How a coding error provided a rare glimpse into Latino identity among Brazilians in the U.S.

Supporters of President Jair Bolsonaro protest his defeat in the presidential runoff election, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Wednesday, Nov. 2, 2022. Thousands of supporters called on the military Wednesday to keep the far-right leader in power, even as his administration signaled a willingness to hand over the reins to his rival Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva. (AP Photo/Bruna Prado)

Many Brazilians say they are Latino, but the exact number has long been a mystery because surveys rarely explore this question. An error in how the U.S. Census Bureau processed data from a recent national survey provided a rare window into how Brazilians living in the United States view their identity.

In 2020, at least 416,000 Brazilians described themselves as Hispanic or Latino on the Census Bureau’s annual American Community Survey (ACS) and were counted that way, representing more than two-thirds of Brazilians in the U.S. In 2019, by contrast, only 14,000 Brazilians were counted as Hispanic, and 16,000 in 2021. The large number counted as Hispanic in 2020 was due to an error in the bureau’s processing of the ACS data.

Officially, Brazilians are not considered to be Hispanic or Latino because the federal government’s definition of the term – last revised in 1997 – applies only to those of “Spanish culture or origin” such as Mexican, Puerto Rican, Cuban, South or Central American or other origins, regardless of race. In practice, this means that in most cases people who report their Hispanic or Latino ethnicity as Brazilian in Census Bureau surveys are later recategorized – or “back coded” – as not Hispanic or Latino. The same is true for people from other groups as well, such as those with origins in Belize, the Philippines and Portugal.

During the data editing process for the 2020 ACS, the Census Bureau inadvertently left Brazilians and some other groups out of its back-coding procedures. That error resulted in large increases in the number of people counted as Hispanic or Latino within these groups.

In particular, the large number of Brazilians who self-identified as Hispanic or Latino highlights how their view of their own identity does not necessarily align with official government definitions. It also underscores that being Hispanic or Latino means different things to different people. Some draw distinctions between the definition of Hispanic, which for some excludes Brazilians, and the definition of Latino, which for some includes Brazilians but excludes people from Spain. All this makes measuring Hispanic or Latino identity in surveys a complex and delicate undertaking.

Why federal rules allow some Brazilians to be counted as Hispanic or Latino

Other origin groups affected, too

Brazilians were not the only origin group affected by the Census Bureau’s data error. Several other groups also saw larger numbers identifying as Hispanic or Latino in 2020 than in 2021 or 2019. (In this analysis, “nonstandard” Hispanic origin groups, like Brazilians, include immigrants from the specific country or region and people born in the U.S. who report only that ancestry.)

A chart showing the estimated population of several origin groups in the U.S. increased in 2020 due to a coding error.

The number of self-identified Hispanic or Latino people with Filipino origin was 30,000 higher in 2020 than in 2021, while the number with origins in the non-Hispanic countries of the Caribbean – including Haiti, Jamaica, Guyana and the Virgin Islands – was 28,000 higher. The number from Belize was almost 12,000 larger than in 2021, but the number with Portuguese origin was similar to that reported in other recent years.

In total, the U.S. Hispanic or Latino population in these four “non-Hispanic” groups (Brazilians, Belizeans, Filipinos and non-Hispanic Caribbean) in 2020 exceeded that of 2021 by about 471,000 people.

The increase in the Hispanic population among Brazilians was far higher than for the other groups because such a large share of Brazilians (70%) considered themselves to be Hispanic or Latino in 2020. In comparison, 41% of Belizeans said they are Hispanic or Latino, as did 3% of Filipinos and 3% of those with origins in non-Hispanic Caribbean countries.

In fact, enough Brazilians identified as Latino in 2020 that they would fall in the middle of rankings of U.S. Hispanic or Latino origin groups by size, if they were officially counted as one. In 2020, Brazil would have been the 14th-largest Latino origin group with 416,000 who identified as Latino, ahead of Nicaragua (395,000) and below Venezuela (619,000).

Overall, the U.S. Hispanic population is large enough that the coding mistake in the 2020 data amounted to little more than a rounding error in the overall population. The 470,000 people erroneously counted as Hispanic or Latino in 2020 represent less than 1% of the 61.1 million total Hispanics living in the U.S.

‘Back coding’ at the Census Bureau

The Census Bureau didn’t always back code its data this way. In fact, when national data on Hispanic origins was first collected in the 1980 and 1990 decennial censuses, the bureau did not edit the non-Hispanic origins supplied by respondents. As a result, many individuals with origins in Brazil, Belize and the Philippines who indicated they were Hispanic were counted as such.

In the 1980 census, for example, 18% of Brazilians were counted as Hispanic, a share that rose to 33% in 1990. The back-coding process then started in 2000. By the time the American Community Survey was fully implemented in 2006, these shares fell to around 4% or less in most years – with the exception of 2020.

Similarly, the Census Bureau counted 27% of Belizeans as Hispanic in 1980 and 32% in 1990. But with back coding in place, it has counted about 8% of Belizeans as Hispanic in the years before 2020.

Among Filipinos, the Census Bureau counted 12% as Hispanic in 1980 and 6% in 1990. But it has counted fewer than 2% as Hispanic since 2000, except for the coding error in 2020.

The data on Portuguese respondents tells a similar story. In 1980 and 1990, the bureau counted between 8% and 9% of Portuguese respondents as Hispanic. But since 2000, it has coded only 1% to 2% of Portuguese respondents that way every year. The number of Portuguese respondents coded as Hispanic in the 2020 ACS did not differ significantly from the number in 2019 or 2021. This could indicate that Portuguese-origin respondents are generally choosing to self-identify as non-Hispanic or that the data was correctly back coded for this group.

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