The Mexica Ballet Folclorico performs during Cinco De Mayo festivities on May 5, 2011, in Los Angeles. Cinco de Mayo celebrates the 1862 Mexican victory over the French in the Battle of Puebla. / Kevork Djansezian, Getty Images
As I finished an interview with a state senator in northern Florida, he suggested I try out a Mexican restaurant a few blocks away.
"You'll love it," he said. "Two blocks down, on the left."
I thanked him for the suggestion, but pointed out that I was of Cuban descent, not Mexican. He paused, gave me a quizzical stare and said, "Uh huh. Two blocks down, on the left."
When I had that conversation years ago, I thought his reaction was merely fodder for a funny story to tell my relatives back home in Miami. Over the years, though, I came to realize that the unwillingness of this well-educated man who worked in a statehouse filled with people from Puerto Rico, Cuba, Mexico and a slew of other Hispanic countries to recognize one Hispanic country from another was not an isolated mistake.
The United States government adopted the term "Hispanic" in the 1970s as a way to broadly define people from countries with Spanish origins (some definitions also include countries with Portuguese origins, namely Brazil).
While it has its uses when examining broad population patterns in the U.S., it has also become a lazy way for Americans to describe the more than 580 million people living to our south.
That vague term ignores the vast differences that exist among Hispanics from different countries. They grow up in different circumstances and in different cultures. They flourish and struggle in different economies, confront different kinds of crime and immigrate to the United States for different reasons.
Venezuelans and Cubans flee oppressive governments. Guatemalans, Hondurans and Salvadorans run from violent drug wars. Brazilians and Argentines choose to invest their fortunes in the American economy rather than their own. Mexicans, Nicaraguans and Peruvians want a job that will help them feed their families.
Even those descriptions grossly over-simplify the wide variety of reasons people leave their home countries. But they begin to explain just how varied our neighbors truly are.
Some cities have long histories with large Hispanic populations, leaving their residents more aware of the differences. But outside of places like Los Angeles, New York, Chicago and Miami, many Americans are just starting to understand.
"They tend to clump someone who speaks Spanish with tacos or soccer or Mexican food," said Fernand Amandi, a managing partner at Bendixen & Amandi International, a Miami-based communications and market research firm that has studied the Hispanic population throughout the U.S.
"More and more, as these communities assert themselves, there's greater appreciation for the nuances and the distinctions of the different Hispanics that make up the fabric of America."
Is this simply a game of political correctness? No. The distinctions matter. Imagine asking a British person about the nuances of Italian pasta. Or blaming a Frenchman for starting World War II. The differences can be profound and are critical as more and more Hispanics immigrate to, and start families in, the United States.
Hispanics are having profound and growing influence on elections, and how political parties respond to the distinctions among Hispanics will dictate their success. Immigration reform is currently one of the hottest topics on Capitol Hill, and a potential key issue for voters in this November's midterm elections. That influence will ultimately affect immigration policy, school curricula, health care, the economy and many other important issues we face each day.
Perhaps most importantly, as the Hispanic population continues to grow, your family in Nebraska or New York City is more likely to have a neighbor from Paraguay or Peru.
Understanding the basic idea of where they come from is a first step.
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Read the original story: Voices: 'Hispanic' is poor way to describe rich cultures