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Latino and Hispanic Ethnonyms

Brief History

The terms Latino/a and Hispanic are predominantly used in the United States to refer to the ethnic backgrounds of individuals with cultural and familial ties to over 20 North American, Central American, and South American countries that were previously colonized by Spanish, Portuguese, and French empires. Although the two terms are often used interchangeably, the term Hispanic is more commonly used on official government documents and surveys.

The term Hispanic was introduced and broadly adopted in the 1980s by federal institutions such as the U.S. Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and the U.S. Census Bureau to refer to persons of Mexican, Puerto Rican, Cuban, Central American or South America or other Spanish culture or origin (Gomez, 2007; Hayes-Bautista & Chapa, 1987). Hispanic origin refers to an ethnic category rather than indicating a specific race, according to the OMB’s Directive No. 15 in 1977. Notably, the U.S. Census Bureau included Mexican as a racial category in the 1930 decennial census, although it was subsequently removed (Mora, 2014; p. 85) Since the year 2000, the U.S. Census includes Spanish/Hispanic/Latino in the decennial census to broaden the category and allow respondents to report their multiracial heritage, although unsuccessfully, in an effort to increase the accuracy and response rate of the question about race. This brief history of changing definitions demonstrates the fluidity around the conceptualization of racial and ethnic constructs within a shifting social and political environment.

The use of terms such as Hispanic and Latino as pan-ethnic categories on federal documents is debated among scholars and civil rights activists. The term Hispanic was imposed by outsiders and the label itself reflects the violent history of European colonization of indigenous peoples and their land and excludes individuals with cultural ties to Brazil, Guyana, French Guyana, and Suriname (Abalos, 2007; Alcoff, 2005; Gracia, 2000; Morales, 2018; Shorris, 2012). Consequently, the anti-imperial term Latino/ahas been encouraged, instead of Hispanic, because it more accurately represents the rich social and linguistic histories and traditions of the region (Hayes-Bautista & Chapa, 1987; Villalba, 2018). Institutions such as the Los Angeles Times use Latino/ainstead of Hispanic(Gómez, 1992).Additionally, a growing number of researchers, civil rights activists, and journalists have also begun promoting “Latinx” or “Latin@” as a gender-neutral alternative to Latino/a, which is viewed as more inclusive of those who identify as queer, non-binary, or gender nonconforming (e.g., Cuervo, 2016; Morales, 2018). Argentinian student activists recently proposed eliminating gender from the language entirely, by replacing the masculine “o” or feminine “a” with “e” as a gender-neutral alternative (e.g., Schmidt, 2019). Although some institutions have adopted these gender-neutral labels (e.g., UC San Diego; Rhodes College; SUNY, Merriam-Webster), others reject these labels, arguing that while these proposed gender-neutral terms are well-intentioned, they are a product of academic elites and serve as a form of linguistic imperialism that ultimately renders the Spanish language incomprehensible and confusing (Guerra & Orbea, 2015). Due to the contentious debate around these labels, assumptions should be avoided, and individuals should be asked how they identify.

Public opinion polls and studies have found that Latino or Hispanic U.S. adults report having no preference between the terms Latinoor Hispanic(Martínez & Gonzalez, 2020; Noe-Bustamante, Mora, & Lopez, 2019). Among those who do report a preference, researchers consistently find that a majority of respondents prefer the pan-ethnic term Hispanic over Latino, while specific country of origin labels are preferred over both (Fraga et al., 2012; Lopez, 2013; Jones-Correa & Leal, 1996; Taylor et al., 2012). Some individuals in northern New Mexico and southern Colorado use the term Hispano to indicate they are descendants of early Spanish colonizers and settlers, which is a way of differentiating from Puebloans and Mexicans in the region (Acuña, 2000; Gonzales, 1997). Furthermore, Latinx is a relatively newer term that mostly younger generations are familiar with (Gonzalez-Barrera & Lopez, 2015). Among those who are familiar with the term Latinx (23%), only 3% of Hispanic or Latino/a respondents self-identify as Latinx (Gonzalez-Barrera & Lopez, 2015). The choices that individual members of this group make regarding these identity labels both matters for public policy and for individual identity development, as personal beliefs and attitudes are closely associated with ethnic labels which are also intertwined with struggles of power and equality within broader society (Alcoff, 2005; Fraga, 2012; Martínez & Gonzalez, 2020).

