Most of the immigrants who arrived in the United States during the last half-century have come from south of the border and speak Spanish as their first language.
Are they Hispanics or are they Latinos? Or are they both? The terminology used to describe this new wave of immigrants is a source of confusion and controversy.
Generally speaking, the term Hispanic has come to be understood as referring to people whose first language is Spanish. Some who use the term specifically exclude Portuguese speakers but others don’t.
Latino is a broader term that commonly refers to all people of Latin American descent, whether their first language is Spanish, or Portuguese as in Brazil, or English as in Belize or indigenous dialects such as those in Guatemala or Bolivia.
The federal government and, in particular the U.S. Census Bureau, prefers to refer to them as Hispanics. Many immigrant groups and immigrant advocates prefer Latino.
But when asked in numerous polls and surveys, most U.S. immigrants say they prefer neither, opting instead to be identified by their country of origin or to be considered as assimilated Americans.
Here is a brief look at both terms and how they are commonly defined, used and misused.
Let’s start with the word Hispanic. In 1976, Congress passed the only law in this country’s history that mandated the collection and analysis of Census Bureau data for a specific ethnic group. The law defined Hispanic as “Americans of Spanish origin or descent,” and the group as “Americans who identify themselves as being of Spanish-speaking background and trace their origin or descent from Mexico, Puerto Rico, Cuba, Central and South America and other Spanish-speaking countries.”
Hispanic does not define race. Hispanics can be of white, black or Asian descent.
The term is an ethnonym that refers back to ancient Hispania, which today is the Iberian Peninsula that includes both Spain and Portugal. The Romans gave the peninsula the Latin name Hispania more than 2,200 years ago. Hispanic can be used to refer to the culture or peoples that have this historical link to Spain or ancient Hispania.
‘Latino’ Casts a Wider Net in Hemisphere
Latino is a broader designation than Hispanic and should not be used as a synonym for it. Latino is mainly used in the United States to designate people of Latin American descent. People in the western states tend to favor using Latino instead of Hispanic.
Latino captures more people and cultures in the hemisphere than Hispanic. For example, it clearly includes Portuguese-speaking Brazilians. The term also includes indigenous cultures, such as the Mayans in Guatemala whose first language isn’t Spanish but rather dozens of native dialects.
Also, the word Latino is less politically charged. Many Mayans, among others in the hemisphere, consider Christopher Columbus a mass murderer and don’t want to be associated with any reference to his Spanish ties.
Latino also allows for gender designation: a latino, is a man; a latina is a woman; a group of men and women is latinos.
The Associated Press Stylebook recommends using Latino to refer to anyone from Latin America, no matter what language he or she speaks. The Stylebook limits Hispanic to Spanish-speaking lands or cultures only. As with Hispanic, Latino does not refer to a specific race.
Over the years, the Census Bureau has come to use Latino and Hispanic virtually interchangeably. But the bureau and the government still uses Hispanic most often.
The 2010 census did not offer definitions for either Hispanic or Latino. Instead, it asked people to self-define their own identity according to what word they believe fits them best.
Self-definition is probably the best course. People should be allowed to designate themselves as either Hispanic or Latino or neither, according to their personal history and cultural ties.