Today marks the beginning of National Hispanic Heritage Month and in honor of the month-long celebration of the contributions and influence of Hispanic Americans on the culture and achievements of the United States, I thought I would share some demographic research on the terms Hispanic and Latino/a/x. I’ll briefly cover how the terms have evolved and how Hispanic and Latino/a/x individuals self-identify.
By the way, in case you were wondering, the US began nationally recognizing Hispanic Heritage for a week in 1968. National Hispanic Heritage Month was established in 1988. Also, the period of recognition begins in the middle rather than the start of September to align with national independence days in several Latin American countries.
- What’s the difference between Hispanic and Latino/a/x?
- A brief history and evolution of the term “Hispanic.”
- Many Activists and Scholars prefer “Latino/a.”
- Where does Latinx come from then?
- The issues with using Latinx.
- What do Hispanic and Latino/a people prefer?
- How else do Hispanic and Latino/x individuals identify?
- Key Takeaways
What’s the difference between Hispanic and Latino/a/x?
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. Vox published a helpful comic by Terry Blas that illustrates the distinction between the two terms.
A brief history and evolution of the term “Hispanic.”
The term Hispanic was first introduced in 1960 and broadly adopted in the 1980s by federal institutions to refer to persons of Mexican, Puerto Rican, Cuban, Central American or South America or other Spanish culture or origin. Hispanic origin refers to an ethnic category rather than indicating a specific race, according to the OMB’s Directive No. 15 in 1977. The U.S. Census Bureau initially included Mexican as a racial category in the 1930 decennial census but it was subsequently removed. Since the year 2000, “Spanish/Hispanic/Latino” has been included in the decennial census to broaden the ethnic category and allow respondents to report their multiracial heritage. This was an attempt to increase the accuracy and response rate of the question about race, which results in an overcounting of individuals identifying as white alone. The 2020 Census attempted to improve the survey design yet again by removing the term “origin” and replaced it with examples of countries that a respondent could write in. Despite these improvements, initial studies show that non-response rates were higher in 2020 than in 2010. There are many reasons that contributed to the nonresponse rate including circumstances related to the COVID-19 pandemic and politicization over a citizenship question which was ultimately excluded. The Census Bureau is expected to release a full report on the over- and undercounting rates sometime in 2022.
What this brief history of changing definitions demonstrates is the fluidity around the conceptualization of racial and ethnic constructs within a shifting social and political environment. It also demonstrates that race and ethnicity are difficult to capture in a survey. Results from a study conducted in January 2020 by the Pew Research Center reiterate the latter point. They asked respondents to describe their race or ethnicity in their own words and while most respondents provided an answer that fits into the categories found on the Census, 18% skipped the answer. Another 3% answered the question with sarcasm and defiance, with answers such as “human race,” “no.” and “none of your business.” In the end, only 53% of Hispanic respondents provided an answer that matched the Census questions. Mark Hugo Lopez, director of race and ethnicity research at Pew, stated on NPR that “Many people of Hispanic origin say that they don’t see themselves in the race question or even the Hispanic question. As a researcher, that suggests to me we need to think about other ways to ask about people’s identity, because people’s identity can be very, very rich and have a lot of nuances to it.”
Many Activists and Scholars prefer “Latino/a.”
The use of terms such as Hispanic and Latino as pan-ethnic categories on federal documents is debated among scholars and civil rights activists. Many believe that 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. Consequently, the anti-imperial term Latino/a has been encouraged, instead of Hispanic, because it more accurately represents the rich social and linguistic histories and traditions of the region.1 Institutions such as the Los Angeles Times have adopted the practice and use Latino/a instead of Hispanic.
Where does Latinx come from then?
A growing number of researchers, civil rights activists, and journalists have recently begun promoting the use of “Latinx” or “Latin@” as a gender-neutral alternative to Latino/a. The aim is to be more inclusive of those who identify as queer, non-binary, or gender nonconforming. 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.
The issues with using Latinx.
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 another form of linguistic imperialism that ultimately renders the Spanish language incomprehensible and confusing.
What do Hispanic and Latino/a people prefer?
Public opinion polls and studies have found that about half of all Latino and Hispanic U.S. adults have no preference between the two terms. Among those who do report a preference, researchers consistently find that a greater share of respondents prefer the term Hispanic, while specific country of origin labels are preferred over both.
Few Hispanic and Latino/a individuals are familiar with the term Latinx. It is a relatively newer term that mostly younger generations are familiar with. Those who are familiar with the term Latinx, only 3% of Hispanic or Latino/a respondents self-identify as Latinx. This is consistent with a recent poll from Gallup which found that 4% of Hispanic and Latino/a Americans prefer the term Latinx.
How else do Hispanic and Latino/x individuals identify?
There are a few other labels that are used to describe individuals of Latino and Hispanic descent. Some are lesser known than others and mostly regional. For example, 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.
A more commonly recognized term is Chicano/a. The term Chicano grew out of political and social movements in the 1960s and is mostly used among Mexican Americans or individuals with Mexican ancestry. Some individuals only identify as Chicano/a or ChincanX, although this term is not meant to be mutually exclusive. That is, a person may identify as both Latino/a/x and Chicano/a/x. There are no representative surveys that count the number of people who identify as Chicano/a in the US, to my knowledge, but there are several organizations that are dedicated to advancing opportunities and preserving the history and identity of this group such as M.E.Ch.A, Chicanos Por La Causa, and SACNAS.
Hispanic and Latinos/as have a long and rich history that informs their identities and their attitudes concerning pan-ethnic labels are closely intertwined with struggles of power and equality within broader society. Although many people use Hispanic and Latino/a interchangeably, assumptions should be avoided. It’s best to respect someone’s preferences by simply asking how they identify. Latinx is generally acceptable in academic and policy circles, as well as among journalists.
 Gomez, L. E. (1992). The Birth of the “Hispanic” Generation: Attitudes of Mexican-American Political Elites toward the Hispanic Label. Latin American Perspectives, 19(4), 45–58.
Hayes-Bautista, D. E., & Chapa, J. (1987). Latino terminology: conceptual bases for standardized terminology. American Journal of Public Health, 77(1), 61-68.
 Mora, G. C. (2014). Making Hispanics: How activists, bureaucrats, and media constructed a new American. University of Chicago Press.
 Abalos, D. T. (2017). Latinos in the United States: The sacred and the political, second edition. University of Notre Dame Press.
Alcoff, L. M. (2005). Latino vs. Hispanic: The politics of ethnic names. Philosophy & Social Criticism. 2005;31(4):395-407.
Gracia, J. J. E. (1999). Hispanic / Latino Identity: A philosophical perspective. Wiley Blackwell.
Shorris, E. (2001). Latinos: A biography of the people. W.W. Norton & Company.
Morales, E. (2018). Latinx: The new force in American politics and culture. Verso.