RIVERDALE - With dirty-blond hair and hazel eyes, Oscar Bonilla is called guero - Spanish for "blond" or "fair-skinned" - by customers at La Central music and video store. But his race is less easily defined.
"I look white, completely white," says Bonilla, 21, who was born in El Salvador but raised in nearby Montgomery County. "But the first thing I would call myself is Hispanic. My race? I don't really think about it."
Like nearly 15 million Latinos in 2000, Bonilla would identify himself as "some other race" on the U.S. Census. A new study from the Pew Hispanic Center, called Shades of Belonging, analyzed the 2000 data and found complex racial attitudes within the nation's largest minority group - attitudes that speak to how successful American immigrants perceive themselves to be in both fitting in and getting ahead.
The study, which combined data with nearly 3,000 interviews, revealed striking differences between the two most popular categories. Hispanics who think of themselves as "white" are better educated, earn more and are more likely to vote Republican than Hispanics who identified themselves as "some other race."
"One thing that has been clear since the 2000 Census came out is we knew that the race categories didn't fit that well for Latinos," says Sonya Tafoya, a research associate at the center. "So what we wanted to get at was the reasoning for people to chose 'some other race.' Was there a pattern?"
The findings solidify a suspicion Tafoya had long ago: Hispanics who chose white seemed to convey a feeling of belonging to mainstream America. Likewise, "some other race" Hispanics are feeling "left out," she says.
Hispanics can be any race or a mix of many. When asked to choose for the 2000 Census, nearly 48 percent of Hispanics picked "white," and 42 percent selected "some other race." About 2 percent chose "black," and another 6 percent chose two or more races.
"In some ways, race is a measure of how incorporated you feel, and that manifests itself as identifying as white," Tafoya says.
For Bonilla, race isn't important. He is often mistaken for a "gringo" but is proud of his Latino roots. He grew up considering himself a typical American kid but does not prefer to be called "white."
"I like saying I'm Hispanic," he says. "In El Salvador it doesn't matter if you're light-skinned or dark-skinned."
Jose Daniel Amaya is Bonilla's co-manager at the store on Riverdale Road in Prince George's County, where the merchandise ranges from CDs of salsa singer Celia Cruz to videotapes of the feature films Kill Bill and Oklahoma! "There is a lot of racial mixture," says Amaya, 19, a Maryland native whose family is Salvadoran. His olive-toned skin is a shade darker than Bonilla's. "And here, there are so many [people from] Hispanic countries. I think people are more proud of where they come from. They care more about their country than race."
Hispanics, particularly new immigrants, tend to prefer being acknowledged by country of origin rather than race, say researchers.
"Many people will say they are Mexican or Dominican; that is an important word for them," says John Logan, a sociology professor at Brown University, who last year conducted a study on race and Hispanics at the Lewis Mumford Center for Comparative and Regional Research in Albany. "But many discover that people here will treat you as Hispanic, even if that's not the way you really see yourself."
In fact, more immigrant Hispanics selected categories outside the standard census categories than did native-born Latinos, according to Tafoya's analysis. Forty-six percent of foreign-born Hispanics identified themselves as "some other race," while 40 percent of Hispanics born here did, the Pew report found. Also, the children and grandchildren of immigrants are more likely to identify themselves as white than their parents.
While some immigrant Latinos say they are surprised by America's obsession with race, Latin America has a long history of racism. In colonial Latin America, enslaved Africans, European conquistadors and indigenous groups converged. In many countries, mixed races were common and a complicated hierarchy emerged, often with the darker-skinned or indigenous people at the bottom.
Jose Perdomo, a physician from Rockville, is often called trigueno in his native Venezuela, meaning "dark-skinned." His caramel-colored complexion is darker than the beige coloring of his brother Edgar.
In Spanish-speaking countries, mulato and mestizo define racial mixes. And there's canela - the Spanish word for cinnamon, to describe tawny brown skin. Race has also worked its way into Spanish sayings that suggest a significance beyond skin shade.
Edgar Perdomo remembers a saying that he heard as a child: "Trabaja como un negro para vivir como un blanco" - "He works like a black to live like a white." "But we don't mean anything by it," he says. "I think it just means that someone is hard-working."
Logan suggests Latinos recognize racial distinctions in their home countries, yet the differences are not as important as in the United States. "In most Latin American countries, there are certainly more than two categories," Logan says. "And while the distinctions are there, it's not always in terms of thinking some groups as better or worse, just different."
The Perdomos' diverse heritage defies any "check-a-box" expectation. Their father's mother, from Trinidad, was black, and their father's father was Italian-born. Their mother's father immigrated from Spain to marry their mother's fair-skinned Venezuelan mother.
"With my background, you tell me what should I pick?" says Jose Perdomo.
But his brother, Edgar, also a doctor, who lives in Gaithersburg, says, "I look white, so I would pick white. I am an American, first of all."
But Edgar Perdomo says he resents the pressure he feels in America to choose a race.
"In Latin America, we feel that from Alaska to Argentina you are an American," he says. "When you are in Central and South America, you don't have to pick. But when you come here, you suddenly belong to a different group of people. They put you in boxes; I hate it."
Census officials have always struggled to catalog Hispanics. In the early 20th century, the bureau provided choices such as "Spanish surname" and "mother tongue." In 1930, it listed "Mexican" as a race but later classified all Mexicans as white. "Hispanic origin" did not emerge until the 1970 Census.
Last year, some census officials wanted to eliminate the "some other race" choice. A bad idea, says Tafoya.
"When 15 million people can't be categorized in the system, then something is not quite right with the system," she says. "But simply taking that category away and expecting them to choose something that's there would invite non-response."
The issue is racial politics. Hispanic civil rights groups opposed removing the "some other race" category, saying it would result in fewer Hispanics filling out the census, diminishing the minority group's influence. For now, the category remains.
Some wonder if the pressure in American culture to pick a race will result in growing numbers of Hispanics selecting the white designation.
There's historical precedent for such a shift. At the turn of the century, in much of America, Irish, Italians and Jews were considered other races, says Logan. "People say the Italians became 'white,'" he says. "That may sound strange, because we interpret them by today's standards of what is considered white."
With a burgeoning Hispanic population, Logan suggests an alternative that he calls more optimistic - a complex definition of race. "What's hopeful is that now new groups coming into this country will help break up this traditional racial hierarchy," he says. "They have a lot to teach us."