I know what you’re thinking. Exactly what is the U.S. government’s definition of a person who is “Hispanic”? Come on, we’ve all wondered about it. Well, look no farther for edification.

The U.S. Office of Management and Budget first defined a Hispanic to be “a person of Mexican, Puerto Rican, Cuban, Central or South American, or other Spanish culture or origin, regardless of race.”

The U.S. Census Bureau included the term on its 1960 form, but this, the government’s initial attempt at a definition, wasn’t published until 1978.  Apparently, nobody was Hispanic before then.

Now, it’s far too easy to take shots at a nameless bureaucracy that pathetically attempts to corral the messy realities of the world. But I’m going to do it anyway.

The first thing we notice in this definition is the phrase “regardless of race.” This is problematic, because I thought we were talking about race. How can it be irrelevant when it’s the whole point?

Well, if you’ve ever worked for the U.S. Census Bureau (I did, as a teenager for one horrific summer, but that’s another post), you know that Hispanics are not considered a race. We are an ethnicity.

What does that mean? I really don’t know, because the only answer I’ve ever heard is “It’s political.” Perhaps a sociologist, cultural anthropologist, or government worker out there can clue us in (please post if you know the official answer, seriously).

Clearly, any attempt at defining a large group of people who come from vastly different cultures is doomed to be incomplete, sketchy, vague, and possibly insulting. But we need to cut the government some slack here. They have to define Hispanics. Otherwise, we would have no way to measure how badly we’re doing on the economic scale, and we would have no idea who’s being acknowledged during Hispanic Heritage Month (it’s in September, by the way).

Ultimately, perhaps you’re just Hispanic if you say you are. It’s not like there are any ceremonies to induct you into the lodge or anything (although that would be cool if there were).

As I mentioned in one of my first posts, many people would not consider me (I’m half-Anglo) to be Hispanic. So I should feel validated because I fit the government’s definition. After all, my family is originally from Central America.

But slipping easily into a government-built box means nothing, of course. Independent of some red-tape organism, all of us develop our own definitions and self-images and myths and creation stories – everything we need to say, “This is me.”