Hispanic? Latino/a/e/x? The terms have been used interchangeably to describe people with roots in Spain or Latin America. The lumping of the terms, specifically Hispanic, has been used to refer to a person from Spain, Chile, the Philippines, or Equatorial Guinea. But the ambiguous nature blurs multiple diaspora experiences because of a shared language and loose ancestry, erasing the history of colonization that formed these commonalities. Doing so creates a false sense that they have a shared political interest and lived experiences. So, where exactly did this term come from? Who exactly does it refer to?
Latino/a/e/x refers to descendants of people from Latin America, including Mexico, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Cuba, Central and South America, and more. Most Latin American countries were colonized by Spain, which is their primary connection (Britannica). However, Spain is not part of Latin America since it is a European country. Hispanic refers to people from Spain or Spanish-speaking countries. The breakdown can be complex, but Dr. Luisa Ortiz Pérez, Executive Director of Vita-Activa.org, explains that “Latinx is an ethnic and cultural category, whereas Hispanic is a linguistic division” (Oprah Daily). This is why Brazilians can be Latinx but not Hispanic since they’re not of or from a Spanish-speaking country. You can read more about the difference between Latino, Latina, Latine, and Latinx here.
• Use Hispanic when referring to people from Spain or Spanish-speaking countries. Hispanic is a linguistical category.
• Use Latino/a/e/x when describing people that are descendants from Latin America, including Mexico, Dominican Republic, Haiti, Cuba, and Central and South America. This term is an ethnic and cultural category.
• Latine and Latinx are both gender-neutral terms to describe people that originate from Latin America. Understand that Latinx, as written, isn’t as grammatically correct as Latine. Latinx, popularized by activists and made mainstream in dominant culture, is waning in popularity and increasingly replaced by Latine.
• If you don’t know and are in a relationship with the individual or community in question, ask! It’s best not to assume.
The homogenizing of these groups into interchangeable pan-ethnic labels was not an organic decision made by these countries but rather a project of U.S. activists, government officials, and media executives from the 1970s through the 1990s. According to G. Cristina Mora, the author of “Making Hispanics,” the ambiguity in the definition of “Hispanic” was a fundamental part of its construction.
It was coined after the 1960 Census report grouped Latin American immigrants with European Americans, classifying them as “white” (University of Chicago). Activists argued that this classification “hindered their ability to portray their constituents as underrepresented minorities,” eventually calling for a separate category.
“Activists thus described Hispanics as a disadvantaged and underrepresented minority group that stretched from coast to coast, a wide framing that best allowed them to procure grants from public and private institutions,” said Mora. “Media executives, in turn, framed Hispanics as an up-and-coming national consumer market to increase advertising revenue. Last, government officials, particularly those in the Census Bureau, framed Hispanics as a group displaying certain educational, income, and fertility patterns significantly different from those of Blacks and whites.”
Due to their political presence, the three main diasporas most visible in the country at the time were Mexican, Puerto Rican, and Cuban. According to Mora, the concept of Hispanic was an attempt to unify what were, in fact, wildly different priorities. “Immigration reform, for example, became an important Mexican American policy goal but was of little interest to Puerto Ricans, who were citizens by birth, and to Cuban Americans, who gained citizenship through their refugee status. Puerto Ricans in New York focused on issues of Puerto Rican independence, but this cause fell on deaf ears in Mexican American and Cuban American communities. And while there were certainly some issues that these groups shared, such as bilingual education and discrimination, many of the joint, pan-ethnic mobilization efforts addressing these topics were either highly local or short-lived.”
We still see this playing out today. During the 2020 presidential elections, news outlets were full of predictions, analyses, and examinations of how the Latino/Hispanic sector would vote (NBC News). Many supported Donald Trump in the polls (New York Times), sparking many conversations and questions regarding the fact that a minority was voting against their best interest, specifically immigration issues. But surface-level commonality and labels don’t equate to shared political interests or concerns. Hispanic Republican politicians like Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz, white men of Cuban ancestry whose political posture rests on the fact that their families supposedly fled their country of origin because of the Cuban revolution, seemingly legislate against the interest of the diasporas at large. However, they legislate in favor of white, wealthy conservatives such as themselves, devoid of their Hispanic lineage.
Populations within each Latin American country are also not homogenous. After their independence from Spain, the white ruling elites crafted discourses aimed at assimilating the Indigenous and Black populations into whiteness, creating racist discourse still prevalent today (Latin American Perspectives). Some Latin American governments promoted the idea that “We are all “Mestizo,” or mixed-race, in an attempt to erase anti-Indigenous and anti-Black practices (Critical Sociology). However, overusing Hispanic, Latinx, and Mestizo can make conversations around racist violence within these communities much more difficult due to their basic premise, “We are all Hispanic/Mestizos,” ignoring the continued presence of systemic racism.
Now, if we focus on the three diasporas previously mentioned, we can see how even the homogenization of these groups impedes us from understanding the diversity of experiences the Hispanic label tries to encompass.
The terms Hispanic and Latinx have become racialized categories in the U.S. Many conversations in the public eye equate being “Hispanic” or “Latinx” to being someone who is non-white. This has allowed the exclusion of dark-skinned people based on skewed characteristics and features of Latinx and Hispanic people (fair skin and loose curly hair) while elevating white women to indulge in self-exoticization due to the way they are perceived in the U.S. vs. their countries of origin — e.g. Shakira, Sofía Vergara, or Kali Uchis. It has also created controversial conversations on the internet, such as the description of Anya Taylor-Joy as a woman of color (Tribune).
To adopt an anti-racist stance when referring to Latin American people, these labels must be understood in their historical context and left aside for more specific terms that refer to the community we want to refer to explicitly. Hispanic and Latinx are not a race, ethnicity, or nationality. There is an immense spectrum of realities within the “Hispanic” term. Therefore, we must explicitly name the communities we want to recognize lest they be made invisible by these homogenizing narratives once more.
• The term “Hispanic” was created in order to redirect funds to larger initiatives encompassing communities of the Latin American diaspora.
• Such a term does nothing to refer to the diversity of experiences within these communities and impedes us from having explicit conversations about racism and race.
• Shared racial and ethnic lineage doesn’t equate to shared political interests or experiences.
*This piece was originally published on 6/30/21. It was updated and edited by The ARD on 9/30/22.