youíll remember your history class, the Roman Empire came to an end. Eventually, "Hispania" stopped being "Hispania" and was called "Iberia" (a name derived from the name of the first inhabitants of the peninsula), until the present. Over the years, Iberia was home to many different groups of people -- from the Celts, to the Phoenicians, to the Germanic Visigoths and Suevi, to the Romans, to the Moors. It was home to several kingdoms. Among them, the kingdom of Castile (which eventually became Spain), the kingdom of Aragon, the kingdom of Leon, the kingdom of Portucale (which eventually became Portugal). All these kingdoms rose and fell throughout the years. People spoke different languages, had different cultures and different backgrounds. Jumping a few years, what is now Portugal was founded in 1139. Over 350 years after that, what is now Spain was founded. Spain was formed by the grouping of two Iberian kingdoms. When they got together, they needed a name for this new "union." "Letís see," the people thought, "what shall we call our new joined land?" Thinking back to the Roman Empire, they remembered that Iberia was called "Hispania." "Perfect!," they thought. Theyíd call themselves "EspaŮa," after the word "Hispania"! Of course Portugal was not too happy with this decision because after all, what was now Portugal used to be part of Hispania as well. Thatís certainly understandable. Letís imagine for a second that now Germany and Austria decided to get together for example, and decided to call themselves something like "Europa," after the word "Europe," and their inhabitants "European"? Iím sure all the other countries in Europe would not like it very much. But "EspaŮa" it was. Spain thought: "Who cares! Portugal will eventually become part of Spain anyway." Well, after numerous invasions in Portugal, Portugal is still Portugal and Spain is still Spain. Theyíre still two different countries, which have developed two separate cultures, speaking different languages, and which, despite their similar Iberian roots, are different. Therefore, the word "Hispanic" as used in Europe since that time, became a word used to describe something "of or related to Spain, or Spain and Portugal." Using fourth grade reading skills, we are able to understand that it means something related ONLY to Spain or to both Spain and Portugal TOGETHER, as in "IBERIAN," and NEVER to Portugal by itself. In Portugal, the word is now used to describe something relating to Spain or the Spanish-speaking countries, or to something Iberian from the Roman Empire. They also sometimes describe the Peninsula, when speaking of its past, as the "Hispanic Peninsula," meaning the peninsula named "Hispania." They'd never say Portuguese people are Hispanic because after centuries of fighting the Spaniards, and being their rivals, it would be almost an insult to the individuality of their culture, or simply, something innaccurate.

What do the dictionaries say?
In the United States most dictionaries only define "Hispanic" as being "of or related to Spain." There is, however, one dictionary that defines the word as meaning "relating to or derived from the speech or culture of Spain or of Spain and Portugal." That dictionary is Webstersí. Again, using those fourth grade reading skills, it means "relating to Spain," or Iberia as a whole. In the United States, the word "Hispanic" has evolved into something different. In the United States, it is used to describe all the Spanish-speaking immigrants and their descendants. The term "Hispanic" as used in the USA is someone whose background is in Spanish-speaking countries. The "historical," or "original" definition of the word has been lost, and now it has become a "new word." The book 20th Century Words -- The Story of the New Words in English over the last 100 years by John Ayto (Oxford University Press, 1999), which defines "new" words that developed in the 20th century, states that "Hispanic" is a "new" word developed in the United States in the 1970s as meaning "Someone Spanish-speaking. Applied especially to someone of Latin American descent living in the US." Regardless of what definition is used (the original as meaning "relating to Spain, or Spain and Portugal" or the American as meaning simply "relating to Spain"), we are able to see that Portuguese people are NOT defined as Hispanic. That is, as a Portuguese person, I am not "related to or derived from the culture of Spain or of Spain and Portugal." Iím related to or derived from the culture of Portugal alone Ė- NOT of BOTH Spain and Portugal. "Hispanic" is just another word that has lost its original meaning and that has developed a new one. Another example is the word "Indian." It originally meant someone from India. However, we all know it eventually also became used to describe the natives of the Americas. Now it has both of those definitions. "Roman" also originally was someone from the Roman Empire (which, by the way, included the Portuguese). Now it of course only means someone from the city of Rome, or something dating from the time of the Roman Empire. "Hispanic" is just another one of those words. That is, the "new" Hispanic doesn't come from the word "Hispania." It comes from "EspaŮa" -- Spain. Again, fourth grade skills: HiSPANic/ESPANa.

