The author, Camille Garcia, and her freshman group in the National Hispanic Institute. Photo courtesy of Andrea Madeleine Medina.

Several political leaders, right-wing pundits, the presumptive Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump and others have put the Latino community on the defensive by perpetuating stereotypes that Latinos are undocumented, uneducated, lazy, blue collar criminals. To combat those stereotypes, some Latinos choose to assume a polar opposite, more “Americanized” identity, detached in many ways from traditional Latino culture.

I was reminded of my right to refuse to be reduced to any of these labels on Saturday as I sat on a panel for the local chapter of the National Hispanic Institute (NHI) to discuss the binary view of Latino identity in the U.S. with State Rep. Diego Bernal (D-123), local attorney and founder and co-owner of OCI Group Luis González and San Antonio Independent School District Deputy Superintendent Emilio Castro.

Latinos are the fastest growing minority group in the U.S. and we have every right to forge a different path for ourselves and our community that challenges the limitations society has placed in front of us for years. And we can do so while maintaining our culture, traditions, and values.

NHI was founded 36 years ago and fosters leadership and “community social entrepreneurship” among high school and college-aged Latino students across the country. I participated in the organization throughout my four years at Incarnate Word High School. My mentors in the program constantly challenged my peers and me to start discussions about the state of our local, national, and international Latino community. We envisioned how we could help our growing community thrive.

It was the first time in my life that I heard someone associate my culture with leadership.

On Saturday, my fellow panelists and I continued that dialogue with more than 100 high school freshmen from 25 different San Antonio schools, sitting in the UIW Mabee Library Auditorium.

(Author’s note: In the United States, there is often a dispute over the words “Hispanic” and “Latino” when used to define identity. While they are often used interchangeably to address the same population, they don’t technically mean the same thing. “Hispanic” was first used in the U.S. in the 1970s to collect census data about those from Mexico, Cuba and Central and South America. Later, in 2000, “Latino” came to the forefront as a way to define that same population as well as those of mixed ethnicity from Central and South America.

Generally, “Hispanic” now refers to those who are of Spanish-speaking ancestry, while “Latino” refers to those from any Latin American country. We didn’t discuss this idea on Saturday, but I felt it was important to note. Since I identify as Latina, I will continue to use Latina/o throughout this story.)

The main focus of the discussion was on the dichotomy often found in the identity of Latinos in the U.S. As the Latino population grows many young Latinos, including myself, struggle between assuming a more “Americanized” identity and maintaining our ethnic identities. Each “side” has complex cultural and traditional values – two very different ways of looking at the world.

These are distinct extremes, but it’s important to note that not every Latino feels they face a choice between them. There are as many “Latino identities” as there are Latinos.

More than 100 San Antonio high schoolers gathered for a panel hosted by the National Hispanic Institute. Photo courtesy of National Hispanic Institute-San Antonio.
More than 100 San Antonio high schoolers gathered for a panel hosted by the National Hispanic Institute. Photo courtesy of National Hispanic Institute-San Antonio.

What I learned in NHI was that part of being a leader in my community meant creating my own identity as a Latina, creating a “third space” in which to occupy in society. In my own space, I could be “Americanized,” “raza-centric,” both, or neither. The possibilities are endless. Creating that space allows me to challenge the limited societal roles I’ve been offered as a Latina throughout history. It allows me to ask who created those roles and why, and examine why I feel I need to adhere to one or the other.

Creating this “third space” essentially means defining who we are, individually, as 21st century Latinos. Could our definitions of who we are as individuals be a compromise between the “Americanized” and more ethnic identities? This is not necessarily a new idea, but it’s one I think this new generation of leaders should more actively consider.

Talking about identity in this way at the panel was insightful. But simply having that discussion, especially with the group of 14 and 15 year-old leaders of our Latino community, was important and inspiring. If any of them are like me, their process of self-discovery throughout high school and college – since 98% of NHI alums attend college – will bring them back to these discussions about leadership. They’ll hopefully be reminded, like I was on Saturday, how important it is to foster these discussions with each other, so that we can continue to grow and change as leaders, just as our communities change.

We must continue to examine societal norms as they relate to our changing community because that is the very function of new generations. We must actively create space for ourselves which will in turn create opportunities for our community. If we don’t, then it’s that much easier to fall into the limited mold society has made for us, against our will. I am grateful that NHI provides this opportunity for high school and college youth of all backgrounds across the country. And, yes, non-Latinos can participate in NHI.

A fellow panelist and friend, Luis González, was one of my first NHI mentors when I was a freshman. On Saturday, he told the group that most historical social movements – like the Chicano movement – in the 1960s and 1970s were led by people between the ages of 15 and 25. Generations before us banned together to begin inserting more Latinos into public office, schools boards and other leadership positions.

Our identities and values may be similar to generations before us, but as the world around us has evolved, our community has began to make even bigger strides in the artistic, political and educational realms on the local and national level.

Across the nation, the number of Latino high school dropouts decreased and the number of Latinos enrolled in two or four-year colleges increased. In San Antonio, artists and activists recently came together to shed light on the inequity of funding in the city for Latino artists. Latino representation is becoming more important and first-generation college students will only perpetuate that trend.

Latinos make up 17% of the U.S. population, but it’s projected that by the year 2060 – when Saturday’s high school freshmen are middle-aged – they will make up nearly 29% of the population. I’m confident that by then, through the dedication and creativity of our leaders, society will have no choice but to respect the “third space” of all Latinos, and any other spaces we create for ourselves.

We are the new generation of Latino leaders and, despite the rhetoric and wall-building threats, we’re not going anywhere.

Top image: The author Camille Garcia and her freshman group in the National Hispanic Institute. Photo courtesy of Andrea Madeleine Medina.

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Camille Garcia is a journalist born and raised in San Antonio. She formerly worked at the San Antonio Report as assistant editor and reporter. Her email is