What's in a Name? The Meaning of "La Raza"

By Jerry Kammer on January 7, 2015

One of the fascinating things about the study of immigration policy is that it often brings up seemingly straightforward facts from which differing groups draw dramatically different interpretations, thereby making it difficult to establish a basis for civil dialogue.

For example, consider the interpretation of the term "la raza" that Janet Murguia, president and CEO of the National Council of La Raza, provided recently to Brian Lamb of C-SPAN. Then consider less benign interpretations that have shadowed the organization.

Here is the Lamb-Murguia exchange:

Lamb: I noticed that "La Raza" is interpreted several different ways in English.

Murguia: That's correct. It has many interpretations, as many words do here. But our interpretation of it is as of community and representing the people. And so for us it has been a long, well understood term within the Latino community to represent community. And we basically have used that word "community" as really one of our values, moving forward. It's a very inclusive term and one that we think represents the work that we do at the National Council of La Raza.

Lamb: When does it mean race?

Murguia: Well, it can mean race if someone wants to attribute it in another context as race. But as we embrace that term to represent the organization and it's work and really our history in this country, it has been to represent a voice for the Hispanic Americans in this country and to really represent our mission, which is to create opportunities for everyone, including the Latino community, and to open the doors to the American dream for those who are seeking it.

I think it's fair to point out Murguia's organization provides a less inclusive description of itself. Its website declares: "The National Council of La Raza (NCLR) — the largest national Hispanic civil rights and advocacy organization in the United States — works to improve opportunities for Hispanic Americans."

In her conversation with Lamb, Murguia was talking about the connotations, the emotional resonance, that "la raza" holds for her and many of her supporters. But it is also fair to point out that there is a great distance between those connotations and the definition provided by respected dictionaries like my Collins Spanish Dictionary, which defines "raza" as: "race, breed, strain, stock". It goes on to explain that the phrase "raza blanca" means "white race", "raza negra" means "black race", and "raza humana" means "human race".

Connotations have to do with what Stephen Colbert calls "truthiness" — how things feel in our gut. They are subjective. Definitions have to do with objective attempts to understand. They are supposed to be based in fact, not emotion.

Here is an excerpt from a 2010 CIS Backgrounder that takes a look at the political evolution of "la raza".

The Chicano movement embraced the ideology of Mexican intellectual Jose Vasconcelos, who wrote that the joining of the indigenous people of Latin America and the Spanish conquistadors was producing "la raza cosmica", the cosmic race. As Chicano nationalism surged in the 1960s, the movement embraced it. Scholars Guillermo Lux and Maurilio E. Vigil wrote: "Vasoncelos developed a systematic theory which argued that climatic and geographic conditions and mixture of Spanish and Indian races created a superior race."

"La raza" was a source of pride for many Latinos, the most militant of whom adopted the motto: "Por la raza todo, fuera de la raza nada" — "For the race, everything, outside the race, nothing." But it drew resistance from many leaders who sought a place for their people within the broader American society. Cesar Chavez was one of the most outspoken critics.

"I hear about la raza more and more," Chavez told biographer Peter Matthiessen. "Some people don't look at it as racism, but when you say 'la raza,' you are saying an anti-gringo thing, and our fear is that it won't stop there. Today it's anti-gringo, tomorrow it will be anti-Negro, and the day after it will be anti-Filipino, anti-Puerto Rican. And then it will be anti-poor-Mexican, and anti-darker-skinned Mexican."

U.S. Rep. Henry Gonzalez (D-Texas), a liberal Democrat, attacked the formation of the Chicano Movement party, La Raza Unida, as "reverse racism. ... as evil as the deadly hatred of the Nazis." Denouncing what he called "the politics of race", he said, "Only one thing counts to them, la raza above all."

In recent years, as the NCLR has gained prominence in the political mainstream, its name has caused strains even within the organization. While some Mexican-Americans say they have adopted the term "la raza" without embracing its militant connotations, others have been uncomfortable with an organization whose very name emphasizes racial identity.

Janet Murguia acknowledged the difficulty in 2008 to columnist Ruben Navarrette, Jr., who criticized the name as "a musty throwback to the 1960s".

"We take a lot of heat for our name," Murguia said, acknowledging that there had been discussions about changing it. "But historically I think it's something that our community feels wedded to."

When we consider the multi-layered complexity and controversy of "la raza", it is no wonder that Janet Murgia, who is a woman of good will working in a tough political environment, often refers to her organization by its initials, calling it simply "NCLR". And it's no wonder that more militant Latinos express their advocacy for illegal immigration by shouting, "Viva la Raza!"