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More Sonoma County Latinos identify as white on U.S. Census form

Michelle Farkas, who is of mixed heritage including Hispanic, identified herself as white on the 2010 census form because she felt she had no other option.

(Christopher Chung / The Press Democrat)
Published: Saturday, January 26, 2013 at 3:00 p.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, January 26, 2013 at 3:00 p.m.

More than once, Michelle Farkas has received a text message from her son, asking her to verify his Mexican heritage. The 38-year-old administrative assistant is usually at work and her boy, now a senior in high school, is in class, sitting next to one or more doubtful students.

“I have to text him back to say, 'Yes, you're Mexican,' because he's very fair-skinned and people have not believed him — that he's any part Mexican at all,” she said.

Farkas, who was born with the name Gutierrez, understands. On her father's side, her grandfather was Mexican and her grandmother was half Mexican, half Portuguese. Her mother, who was born in Kansas, was of English and Scandinavian heritage.

As a child, other kids would always ask her “What are you?” Her facial features are similar to her father's, but she has green eyes.

“Even now, people want to know,” she said. “People don't ask as much now because I'm sure they think it would be rude.”

Such questions about race and heritage are likely to become more and more common in Sonoma County, where a growing number of Latinos — the county's fastest-growing population group — are identifying themselves as white on government census forms.

Nearly 61 percent of the county's estimated 116,000 Latinos identified themselves as white in a recently released Census Bureau survey, up from 41 percent in 2000.

The reason for the dramatic increase is unclear. Demographic researchers say that one reason could be the federal government's apparent insistence that people choose a race when filling out census forms. But some of the increase may come from the blending of cultures that occurs as people from different ethnic groups marry and have children.

Whatever the reason, the question of race can often be confusing for Latinos.

Farkas faced a dilemma when the Census Bureau asked her in 2010 to choose her race. A note on the 2010 Census form made it clear that “Hispanic origins are not races.” Farkas said the question seemed confusing and she marked “white” because she felt she had no choice.

For years, many anthropologists have argued that the question of race is an antiquated concept, rejecting racial categories as separate divisions within the human species. A 1998 statement by the American Anthropological Association states that DNA evidence shows there is more genetic variation within “racial” groups than between them.

For its part, the Census Bureau acknowledges that people's responses to the race question are based on “self-identification.” The Census Bureau states that its racial categories generally reflect race as it is defined socially in the United States.

The data is used by federal, state and local governments when considering issues such as civil rights, legislative redistricting, equal employment and health and environmental risk disparities.

But with the rapid growth of Latinos, many of whom are multi-ethnic and multi-racial, America's old race standards are becoming more and more obsolete.

“What's going on now is actually a breakdown of the concept of race,” said Francisco Vazquez, director of the Hutchins Institute for Public Policy Studies.

Vazquez said the country has moved well beyond the era when you could ask people whether they were black, white, Asian, or Native American and get definitive responses.

In an online survey, The Press Democrat asked Latino readers how they responded to the Census Bureau's question of race. Some said they ignored it, while others, like Farkas, said they marked white because they felt they had no other choice.

Their responses were as varied as their ancestral lineage. Many prefer an association with their heritage over a racial classification.

Santa Rosa plastic surgeon Francisco Canales said he can't remember how he responded to the race question on the 2010 Census form. Canales, whose mother was Mexican and father was Puerto Rican, said many Latin Americans have a rich, mixed heritage that “defies” Census Bureau classifications.

“Appearances can be deceiving,” Canales said in an email. “If one stuck to the categories you mention, most people would say I am 'white.' However, if you analyzed my DNA you would probably find around 37.5 percent black, 25 percent white, 25 percent Aztec, and 12.5 percent mutt.”

In Puerto Rico, where Canales grew up, most of his classmates were “all different shades of brown,” he said — including two who had Chinese parents and were born in Cuba, but grew up in Puerto Rico.

Justin Mendoza said he chose “some other race” because he considers the question a violation of his privacy. Mendoza, whose mother is “white from New York” and father is from Michoacán, Mexico, said he knows the government needs such data, but he thinks it's divisive.

“There are lots of people out there that are very racist,” Mendoza said. “The world isn't perfect and that's just one other way to control all of us.”

D'Vera Cohn, a senior writer at the Pew Research Center and former reporter for the Washington Post, said Latinos, more than any other group, defy racial categories.

“This mismatch between Hispanic self-identity and the race categories they are offered is one factor that has led the Census Bureau to engage in a major re-evaluation of how it asks Americans to describe their race and ethnicity,” Cohn said in an email.

One local resident, who asked that her name not be used, said she grew up in Santa Rosa and was constantly peppered with questions about her lineage. Her father's family was from Mexico and her mother's mother was from Nicaragua.

“I have light skin and didn't speak Spanish,” she said. “I felt like I wasn't Mexican enough for the Mexicans who teased me for having a (Spanish last name). People always needed an explanation after hearing my name. I suppose since then, I've always identified my race, and my children's, as white.”

She said the questions ended when she married a man with a Scandinavian last name. “I had a lot of pride in my Mexican heritage,” she said. “I think that's why I was so affected by the teasing. I felt like I always had to justify myself.”

Hector Delgado, 37, of Santa Rosa, said his paternal great grandparents came from Navarra, Spain in 1872 before they settled in San Luis Potosí. His mother's great grandparents also came from Spain.

But Delgado, who works as a coordinator for non-matriculation services at Santa Rosa Junior College, said his Spanish ancestors mixed with Mexico's indigenous population and he calls himself a “mestizo.”

Delgado said that many Latinos more easily identify with their country of origin than their race.

“Race/ethnicity is a hard topic to discuss among Latinos, as we all come from different backgrounds,” he said.

Farkas said she believes the years will dilute these racial standards.

“Obviously as there are more and more bi-racial couples and multi-racial families. This is becoming more commonplace and not as many kids are going around asking their friends about their looks,” she said.

(You can reach Staff Writer Martin Espinoza at 521-5213 or martin.espinoza@pressdemocrat.com.)

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