In the current presidential election in the United States, the “Latino vote” has been a central focus in the political debate. It could prove decisive, in fact, in electing the next president to the White House.

The estimates and projections made by organizations that have studied the Latino vote and the Latino electorate are mainly based on the U.S. Census Bureau data. The problem is that Latinos and Hispanics struggle with how to identify themselves on the census forms and in many cases they don’t even care.

Hugo Cartagena, a Colombian businessman who has lived in the US for more than 30 years, is dark-skinned and identifies himself as Hispanic.

“Everyone who speaks Spanish or comes from a country discovered by Spain is Hispanic. That’s the idea everyone has in here,” he explains.

Cartagena has two daughters. He says that because both were born in the US they are Americans, but they identify themselves as Hispanics, regardless of the color of their skins. One is white and the other one is dark-skinned.

According to the Pew Research Center, “Hispanics account for most of the growing number and share of Americans who check ‘some other race’ on the census form” and third-generation Hispanics are more likely to identify as “white.”

The vagueness of the terms Latino and Hispanic becomes more problematic when they are closely tied to politics.

Over the last decade, the number of Latino voters has steadily increased and their vote has been decisive in previous presidential elections, according to American experts on policy analysis. In 2000, Latino voters provided then candidate George Bush the margin of victory in states like Florida, one of the so-called battleground states. In 2012, the Latino vote helped President Barack Obama obtain the presidency, winning 75 percent of Latino voters nationwide.

The National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO) Educational Fund – an organization that tries to facilitate the participation of Latinos in the American political process – projects that about 13.1 million Latinos will cast ballots in the presidential elections in 2016, compared to about 11.2 million in 2012, and the eligible Latino electorate is expected to reach 27.3 million.

The existing gap between the number of Latinos who are eligible to vote and the Latinos who actually vote is an “enormous potential to increase the Latino electorate,” says Rosalind Gold, Senior Director of Policy, Research and Advocacy at NALEO.

Yet the Latino vote continues to be seen as a big and homogeneous block, with the terms “Latino” and “Hispanic” being used interchangeably by the media and political parties alike. Both the Republican and the Democrat political parties have failed to reach out to a community that speaks a different language and has a particular culture from the rest of Latin American countries: Brazilians.

“Brazilians are politically invisible. We don’t see ourselves reflected in the political system,” says Stephanie Mulcock, Executive Director of the community-based group Cidadão Global – the only non-profit organization in New York City advocating for Brazilian immigrants.

“They [Brazilians] are already feeling disconnected from their political system back home and now it would be a great time for them to feel connected to something, to be connected to a political party,” says Mulcock.

Stephanie Mulcock Executive Director of the community-based group Cidadão Global

In the recent years, the US has seen an increase in the numbers of Brazilians living in the country – from 325,547 in 2012 to 361,374 in 2015. Many have been forced to leave their home country as a result of an explosive combination of political turmoil and economic crisis.

The Brazilian community has been absorbed into the larger Latino community, hampering their ability to get access to services offered in New York, which are only offered in Spanish.

At the same time, the categories Latino and Hispanic, as defined in the questions about ethnicity and race on census forms, have failed to capture the specific identities of the communities that make up the broader group, such as Brazilians.

According to Mulcock, Brazilians are not included in the definition of Latinos and are not included in the definition of Hispanics either. “So you select “other” [on the census forms] and then write Brazilian in order to be counted as Brazilian, but not many people understand that dynamic,” she says.

In order to address the confusion in the question about race and ethnicity and reduce the number of people selecting the “some other race” box, the Census Bureau is planning to combine both questions into one in the 2020 census.

In the 2010 census, people were asked whether they identified as Hispanic or Latino (the ethnicity question) and then what racial group they identified with (the race question). The new question would ask “Which categories describe Person 1? Mark all boxes that apply AND print details in the spaces below.”

One version of the proposed combined race and ethnicity questions. Source: NALEO

Angelo Falcón, President of the National Institute for Latino Policy (NiLP), warns that this could result in the Latino electorate being even more under represented.

“You want to make sure that it doesn’t undercount Latinos. One of the problems they have found with the combining of the question is that it does affect negatively the smaller Latino groups, they don’t get counted as well.”

The results of the latest testing will come up at the end of this month.

Gold explains that the Census Bureau has carried out tests on the ethnicity and race questions in order to have the best data on the Latino community.

The challenge is that the Census Bureau needs to make sure that Latinos understand the questions, so they know they can select multiple identities as well as the national origin or subgroup they identify with.

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