Is the US government confused?
The US government perhaps should read a book. Perhaps the one by John Ayto, 20th Century Words -- The Story of the New Words in English over the last 100 years. Thatís because it is totally confused about what exactly Portuguese people are. The definition of the word "Hispanic" as used by the White House, clearly shows that the Portuguese are not to be considered Hispanic. It defines "Hispanic" as "a person of Mexican, Puerto Rican, Cuban, Central or South American or other Spanish culture or origin, regardless of race." The Census Bureau also advised that the Portuguese should not choose "Hispanic" in the census. Therefore, when filling out the Census, the Portuguese should pick "not of Hispanic origin" in the ethnicity question just like all other non-Hispanics, and "white" in the race question, since "white" people are to be defined as people "having origins in any of the original peoples of Europe, North Africa, or the Middle East." (Again, many people may define "white" differently.)
However, not all departments of the government seem to agree with the White House on how to classify the Portuguese culture. In the Library of Congress for example, Portuguese culture is located under the "Hispanic Division." Portuguese-American Congressman Tony Coelho is listed under the "Hispanic-Americans in Congress" section. Uh... I see a little confusion. They seem to be living during the times of the Roman Empire. What I tell the Library of Congress is that if they are going to put Iberian cultures together (reasonable, since they share a lot of history), then they should change the name to "Iberian Division." The Portuguese and the Spaniards are also similar culturally (notice I wrote "Spaniards" and not "Hispanics," since the Portuguese have a culture as different from the Latin American Hispanics as they do from the French or Italians or Egyptians or Indians). However, the Portuguese and the Spaniards are not the same people. The Spaniards call the Portuguese people, "nuestros hermanos," and the Portuguese call them, the Spaniards, "os nossos irm„os," both meaning "our brothers." However, again, they are not exactly the same people. As much history and background as they share, the Portuguese people have a background that makes them different from the other Iberian groups. In fact, a study published in the magazine Immunogenetics showed that the Portuguese population has stayed relatively isolated in the last few thousand years which makes them unique from the rest of the Iberian population. This is a conclusion based on a study made by the University of Coimbra in Portugal and the University of Madrid in Spain.
What exactly are the Portuguese?
The Portuguese are said to be the descendants of the Lusitanians, a Celticized group of people who settled in the western part of the Iberian Peninsula, which is now Portugal and the Spanish province of Galicia. It was also in this area that the Portuguese language was born, and no, it is not a Spanish dialect. The Lusitanians, Lusiads, or Lusitani, have left their mark on the Portuguese and Galician people until today (in their folklore, way of life, etc.). In fact, the web site celtic.net, names both Portugal and Galicia as being "Celtic countries." For those of you who know nothing about Portugal, this may be news for you. But in fact, Portugal's first hero is a man named Viriato, who was a Lusitanian who fought the Romans when they invaded the area of what is now Portugal. Although he was killed and the Romans did eventually take over, Portuguese people consider him to be a national hero to this day. The Lusitanians remained in what is now Portugal, even during the Roman occupation. In fact, Portuguese people were still called "Lusitanians" or "Lusiads," and the new "Roman" province kept its name of Lusitania. When Portugal grew with its exploration of the world, Portugal's great poet Luis Caműes wrote the epic story about the Portuguese discoveries called The Lusiads. This is Portugal's most famous and most studied literary work. This explains why Portuguese-Americans are called "Luso-Americans," and Portuguese-speakers are called "Lusophonic." The Lusitani are just an example that shows that although Portugal and the Portuguese have always had close ties to Spain and the Spaniards, and do share a lot of culture, there have been differences since the beginning. The culture of what is now Portugal has always been somewhat distinct since the beginning. This is also reflected on the Portuguese and Castillian ("Spanish") languages. They are very similar, but there are also a number of great differences, which are explained by the history of the countries and the evolution of the languages.

The Portuguese Language: "Is that, like, Russian Spanish?"
At the time of the Roman occupation, Portuguese people spoke Romance and Latin, which are the basis of the Portuguese language. So no, Portuguese is not a "different Spanish." Portuguese and Castilian (or "Spanish") evolved separately from Latin. Modern Portuguese was born in the north of Portugal and Galicia. The language was originally called "Galician-Portuguese." The similarities between Portuguese and Spanish are due to the fact that they both come from Latin, just like Italian, Romanian, and French, and both evolved in the same area of the world. However, numerous words evolved differently, and Portuguese has several words closer to French and Italian, than to Castilian. Words such as "rua" or "bom" ("street" or "good") are more similar to the French "rue" and "bon" than to the Castilian/Spanish "calle" and "bueno." The word for "son" ("filho") is different from the Spanish "hijo," but similar and pronounced just like the Italian "figlio." In fact, the Portuguese language uses a lot of nasal sounds like in French and the letter "j" is pronounced as in French, not like in Spanish. So as you can see, although Portuguese and Castilian (Spanish) are the most similar of the Romance languages, the Portuguese language has similarities to all the other Romance languages as well, and some major differences from Castilian.

Disrespect towards an entire culture
Throughout the centuries Spain has tried to claim Portugal. There have been several battles, and Portugal has several "heroes" for defeating the Spanish. Monuments in Portugal commemorate Spanish losses and Portuguese victories. Dozens of castles were built throughout the Portuguese border with Spain, to keep it from invading. The Portuguese have throughout their history tried to maintain their separate identity, and kept Spain away. Having the Portuguese-Americans labeled "Hispanic" is a disrespect to their culture and history. The Portuguese point out that Portugal is not Spain because in fact, Portugal was Portugal before Spain was Spain (Portugal was founded in 1139, and Spain only three centuries later). Most Europeans never confuse the Portuguese with the Spanish, but the Americans do. After all, Hispanics are becoming the US's largest minority, so for the Americans, someone who isn't Italian, German, British, African, or Asian, must be Hispanic.

