Choosing the term Hispanic or Latino as a source of identity is more complicated than just applying a label. A person whose grandparents came from Spain, a person with Indigenous Mexican heritage, and someone from a Portuguese-speaking Brazilian family—along with the roughly 19 percent of the U.S. population that might check “Hispanic” on their census form—could self-identify as both Hispanic or Latino, or neither.
To say that the history of how we use “Hispanic” and “Latino” is complicated is an understatement—the terms are both connected to controversy and confusion. Here’s how they came to be, what they refer to, and why many with historic ties to the places Spain and Portugal once colonized say they don’t apply to them.
Ancient origins of Hispanic and Latino
“Hispanic” comes from the Latin term for “Spanish,” Hispanicus; the ancient Romans called the Iberian Peninsula Hispania. In the United States in the 19th century, the term “Hispano” was used to describe people descended from Spaniards who settled in the Southwest in the days before American annexation. But until the 20th century, “Hispanic” was mostly used to refer to things pertaining to ancient Spain.
The term “Latino” also came into being in the 19th century. A shortening of the word latinoamerico, or “Latin American,” it was coined as a variety of former Spanish colonies declared independence around the 1850s. The pan-national, pan-ethnic term was a nod toward the similarities of nations once owned by Spain.
Chicanos, boricuas and more
As the racial and ethnic makeup of the U.S. changed over time, people from the Spanish and Latin American diaspora often referred to themselves based on their place of national origin. Amid the growing racial consciousness of the 1960s, two groups, Mexican and Puerto Rican Americans, coined new terminology for their nationalities.
Chicanos—a word that some scholars theorize likely morphed out of how the word mexicano was pronounced “meschicano” by some Indigenous people—used the word to describe their pride in being Mexican American. Similarly, some Puerto Ricans proudly began calling themselves boricuas (the Indigenous name for the island is Boriquén or Borikén). In doing so, writes historian Ramón A. Gutiérrez, Chicanos and boricuas “[sought] succession and national sovereignty as the antidote to their histories of segregation and marginalization in the United States.”
An incomplete census
But as Puerto Rican Americans, Cuban Americans, Mexican Americans and others attempted to expand their civil rights work, make policy changes, and obtain funding for their efforts in the 1960s and 1970s, they ran into an obstacle: a lack of data on the status of their communities.
At the time, when the government did collect information on race or ethnicity, there were only three categories: white, Black, and “other.” The government had made one abortive attempt to look at one population of people associated with the Latin American diaspora in the 1930 census, when it listed “Mexican” as a third race, but it was the first and only time the term, which had been intended to measure only people with ties to Mexico, was used.
When civil rights activists looked toward the hard-earned successes of Black activism, they found that an important tool was hard population data on their communities, which they then used as leverage for funding and legislation. “Mexican American activists, though, had difficulty adopting this strategy because the Bureau categorized persons of Mexican descent mainly as ‘white,’ lumping them in with people of European descent,” sociologist G. Cristina Mora writes. In response, the National Council of La Raza, a Chicano civil rights advocacy organization, pushed for a national count of people with ties to the Spanish language and Latin American countries throughout the 1960s.
The dawn of 'Hispanic'
In 1970, the U.S. Census asked people if they identified as “persons of Spanish origin” for the first time, but the census resulted in significant discrepancies because of confusion among people who said they were “Central and South American” when they really meant they were from the central or southern United States. In 1976, Congress passed a law requiring federal departments to collect and publish statistics relating to the economic and social status of people “of Spanish-speaking background” who traced their origin to Mexico, Puerto Rico, Cuba, countries in Central and South America, and other Spanish-speaking homelands.
For the 1980 decennial census, this translated into a question asking whether the person was “of Spanish/Hispanic origin or descent.” It was the first census to seek an official count of Spanish-speaking Americans. In an attempt to familiarize people with the new “Spanish/Hispanic” category, the U.S. Census Bureau and Univision, the first national Spanish-language television network, collaborated on PSAs and advertisements that stoked the term’s popularity.
Limitations of 'Hispanic' and 'Latino'
But there were problems with “Hispanic.” Not only did the term conflate Spanish speakers with a single race or ethnicity, but it linked it to Spain, a European country some felt was more appropriately defined as European and which had colonized the Latin American countries with which it was now identified. The term also left out those who did not speak Spanish but were from Latin America, including Indigenous people and Portuguese speakers from Brazil.
Others objected to Hispanic on ideological terms because of its similarity with a common racial slur leveled first against Panamanian laborers, then people of Mexican and other Latin American descent.
For some, “Latino” did away with the complexities of “Hispanic,” and its lack of colonial ties increased its appeal. The term made its first appearance in the 2000 decennial census. But for others, it presented many of the same challenges, especially when used as a blanket term. Latinx, a gender-neutral version of “Latino” that emerged in the 2000s, also has been met with criticism.
Race and reality
Part of the issue is that no one term can describe such a large group of people, says Nancy López, a sociologist and director and co-founder of the University of New Mexico’s Institute for the Study of “Race” and Social Justice. And though they are often used to refer to people with historic ties to Spanish colonization, the Spanish language or South and Central America, she says, pan-ethnic terms like Hispanic are used by others as shorthand for race—a social construct that has little to do with actual origin and everything to do with a person’s appearance.
“To pretend that every Latino occupies the same racial status is ignoring the lived realities of a pigmentocracy,” she says. “Your self-identity is not a proxy for your social identity.”
In a perfect world, says López, people would define their personal identity and also acknowledge a racial or ethnic descriptor that aligns with what she calls their “street race,” or racial status as seen by others.
López and others are working to push the federal government to adopt different ways of categorizing self-identification and assigned race. But in the meantime, Latino and Hispanic remain popular ways of referring to a large and diverse group. Roughly 62.1 million people—19 percent of the population—identified as Hispanic on the 2020 census.
People differ on which designation to use: According to a 2019 Pew Research survey, 47 percent of adults defined as Hispanic by census category use terms related to their family’s country of origin, like Dominican or Mexican, to refer to themselves. Another 39 percent use the term Hispanic or Latino, and the remaining 14 percent prefer just plain “American.”
“Identity is multidimensional,” says López. “We have to try to create bridges of understanding and empathy for people who are different from ourselves.”