SAN FRANCISCO - The third largest racial group in Silicon Valley and California after Caucasians and Asians doesn't have a name, yet they number in the millions and are making a statistical mess of things. You could say they and the census officials trying to count them still have a failure to communicate, the Mercury News reports.
"That's right," said Gregory Rodriguez, a fellow at the New America Foundation think tank in Los Angeles and director of the Center for Social Cohesion at Arizona State University. "What we're seeing is the clash of racial systems."
He was talking about people who checked "some other race" on their 2010 Census forms. Demographers say the vast majority are Mexican-Americans and other Latinos who do not see themselves in the four, recognized racial groups: white, black, Asian/Pacific Islander or Native American/Alaska Native.
Instead, about 217,000 of them in Santa Clara County wrote in identifying terms such as "mestizo" or "Chicano." Or they simply wrote in their national origins, such as Mexican, Salvadoran or Puerto Rican, or the ethnic umbrella terms Latino or Hispanic, which are not racial terms at all.
At the same time, almost as many Latinos -- 210,000 -- declared their race as white, or Caucasian.
Coming from a smaller group, this internal racial division would be statistically insignificant. But Latinos make up more than a third of California's 37 million people. At 50 million, they are the nation's largest minority group. One in six Americans is Latino.
Among Latinos, Mexican-Americans are the largest group, and how they think about race is bound to affect, or even change, how America thinks about the hot-button issue. Several interviews with local Mexican-Americans reveal a common thread: When it comes to identity, race isn't that important. What's more important is culture and ethnicity -- and American citizenship.
"We don't obsess about race," said Cesar Juarez, a 24-year-old community organizer in San Jose who wrote "mestizo" on his census form.
He then described relatives who are so light-skinned they "look like Germans" and others so dark-skinned they could be Mexican Indians. With such a range in his family and community, Juarez said, his mestizo background never comes up.
Marcela Davison-Aviles would agree, but from another side of the Latino skin-color spectrum.
"I marked 'white' on my form," said the executive director of the Mexican Heritage Corp. in San Jose. "But to be honest about it, the default choice was white. It was uncomfortable."
As many Mexican-Americans, she explained, she comes from a racial and cultural melting pot that started in Mexico 500 years ago. Her ancestry includes some Mexican Indian blood, but it's thicker on the white side.
Meanwhile, Darcie Green marked yet another choice. She is a Latino woman who checked the racial box for Native American. A local school board member, Green's father is Native American and her mother is Mexican-American. Most days, nobody asks about her race, but she's occasionally criticized, even by friends, for holding on to her ethnic, Latino side.
"Pride in one's culture puts you on an equal standing," she said. "We're a young country. We're going to evolve on this issue many more times."
Nowhere is that evolution clearer than at the U.S. Census Bureau.
In the 1980 census, 95 percent of people who classified themselves as "other race" were Latinos. However, the bureau concluded these respondents had confused race with ethnicity and counted them as white. For the next national head count in 1990, the bureau took extra steps to clarify "other race." But 43 percent of Latinos nationally still went with a mestizo identity. So did 51 percent of California Latinos, who stated the same again in 2000. It had become clear that both immigration and racial intermarriage were challenging the country's Old World racial scheme.
In his 2007 book, "Mongrels, Bastards, Orphans and Vagabonds," Rodriguez noted that Latinos think of race in a social sense, not a genealogical one as most Americans do. Race is one way Latinos identify themselves, but it's fluid, with skin colors and facial features always changing from one generation to the next, especially within families.
For most of the nation's history, Rodriguez said, the American melting pot was defined by ethnic whites from Europe conforming to an Anglo mold. People of other races -- Native Americans, blacks and Asians -- were not invited. Latinos, however, came from a racial melting pot from the beginning.
Aaron Resendez, a neighborhood leader in East San Jose, saw the results growing up in Mexico.
"I can see this melting society in Santa Clara County as the history of Mexico 300 years ago," he said. But he also cautioned that the Mexican melting pot was just as fraught with discrimination and violence as the American experience, and both remain far from the ideal.
"If you have an Indian complexion," he said, "discrimination still exists."
If anything is certain, Rodriguez said, it's that Mexican-Americans already have changed how Californians and Arizonans talk about race and the tangled relationship between culture and citizenship. He doesn't expect the same in states with little or no newcomers from south of the border.
As Darcie Green, the Latino Native American put it, "It's not that one culture is better than the other or more valid than the other or more American than the other."