Quite regularly I get asked, “What’s the right word, Hispanic or Latino?” In truth, there is no right word. Group labels, like beauty, are in the eye of the beholder. Group labels – in fact, all labels – are mainly verbal conveniences. They emerge; they change and they disappear.
This brings me back to the Hispanic or Latino label. Some of us prefer only one or the other. Alternately, for some of us (myself included), either word is fine. Others prefer a national origin label (but also don’t mind Hispanic or Latino, either), and yet others like just being called American.
My father, who grew up in Guadalajara, was a proud Mexican and a proud American. He used both of those labels to describe himself. But he never referred to himself as either a Hispanic or a Latino, that is, until around the end of the 1960’s, when he became more deeply involved in politics and began working closely with people of other Latin American extractions.
Soon after the federal government decided upon the term Hispanic. Since then, with this official backing, Hispanic seems to have gained the upper hand in public discourse. For example, newly-formed umbrella organizations are generally adopting the word Hispanic in their name, although many still use Latino and some even use other terms, including the combo Hispanic-Latino. Question No. 8 of the 2010 Census presented both options, asking, “Is Person 1 of Hispanic, Latino, or Spanish origin?
But if the Hispanic term has gained the current upper hand, Latino lives on. And so do Mexican, Puerto Rican, Cuban, Dominican, Guatemalan, Colombian, and the rest. We’ve become increasingly comfortable using both an umbrella term and a specific origin term as complementary parts of our identity.
If we want to split hairs – and we academics are professionals at doing so – we could point out a nuanced difference.
Technically, Latino should include Brazilians (but not Spaniards), while Hispanic should include Spaniards (but not Portuguese-speaking Brazilians). However, for the most part, Hispanic and Latino seem to be used interchangeably for our community. Yet, particularly due to the growing number of intermarriage offspring, determining precisely who belongs to our community is becoming much trickier.
So don’t bother asking anybody which is the right word for my people. You’ll probably just get a personal preference, no matter how passionately or authoritatively it is expressed.
For most of us, whether you use Latino or Hispanic isn’t that big a deal. Just recognize that we are and that I am.
Dr. Carlos E. Cortes is a Professor Emeritus at the University of California, Riverside. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.