Latinx Connect Conference panel discusses Latinx and Afro-Latinx data, Civil Rights advocacy


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Sponsored by Pitt’s year of data and society, the 2021 Latinx Connect Conference featured the virtual panel “Latinx Data: Historical Civil Rights Advocacy and Contemporary Intersectional Insights” last Friday morning.

By Donata Massimiani, Staff Writer

Despite an increase of data on the Latinx community over the last five decades, Michael Rodríguez-Muñiz said scholars only recently started studying the accumulation of Latinx demographic data and its circulation in the media. 

“This data helps to inform — some might say disform — how this population is seen and seemingly understood,” Rodríguez-Muñiz, assistant professor of sociology and Latina/Latino studies at Northwestern University, said. “It influences self-identification, senses of community and enables and constrains diagnoses of the present and visions about the future.”

Rodríguez-Muñiz spoke at a virtual panel last Friday titled “Latinx Data: Historical Civil Rights Advocacy and Contemporary Intersectional Insights.” The panel — which was part of the 2021 Latinx Connect Conference and sponsored by Pitt’s Year of Data and Society — focused on the development of Latinx data and how it can be used to understand the Latinx and Afro-Latinx populations. Lisa Ortiz, an assistant professor of language, literacy and culture at Pitt, moderated the discussion.

Rodríguez-Muñiz said although the public routinely consumes Latinx data through media such as newspaper articles, lectures, public service announcements, reports and political speeches, there is still a lot to learn and understand about its historical origins, political conditions and social effects. 

“Traditionally, and still principally, academic researchers have used statistical data on Latinx populations as a source for analysis rather than an object of study in its own right,” he said. 

Rodríguez-Muñiz said he wanted to focus his presentation, “Data, Demographics and the Making of National Latino Civil Rights Advocacy” on the U.S. Civil Rights era. During that period, Latinx advocacy organizations and the decennial census developed more diversified Latinx data, according to Rodríguez-Muñiz. 

“Statistics became important because they came to be seen as a solution to the problem of invisibility, which was widely understood as a chief obstacle for empowerment and advancement, or dealing with disparities and inequities during that period,” he said. 

The lack of inclusion of Mexican-Americans in policy-making and public discourse frustrated Mexican-American predecessors of today’s national Latinx advocacy organizations, according to Rodríguez-Muñiz. He said Latinx advocates felt absent in the national conversation, and politicians and journalists only saw them as a marginalized and regional issue. 

“Advocates believed and argued that this condition, this notion that they were insignificant to the national story, was a condition that hindered their ability to call attention to the social, economic and political needs of the population,” Rodríguez-Muñiz said. 

To combat the issue of invisibility, Latinx advocates began to make demands to be included in the decennial census, according to Rodríguez-Muñiz. The U.S. Inter-Agency Committee on Mexican-American Affairs issued a recommendation to include a question asking about Spanish heritage. After constant pressure from Latinx advocacy organizations, the U.S. Census Bureau met these demands in the 1970 decennial census.

The Census Bureau gave out two forms in 1970, according to Rodríguez-Muñiz. The shorter of the two forms included demographic questions about the Latinx community, and the longer form included a few additional questions along with the demographic questions, but was only given to a sample of the population. He said it wasn’t until pressure from the new Nixon administration that the Census Bureau added a question on Spanish heritage on the longer form. 

Amalia Daché, an associate professor in the higher education division at the University of Pennsylvania, said the census is a primary source when looking at race and ethnic variables between different populations. During her presentation, “Cartographies of Afrolatinidad: Limits and Possibilities,” Daché discussed Afro-Latinx population demographics.

Daché uses geographic tools with census data to learn about cities and their educational access for Latinx populations. Daché said she learns about how this population engages their social environments and what institutions and resources are in their proximity through this information. 

“Geography is a major factor in understanding how Afro-Latinx people identify, their educational opportunities, their economic opportunities and their social mobility,” Daché said.

Daché said the Afro-Latinx population is very urban-centric and situated in many cities across the U.S. Afro-Latinx mapping demography has key differences to the mapping demography of the Latinx and African American populations. All three populations share a high concentration in the Northeast, but the Latinx and African American populations are also highly concentrated in the South. 

During the Question and Answer portion of the event, Ortiz read one attendee’s question which asked, “What are your thoughts on the proposal to collapse the Latino ethnicity questions with the race question on the census. Does it inevitably lead to invisibilizing Afro-Latinx’s as we’ve been talking about?” Daché said she thinks it’s important to ask more questions and acknowledge that the census is incomplete because the status of Latinx advocacy can not be based solely on these statistics. 

“When thinking about issues of resistance, qualitative data and the actual human experiences and stories of Afro-Latinx people are as important. These are not just quantifiable social problems, these are also qualitative problems and issues,” Daché said. “It’s not going to be the end all be all, but I do think there are ways where we can slice up these numbers to reflect the diversity of the Latinx group.” 

Rodríguez-Muñiz said through numbers and narratives, the Latinx population has been placed at the center of debate about ethno-racial demographic change. He added that demographics fueled by population politics greatly influence contemporary politics and policy making. 

“The current rhetoric about voter fraud, illegal immigration and redistricting shows this,” Rodríguez-Muñiz said. “Population politics, particularly among conservatives, made such issues demographic issues. We can’t afford to take racial population politics for granted.”