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Sociology Professor Chronicles Rising Latino Culture


Clara Rodriguez, Ph.D., says that all immigrants are welcomed when the economy is expanding. When the economy begins to contract, they are often scapegoated.
Photo by Patrick Verel

Already the largest minority group in the United States, Latinos will be an even bigger presence in the years to come, according to demographic studies. Clara Rodriguez, Ph.D., professor of sociology in Fordham College at Lincoln Center, is making sure their stories are told.

Through 10 books, dozens of papers and consulting projects with Dora the Explorer and Sesame Street, Rodriguez has developed a deep knowledge about a group that now accounts for 15 percent of the population.

Her analyses of United States census data have resulted in papers such as “Contestations Over Classifications: Latinos, the Census and Race in the United States” (Journal de la Société des Américanistes, 2009) and “Implications and Impact of Race on the Health of Latinos,” a chapter in Health Issues in Latino Males: A Social and Structural Approach (Rutgers University Press, 2010).

As part of her study of census data, Rodriguez cast a critical eye on racial classifications in the decennial censuses. Examining how respondents who identified themselves as Hispanic or Latino reported their race, she found that 40 percent chose “some other race,” and many of them wrote in what is known as a Latino identifier, such as Dominican, Panamanian or Chicano.

This happened in the last three decennial censuses, despite the fact that the census allowed them to choose more than one racial category in the last census.

“People who could choose more than one race didn’t choose white and black; they still chose the category ‘some other race.’ This 40 percent has increased—I think this time it was 42 percent—even though the Census Bureau has really tried to discourage this response,” she said.

“This raises the question, ‘What is race?’ Science was raising that question. Children of mixed-race families were raising that question. So are people from all over the world who came here with very different identities and are now being folded into one of our five major groups.”

In a recent work titled “Does Race and National Origin Influence the Hourly Wages That Latino Males Receive?” Rodriguez and her colleagues Grigoris Argeros and Mike Miyawaki examined 2000 census data to determine whether Latinos who say they are white are better off in socioeconomic terms than Latinos who say they are black.

The regression analysis did find that both black Latino males and those who reported they were “some other race” had lower hourly wages than did Latinos who reported they were white.

She noted that her investigations into Latinos and race are relevant because racism is not just an American phenomenon; it exists in Latin America and other countries as well.

“You don’t know what color people are when they say they’re ‘some other race.’ My more qualitative analyses show that all kinds of colors and types choose the ‘some other race’ category.

“In some cases, that choice represented an acknowledgement of mixture. By choosing ‘some other race,’ people were saying, for example, ‘I’m very proud of my black ancestry or my Indian ancestry,’” she said.

“But in other cases, it was a political decision. In still other cases, it represented a different understanding of what race is,” she said. “They didn’t see themselves as white in the way other people in the United States might see themselves as white.”

Rodriguez is also active in several national organizations. She serves on the U. S. Postal Service’s Citizen’s Advisory Committee, which selects the images that appear on postage stamps; was elected to the governing council of the American Sociological Association (ASA); and accepted a board position in the National Council of La Raza (NCLR), the country’s largest national Hispanic civil rights and advocacy organization.

The opportunity to sit on the Citizen’s Advisory Committee was unexpected, but Rodriguez said it intrigued her, given her interest in imagery. That interest was reflected in a number of works, including her recent book: Heroes, Lovers and Others: The Story of Latinos in Hollywood(Smithsonian Books, 2004).

“That committee brings together folks who have a lot of interest in history and American studies, and designers and art directors,” she said. “It’s a fascinating experience, to be talking with people about ideas and then to see these ideas produced artistically.”

Working with the ASA and La Raza have likewise given her a window into larger social and political issues affecting not just Latinos, who are projected to hit the 100-million mark in the United States by the end of the century, but other groups as well.

“Being on the NCLR board makes me very aware of the opportunities and tensions that are part of being the largest and fastest-growing group,” she said. “In studying immigration over the years, I know that immigrants—and this is true of all immigrants, now and in the past —are welcomed when the economy is expanding. When the economy begins to contract, they are not welcomed and are often scapegoated. That’s exactly what’s going on now.”

In the future, Rodriquez plans to examine the representations of Latinos on prime time television and to also investigate issues of race/ethnicity globally.

Occasionally, her intellectual curiosity takes her outside her main areas of research. In The Culture and Commerce of Publishing (Stanford Business Books, 2006), which she co-wrote with Albert N. Greco and Robert M. Wharton, she developed new insights into the innerworkings of a business very much in flux.

Since then, her research has returned to her main interest.

“My work has generally focused on the Latino population in the United States. But I’ve examined them through many lenses. I’ve done media; I’ve done a lot on the census, education, public policy, labor force issues and more. I love the breadth of my work,” she said.


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