In the US, the terms ‘Latino’ and ‘Hispanic’ are used interchangeably to refer to specific ethnic groups. But do you know the difference? More importantly, is there a difference? If so, which term is politically correct (as in which label do these communities prefer)? Where did these terms originate from and why do they matter? As a Mexican-American, I belong to these umbrella terms and I confess that at one point in time I didn’t know or care about the difference between these words. This topic is more relevant than ever before since 54 million Americans, about 17% of the overall population, trace their roots to Latin America or Spain. In today’s blog post, I provide my humble perspective and answer these questions.
It’s funny how cultural identity and background become clearer and gains importance when leaving one’s home country. My mexicanidad was never so apparent to me until I moved to the States at age 11. My culture and ethnicity never really mattered while living in Mexico. I was simply another average person. But something interesting happened when I went to America… I was obviously Mexican but I also became Latina and Hispanic. These labels were new to me. As Latin Americans, we are proud of our home countries and refer to ourselves as Mexicans, Colombians, Guatemalans, etc. not Hispanic’ or Latinos. This naming phenomenon is an entirely US matter.
Does this identity crisis matter?
The good ol’ U.S. of A. is in the midst of a fascinating transition. By 2050, minorities will the majority in America. Minority groups include Hispanic, African-American and Asian-American populations. Within these minority or ethnic groups, Hispanics will be the majority with a 30% share of the overall US population. Currently, Hispanics or Latinos have a $1 trillion buying power and this is only expected to continue growing. The Latino/Hispanic vote was crucial for Obama’s 2008 election and 2012 re-election. Let’s hope this collective power proves equally or more influential for the upcoming US presidential elections. Hispanics or Latinos are one out of every six people and constitute one out of every four babies born each year. So, yes, addressing this naming situation is important.
Where does ‘Hispanic’ come from?
Let’s start by exploring the origins and meanings of these words. The term Hispanic is directly linked to Spain. When the Roman Empire conquered Spain in 218 BC, the name given to the Iberian Peninsula was Hispania. This word eventually morphed into ‘España’ (Spain). The term was used to refer to the country but also to its New World-New Spain territories, aka all of Latin America. The word Hispanic refers to people whose culture and heritage are tied with Spain. And since most of Latin America is Spanish speaking, its people are of Hispanic descent regardless of the diversity in nationalities.
In the US, the word became common during Nixon’s presidential years to refer to any and all Spanish-speaking people, whether one was from Cuba or Venezuela. In 1977, Hispanic became an official designation in the US Census forms. The term, however, was used not as a race but an ethnic designation. The newly accepted label made it simple for the US government and the mass media to lump together a large and extremely diverse group of individuals.
What about Latino?
The word Latin comes from a tribe that lived in early Italy called the Latins. They lived in Latium and their language was Latin. Latin language eventually evolved into several Romance languages including Italian, Spanish, Portuguese and French. Folks from countries where these languages are spoken were once referred to as Latin.
Based on the origins of these words, people from Latin America are all Latin but not Hispanic. The big exception is Brazil as they speak Portuguese. In the US, being Latino means to be of Latin American descent. This is a broader term encompassing more people than Hispanic (strong association with Spain). Hence why some folks prefer to be called Latino instead of Hispanic.
One important detail is that outside of the US, Latin American folk currently living in Latin America don’t refer to themselves as Latinos. They are simply latinoamericanos (Latin Americans). Confusing, right? A good way to remember the differences is that Hispanic refers to the Spanish language while Latino denotes geography.
What do these groups want to be called?
It’s crucial to note is that these labels were imposed on these ethnic groups by the US government. Their opinions were never taken into account. Some folks prefer Latino while others identify with Hispanic. There are even some that hate the two labels as they feel limiting. I personally don’t mind very much. I am secure in my personal and cultural identity and consider myself a Mexican-American (which would technically fall under the umbrella of either of these terms). Interestingly, most Hispanics also prefer to use their country of origin and the term ‘American’ to describe themselves. According to a recent Pew Research survey, 50% of respondents said they have no preference of either term. But of those that did care, the term Hispanic was preferred. I use the two interchangeably and believe that it comes down to personal choice. If you find yourself confused as to what to call someone of Latin American descent, ask them. They’ll be happy to tell you!