It’s Complicated…

The History of “Hispanic vs. Latino”

It’s a question Hispanics and non-Hispanics alike have struggled with when deciding what to call the diverse community of 53 million Americans who trace their roots to Latin America or to Spain. Officially, both terms are used by the U.S. federal government to describe this population, and many organizations, including the Pew Research Center’s Hispanic Trends Project, use the terms interchangeably in publications.

However, among Hispanics themselves, many are ambivalent about the two terms. According to a Pew Research Center survey of Hispanic adults, half (50%) say they have no preference for either term. But among those who do have a preference, “Hispanic” is preferred over “Latino” by a ratio of about 2-1.

But there’s one striking exception: Texas.

Among Hispanic Texans, 46% prefer the term Hispanic, while just 8% say they prefer the term “Latino”—roughly a 6-to-1 ratio.

This pattern is different from that of Latinos in other parts of the country. For example, in California, the state with the largest Hispanic population, 30% say they prefer “Hispanic” and 17% say they prefer the term “Latino.” In Florida, results are similar—31% prefer “Hispanic” and 17% prefer “Latino.” The pattern for New York and all other states is nearly the same.

Of course, Latinos also have several other terms at their disposal to describe their identity—and these are often preferred over “Hispanic” or “Latino.” When asked which term they use most often to describe themselves, 54% use Hispanic origin terms such as Mexican, Cuban, or Dominican and 23% say they use the term American. Another 20% say they use the more broad terms, either “Hispanic” or “Latino.”


Hidden Bias

The Urban Dictionary community provided some good fodder for discussion, with an excerpt written by a user that goes by the name “knowledge”:

The term Hispanic was an ancient adjective and noun that was mainstreamed as a political label in the United States in the early 1970’s. The purpose for the introduction of such an ancient adjective by the Nixon administration was ostensibly to create a political label solely for the purpose of applying the constitutional anti-discrimination standard of “strict scrutiny” to anyone who was labeled Hispanic. The label had the immediate effect of linking the entire population of the 19 nations that comprise Latin America, as well as, distinguishing the “Hispanic” colonial heritage of Latin American Countries from the “Anglo Saxon” colonial heritage of the United States.

Today, Hispania has 21 progenies: two in Europe (Spain and Portugal), and nineteen in the Americas (Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Costa Rica, Cuba, The Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Puerto Rico, Uruguay, and Venezuela).

That said, America is a country where one would not consider mislabeling a Scotsman an Irishman, for such would be an insult to the Scotsman, and visa versa; where one would not describe Canadian culture as being the same as Australian culture because such would be an insult to Canadians and visa versa.

Yet, sadly, some Americans believe that all people who immigrate or descend from the twenty-one distinctly different progenies of Hispania are: culturally alike, vote as a group, dance salsa, speak Spanish, can’t cut it in the schools, work in menial jobs, join gangs, and so on.

In the end, a good rule of thumb might be this: Let’s ask which terms people identify with, and why. That way, we’ll get to know each other better, and discover the humanity we have in common. 

Related posts:

Leave a Reply