Cultural Values and Demographic Trends

The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that the Hispanic population has reached 60.6 million in the year 2019, which accounts for 18% of the total population and makes this group the largest ethnoracial subpopulation in the U.S. (Lopez, Krogstad, & Passel, 2020). There are over 20 countries that are represented under the umbrella terms Hispanic/Latinos, resulting in considerable heterogeneity in immigration statuses and socioeconomic characteristics among members of this group. Mexican Americans account for 62% of the U.S. Hispanic/Latino population which dwarfs all other origin groups including Puerto Ricans (9.7%), Cubans (4%), and Salvadorans (3.9) (Krogstad & Noe-Bustamante, 2020). Approximately 80% of Hispanic/Latinos are U.S. citizens, with Hondurans and Venezuelans reporting the lowest rates of citizenship at 53% and 51%, respectively (Krogstad & Noe-Bustamante, 2020). Thirty-three percent reported that Hispanic/Latino individuals were born outside of the U.S. (Noe-Bustamante & Flores, 2019). Foreign-born Hispanic/Latino individuals are much older than those who were born in the U.S., with a median age of 43 years old versus 20 years old, respectively (Noe-Bustamante & Flores, 2019).

In 2017, Argentines reported the highest median household income ($68,000) while Hondurans reported the lowest median incomes ($41,000) (Noe-Bustamante, 2019). The overall Hispanic/Latino median income was about $49,000 in 2017. About 19% of all Hispanic/Latino households live in poverty compared to the national average of 13% (Noe-Bustamante & Flores, 2019). Household income statistics are closely associated with educational attainment, English proficiency, and homeownership, such that households with higher incomes are more likely to be college educated, report greater English fluency, and are more likely to own their homes (Noe-Bustamante, 2019). These differences in demographic characteristics may translate to vastly different lived experiences, requiring special attention and care in avoiding assumptions and generalizations about individuals and family members of the Hispanic/Latino population.

Family & Household Structure

Using data from the American Communities Survey, the Pew (2018) estimates that approximately 27% of Hispanic/Latino individuals live in multigenerational households (i.e., two or more adult generations, including grandparents and grandchildren). The same figure is 16% among White households. These households often consist of at least two married parents and their children, although marital family households are less common among third and later generations (Raley, Sweeney, & Wondra, 2015), which reflects generational differences in pro-familial values such as familismo. The concept of familismo, which encompasses strong feelings of mutual obligation, reciprocity, and solidarity and loyalty towards family members, is a central cultural value for many Hispanic/Latino families (Castillo, Conoley, & Brossart, 2004; Sabogal, et al., 1987; Villarreal, Blozis, & Widaman, 2005).

Respect for older generations and generational hierarchies (i.e., respeto), including those who remain in the country of origin, along with greater involvement of extended family in the decision-making process, are also important values encompassed within familismo (Falcov, 2014), particularly for first-generation Hispanics/Latinos. Honoring this value may require adhering to traditional gender roles of their country of origin, such as machismo for men and marianismo for women (Villalba, 2018). Generational differences in these values may become a source of internal family conflict and bicultural stress, which are associated with negative indicators of psychological functioning (Piña-Watson et al., 2013; Taylor, Larsen-Rife, Conger, & Widaman, 2012). While familismo may present intergenerational conflict for some families, familismo values are also associated with greater levels of self-esteem and life satisfaction in others (Piña-Watson et al., 2013). Therefore, it is important to avoid making assumptions and instead, compassionately inquire about family values and experiences with acculturative stressors related to the their and their family’s worldviews.


The majority of Hispanic/Latino Americans identify as Christian (77%), particularly Catholic (48%), with 84% reporting that religion is very or somewhat important in their life (Pew, n.d.). However, the ways in which they celebrate their faith may differ, as many tend to blend traditional customs with their religious practices (e.g., Villalba, 2018). The celebration of one’s religious beliefs and traditions often continue even after immigrating to the U.S. and extend beyond common religious services such as prayer, baptism, and marital ceremonies. For some, important religious and spiritual figures, such as a priest or minister, are consulted for issues related to mental health and may be preferred over mental health professionals such as licensed psychotherapists. Understanding the importance of religion in the lives of Hispanic/Latino individuals and families, including how they practice their beliefs, is therefore an important factor to assess to provide appropriate care.