Is Latin and Latino the same thing?
When I tell people I'm not Hispanic, they ask me if I consider myself to be Latino, and the answer to that question is also no. A "Latino" is someone from Latin America (according to everyone's new definition of the word). Portugal is in Europe. I am, however, Latin. Latin is defined as "denoting those peoples using languages derived from Latin, as Spanish, Portuguese, French, Italian, or Romanian," or "a member of any of the Latin peoples." This is the definition given in the Random House Dictionary. Is an Italian-American a "Latino"? No. An Italian is "Latin," not "Latino." The same goes for the Portuguese. What does the White House have to say about the "Latino" term? Here it goes:

The term, 'Latino,' includes a diverse group of people from many national origins, races, and backgrounds. Some understand the term, 'Latin' or 'Latino' to include Europeans such as Italians, French, Portuguese, Romanians, and Spaniards. Cognitive research by the Census Bureau indicates some understand 'Latino' as meaning from Latin America, 'Hispanic' as meaning someone who speaks Spanish, and 'of Spanish origin' as someone from Spain or with a distant relative who was Hispanic.

Therefore, because Brazilians, which speak Portuguese, are Latin-American, and therefore "Latinos," the Portuguese people are sometimes included in the definition of the word. Just like the word "Hispanic," "Latino" has gained a new definition. In the Spanish, Portuguese, or Italian languages, the word "Latino" means Latin, but now in the US, once again, they're getting new definitions. Italian-Americans would say they are Latin, but not Latino. Well, until recently they were both the same thing. The "Latin Grammy Awards" shows that this is not the case anymore. To them, even Latin means simply "Latin-American." It only gives awards to Spanish and Portuguese-language music, meaning Spanish-speaking Latin American countries, and Brazil. They also forgot that Latin-America also includes French-speaking Haiti. Latin-America is defined as "the countries of the Western Hemisphere south of the United States, especially those speaking Spanish, Portuguese, or French." (The American Heritageģ Dictionary of the English Language: Fourth Edition. 2000.) Therefore, if the Latin Grammys is for Latin American music, it must include Haiti. If it is for Latin Music, then it should include music from Portugal, Italy, and France as well. This awards show is a great example of the confusion in this country, and of the freedom people have to create new definitions for words.

Will the confusion continue?
Of course this confusion about terms and classifications will continue, as people are free to make their own definitions. The confusion will certainly go on towards the Portuguese. Some Universities include "Luso/Lusophonic Studies" (Portuguese Studies) under "Hispanic Studies," sometimes when even KNOWING itís wrong!!!!!!! The University of Manchester, for example, admits on their web site that the term "Hispanic" "excludes the Portuguese-speaking (or Lusophone) peoples. However, within the University of Manchester, Hispanic Studies is considered to embrace the cultures of both the Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking worlds, and it is in this wider sense that the term is used in this Guide." Does it make sense to you? Not to me. By doing so, then European universities can also study American history under the name "Mexican Studies," and simply write on the web site that "Mexican Studies" "excludes the people from the United States. However, within the University of Manchester, Mexican Studies is considered to embrace the cultures of both the Mexican and American worlds, and it is in this wider sense that the term is used in this Guide." Portuguese people are being blended into a group that has nothing to do with them. Portuguese people sing fado, dance rancho, drink Port Wine and eat Caldo Verde. We donít dance Flamenco like the Spaniards or Salsa or Merengue like the Latin American Hispanics. We donít eat the same food, we donít speak the same language. Although all Hispanic countries also naturally have their own customs, food, and traditions, they are at least all linked by a common language, and the Spanish past. A culture is defined by its language, customs, food, and art. Which of these do the Portuguese have in common with the Hispanics? None. Because we're historically linked, and because Portugal is surrounded by Spain on two of its sides, and even because Brazil, which speaks Portuguese, is also surrounded by Spanish-speaking countries, the Portuguese and Lusophonic cultures will always be associated with the Spanish/Hispanic. Big companies investing in Brazil for example, will invest in its Spanish-speaking neighbors and vice versa. Companies investing in either Portugal or Spain, will always think of the neighbor to the side. That's inevitable, and that's acceptable. It is only natural to think of both cultures as similar or related. "Associated with" is different from "are like." What can not be tolerated is this complete dismissal of a unique culture that has been developed over centuries, and blend it with a different one, when it comes to "classifying" them. There can never be a term to describe both cultures as one. Until more Portuguese speak up and correct the ignorant, we will be "the ones speaking a different Spanish with a Russian accent." However, I know who I am. I'm one of the Lusiads. I belong to a group of people who started out as Celtic, eventually also became Roman, Visigoth, Moorish, and more. I belong to Portugal -- separate from Spain since the beginning, despite the different invasion attempts. So you just know that we, the Portuguese, the Lusiads, have a distinct culture, and are "herois do mar, nobre povo, naÁ„o valente, e imortal." If you don't know what that means, then look it up in a dictionary -- but NOT a Spanish one...


Obrigado! (that means Thank You in Portuguese... No, it's not Gracias...),

One of the Lusiads