Friday, April 1, 2011

Citizenship vs. Ethnicity

There is a difference between ethnicity and citizenship/nationality. Back in the USA, if someone asked me what I was then I would say I'm Mexican. But that doesn't mean I have Mexican citizenship. It just means that my family background is Mexican (and a little German). If someone in Europe asks me what I am then I have to say American. If I say Mexican then they assume that I have a Mexican passport. And over here, saying Mexican-American just really confuses folks.

In Europe, everyone goes by citizenship. If your parents were Hungarian but you have a German passport then here you are German.

I guess it's just another one of those cultural differences between the USA and Europe. In the USA, you could have someone say that he is French. Even though he can't speak French, has never been to France, and the last person in his family to come from France was his great, great, great grandfather. But that's OK, he's still French. Or rather, his family background is French.

A big issue I've seen here is the Hungarian minority in Slovakia.  Are they Slovaks?  Are they Hungarians?  You don't always get a clear answer.

Even though my family background is Mexican, I'm an American. I served in the U.S. military. I was born a U.S. citizen, as were my parents, and I have a U.S. passport. It doesn't say anywhere on my passport that that I'm ethnically Mexican. All my passport shows is that my place of birth was California, USA.

Maybe it's because the USA was built on immigration. Or maybe because there are so many countries in Europe that it is just easier to stick to citizenship.

I did find out one little interesting thing that happened when Czechoslovakia split up during the Velvet Divorce. All Czechoslovakian citizens had to choose if they would now be Czech or Slovak.  I'm sure that geography played a big part in helping people choose.

But what happened if you were originally from Bratislava but had moved to Prague? Would you switch from Slovak to Czech so that you could be a citizen of where you now lived? And what about mixed marriages? If your mom is Czech and your dad is Slovak, did the two countries allow the kids to have dual citizenship? Hopefully someone can share some insight on how it all worked.


  1. At least in Central Europe we still strictly distinguish between the citizenship (= státní příslušnost, Staatsbürgerschaft) and ethnicity (we call it nationality = národnost, Nationalität, Völkerschaft).

    "In Europe, everyone goes by citizenship. If your parents were Hungarian but you have a German passport then here you are German."

    Not true. In such case you are an ethnic Hungarian with the German citizenship (and passport).

    After the Velvet Divorce, the Czechoslovakian citizens had to choose between the Czech and Slovak citizenship, not ethnicity (= nationality). There are various nations and ethnic groups in the Czech Republic and Slovakia, mainly Czechs, Slovaks, Germans, Poles, Hungarians, Gypsies, Rusyns (Ruthenians) and Ukrainians.

    "If someone in Europe asks me what I am then I have to say American. If I say Mexican then they assume that I have a Mexican passport."

    The problem is that we believe there is no Mexican ethnicity, only citizenship. You can be for example an ethnic Aztec, or a Spaniard, or a mulatto/mestizo. We think that the Mexican as well as American (= U.S.) ethnicity is essentially impossible. How can be an Aztec speaking Nahuatl and a white Spaniard of the same ethnic group? The same for an Afro-American and a white American of Anglo-Saxon origin. They share only the same citizenship, but they are of different ethnic groups.

    So you must explain that you are an American (citizen) of either Spanish or Mexican Indian origin (or mixed).

    "And what about mixed marriages?"

    If your parents are of the same race, you can choose the ethnicity or have both (it has nothing in common with citizenship). If your parents are of different races, you are a mulatto/mestizo/half-breed/cross-breed/mongrel, name it as you want.

  2. Very interesting article.

    I can give you an example from real life: one of my parents is Czech, the other Slovak, I live (and always lived) in the Czech Rep. and own the Czech passport. When asked both in my home country or a foreign country, I usually answer I'm Czech. Only when we discuss it more thoroughly, I say I'm half Czech half Slovak and proud of it. :-)

  3. I've just read an article about the Mexican population. It's interesting and we can make the following simplification:

    Ethnic groups:

    Mestizo (Amerindians-Spanish) cca 60%
    Amerindians cca 30%
    Whites (mostly of Spanish origin) less than 10%

    The mestizos and whites speak Spanish, the Indians speak indigenous languages, mostly Nahuatl, and only 79% of them speak also Spanish.

    So Mexican is certainly not an ethnicity, but nationality (in your terminology). However, it can be different in the USA where people may tend to put all Mexicans into the same bag.

    BTW, I never heard the term "Amerindian" before. I knew only Indian (which is confusing), Red Indian, Native American. "Amerindian" is a quite useful term.