I’ve been asked numerous times, “Are you Hispanic or Latino?” and I always have to explain that I’m technically both. While people often use them interchangeably, there’s actually a big difference between the two terms.
I identify with the term Latin American, mostly because I believe it is the most accurate way to describe my people and my community. While I can’t say I would be necessarily offended with being called Hispanic, I find it problematic that people in the U.S. commonly refer to most Latin Americans as Hispanic.
Latin American, to me, is a more a unifying term that reflects the similarities in culture of 20 different countries in Latin America. These countries share similar music, food and traditions, but it doesn’t mean they’re exactly the same. In the U.S., we’re rounded up into one group and expected to identify under a single identity despite being different in so many ways.
According to the United States Census Bureau, Hispanic refers to people who are of Spanish-speaking origin, including most Latin American countries and Spain but never Brazil. Latino refers to those of Latin American origin including Brazil, but never Spain.
The term first appeared on the 1970 U.S. Census, according to the Pew Research Center, and provided Latin Americans the opportunity to check a box that they felt best represented them. The term also replaced inaccurate terms like Spanish-Americans, Spanish-Speaking Americans and Spanish-Surnamed Americans, which previously failed to accurately describe people of Latin American descent.
“To me, someone who is Hispanic is someone who is trying to fit into mainstream culture,” said Latino/Latina studies department chair Alejandro Murguia. “It’s bizarre that someone would want to want to identify with a term that was created by a government agency.”
Latino wasn’t added to the census until 2000 when it gave the option for people to identify under the category “Spanish/Hispanic/Latino.”
“These identifying terms have a political connotation, but they have evolved and been used differently as people adapted to these new identities,” Murguia said.
During Hispanic Heritage Month, we’re supposed to celebrate the contributions of notable Hispanic figures and communities to our culture as a whole. However, by using the word Hispanic we’re not being inclusive to Brazilians who also contribute to our identity in the U.S. While Brazilians might not speak Spanish, they still go through the same struggles as people from other Latin-American countries.
“Being called Hispanic just rubs me the wrong way,” Spanish major Ariel Castaneda said. “I prefer the term Latin American because it recognizes my family’s roots and history in Latin America.”
The Latin American community holds on to the culture and traditions of their countries of origin. We attempt to preserve the rich history of those who came before us. And while we all have different points of views or different words for the same things, we understand the power we hold as a united group.
As our community grows, so does our influence and our opportunity to make an impact in society. The Pew Research Center also states that Hispanics or Latinos are one of the fastest growing minorities.
It’s important to remember that these identifiers are most commonly used for people who live in the U.S. In a way, they’re generalized umbrella terms to refer to a similar group of people. That’s why the term Hispanic unjustly groups us together, and separates us a from a huge portion of the community.
While all Latinos are undisputably American, we are expected to take on a hyphenated identity, or one that categorizes us as the “other” in a population full of immigrants.
“People in the United States misuse the term American and appropriate it to only apply to people from the United States,” Murguia said. “It’s a terrible misuse of language because American applies to the whole continent and to South America.”
I understand these terms change over time and we’re already seeing a change as my generation prefers to use the word “Latinx” to make the identity more gender inclusive.
“All these terms are essentially problematic, including Latino,” said Murguia. “But for the sake of convenience I can accept Latin American because it includes North America, Central America, South America and the Caribbean.”
When speaking about Latin Americans, keep in mind that one word can’t perfectly define us because we are a diverse group with varying experiences and perspectives.