La Raza Defends its Name, Literally

Editor's Note: It's become popular on the Right to accuse organizations representing minority groups of racism. The logic is that the United States would be a post-racial society if people would stop being conscious of our differences. Therefore, those who expose racism in American society are supposedly the real racists. What's missing is that individual attitudes about race and structural racism are two separate things. Groups like the National Council of La Raza or the NAACP are primarily focused on fighting the latter, which is alive and well today, as anyone who's experienced it can attest. As this piece details, the controversy over the Latino rights organization 's name is the result of selective translation.

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The National Council of La Raza spends most of its time protecting and advancing the rights of Latinos through advocacy and community work. But as it wrapped up its convention in San Diego last week, it found itself defending its name.

That's because activists who oppose illegal immigration are saying in e-mails, during street protests and through the media that "La Raza" means "The Race," and have been calling the organization a hate group.

The accusations have prompted soul-searching among NCLR supporters as to what the name actually means and stands for. Most say the situation is the result of a word lost in translation.

In the past few days, organizers have addressed the issue at news conferences and on their Web site, where they explain their interpretation of the name.

"While it is true that one meaning of 'raza' in Spanish is indeed 'race,' . . . words can and do have multiple meanings," reads the statement. " 'La raza' means 'the people' or 'the community.'

"Translating our name as 'the race' is not only inaccurate, it is factually incorrect. 'Hispanic' is an ethnicity, not a race. . . . Hispanics can be and are members of any and all races."

Still, raza can mean different things to different people, even Spanish speakers. For some it means family and community, while for others it represents the language and customs of Latinos.

During a speech Sunday, Sen. Barack Obama described "la raza" as "big enough to embrace the notion that we are all part of a greater community."

"It's a very subjective term," said Bernardo Ferdman, a professor at the Marshall Goldsmith School of Management at Alliant University, who teaches about diversity in the workplace.

"The concept of race that people use in the United States is not the same as the one used in Latin America. People talk about the human race, the human races, and the race meaning the people, or el pueblo, so it has several meanings."

Several Latin American countries celebrate Oct. 12 as Dia de la Raza - Columbus Day in the United States - commemorating the beginning of a mixture between Spaniards and the native populations.

The interpretation of the term among protesters outside the convention center was that "raza" stood for exclusion and divisiveness.

"It's flat-out racism," said Dominique Harkay, who opposes illegal immigration. "If they want to change that perception, they should change their name."

The NCLR's president, Janet Murguía, has acknowledged that there have been conversations about changing the name. It has been difficult because of the name's historical weight, Murguía said.

The organization was born in 1968 under the name Southwest Council of La Raza during a time when Latinos had little social representation and their issues were mostly ignored.

Many members feel they should be true to their roots and stick with the name.
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