Acculturation and Race-ethnic Identity Development

Immigration Status

Generational status and the amount of time that Hispanic/Latino individuals and families have been living in the U.S. has thus far been critical to understanding the Hispanic/Latino experience throughout this study. However, another crucial aspect to consider is one’s citizenship status. Undocumented Hispanic/Latino individuals are excluded from many federal and local resources such as financial assistance for housing, healthcare, and postsecondary education. Additionally, undocumented status carries stigma and the risk of deportation, which imposes stressors on entire families and communities (Arbona et al., 2010; Pew, 2018). The chronic uncertainty around the risk of deportation can have negative effects on mental health and emotional wellbeing (Daftary, 2020) which may be expressed or experienced through physical symptoms such as chest and stomach pain, known as somatization, rather than mood descriptors such as sadness and anger (Cariello, Perrin, & Morlett-Paredes, 2020; Lee et al., 2014). Consequently, there is a growing movement among clinicians to widely adopt an integrative behavioral healthcare approach when treating Hispanic/Latino patients due to the constellation of reported symptoms throughout the body.


The U.S. has a long history of anti-Hispanic and Latino sentiment, including violent acts against individuals of Mexican decent (Martinez, 2018; Villanueva, 2018). While the U.S. has become less violent against Hispanic/Latino individuals, negative sentiment still exists and has grown worse in recent years through political rhetoric and harmful policies, such as changes to sanctuary laws and family separation policies at the U.S.-Mexico border (Wallace & Zepeda-Millán, 2020). In 2018, 37% of Hispanic/Latino individuals reported that they were either called an offensive name, told to go back to their home country, criticized for speaking Spanish in public, and/or experienced unfair treatment because of their ethnicity, with the latter being the most common (Pew, 2018). Consequently, studies suggest that Latinos/Hispanica are beginning to suppress their cultural identities while emphasizing their American identities by speaking only in English publicly and wearing clothing that shows their U.S. pride (Gonzalez-Barrera & Lopez, 2020). These troubling reports suggest that experiences with discrimination are increasing and that greater attention should be directed toward stressors that may be associated with the growing anti-immigrant sentiment in the U.S. Stressors associated with discrimination have been linked to a higher prevalence of diseases such as diabetes and mental health disorders like depression (LeBron et al., 2014; Pérez-Escamilla, 2011).

Racial Identity Development

Identity development is highly dependent on individual experiences with discrimination, acculturation, and immigration including undocumented status, separation from family and friends from their country of origin, and trauma associated with their journey to the U.S., especially if they are escaping from violence. All of which impact social, educational, and economic opportunities here in the U.S. First-generation and potentially second-generation Hispanics/Latinos may also feel a sense of identity loss when having to navigate a new and unfamiliar culture with limited language ability and lack of social support, which may have a negative effect on their mental health (e.g., Falcov, 2014; Organista, 2007). Individuals, particularly children and adolescents, may especially struggle to reconcile their bicultural status as they may also experience generational conflicts related to cultural values within their household. As children and youth develop, these conflicts may affect their future aspirations such as educational completion and career goals. It’s important to consider several pertinent issues that affect Hispanics/Latinos of all ages and understand how acute stressors may affect their stage of development.


Individuals who identify as Hispanic/Latino/a represent the fastest growing ethnocultural group in the U.S. The population is heterogeneous regarding their countries of origin and socioeconomic characteristics. Despite their long history in the U.S., this population remains clinically underserved and neglected, particularly within certain specialties such as the field of family therapy (Bernal & Rodríguez, 2009), where there are relatively few empirically tested interventions and existing approaches are highly specialized to specific subpopulations. The diversity in views, traditions, and identities, including the different meanings that are attributed to ethnic labels such as Hispanic, Latino, and Latinx, should be approached with sensitivity and respect. Overall, there is still much more work to be done to develop culturally appropriate interventions and policies to serve the needs of this diverse population. The importance of this work cannot be understated or ignored. The oppression of this group has grown with the increasingly divisive polarization that has characterized American politics over the last decade. This political rhetoric has motivated stringent and harmful immigration policies that have resulted in increased reports of discrimination and the separation of families through deportation. It has also resulted in greater violence, epitomized by tragic events such as the mass shooting in El Paso where the shooter claimed to be motivated by the “Hispanic invasion of Texas” in his manifesto. Hispanic/Latino Americans are also suffering in other ways as well, especially right now as this group has experienced some of the worst economic, health, and social consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic (Krogstad & Lopez, 2020). 

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