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#3 Hispanic, Latino, Latinx: Definitions, Usage, and Controversies Explained

The terms Hispanic and Latino are often used interchangeably, yet they carry different meanings and are controversial. Most Hispanics in the U.S. don’t even use these terms to describe themselves. 


Are you curious about when to use Hispanic, Latino, or Latinx and what they mean?


Do you want to know who coined these terms, why we need them, and which ones are preferred in everyday life according to recent surveys?


This 5-minute read answers the four most frequently asked questions on this topic.


1. What's the difference between Hispanic, Latino/a/e, and Latinx?


Hispanic


The term "Hispanic" originated in the mid-1500s from the Latin word "Hispanicus," meaning "Spanish." The Romans referred to the Iberian Peninsula as Hispania.


In the 19th century United States, "Hispano" described people who descended from Spaniards and lived in the Southwest before it became part of America.


In contemporary usage [1-3], "Hispanic" is still defined as someone “coming originally from an area where Spanish is spoken, especially from Latin America.”

An old map of Central and South America, created with AI
Image created by the author using Adobe Photoshop and Microsoft Designer

Latino/Latina/Latinx


The term “Latino” may be understood as shorthand for the Spanish word “Latinoamericano” (Latin American). It was coined in the 19th century to refer to people from the former Spanish colonies as they began to declare their independence.


The feminine adjective Latina became prevalent in the 1970s when feminist movements pushed for gender recognition among Latinos in the United States. 


More recently, the gender-neutral alternative Latinx, introduced to the Merriam-Webster dictionary in 2018, has gained popularity in the media [4]. Some prefer "e" over "x" for better alignment with Spanish pronunciation. In 2018, the Real Academia Española rejected "Latinx," but its use continues to grow regardless, especially among young Latinos.


Some surveys say that most of the Hispanic population has not heard of the term Latinx or prefers not to use it (see below).


2. Why are the terms so controversial?


Opponents of the use of either term use at least three compelling arguments:


  1. One word cannot possibly capture the multidimensional and heterogeneous nature of the demographic they represent,

  2. Pan-ethnic terms assume that all members of that demographic are the same regardless of their nationality, and

  3. The only reason why these terms were and continue to be popularized is to make the community more marketable, not because the community identifies with them [10].


The use of the word “Hispanic” has been criticized for years, primarily because it is considered a nod toward Spanish colonialism. Also, it excludes people from countries such as Brazil where Portuguese, not Spanish, is the official language, making the term Latino more inclusive.


"Latinx" is also controversial. Critics argue it undermines the feminist movement's efforts to highlight the role of Latin American women in the U.S. Supporters favor it for its gender-neutral inclusivity, gaining popularity on social media and within the LGBTQ community.

“Words such as Hispanic or Latino are limiting. We come in all shapes, sizes, colors and dialects. There’s no one word that fits all.”–Lawrence Hernandez

A collection of Latin American flags
Image created by the author using Microsoft Designer and Adobe Photoshop


3. Which term do Hispanics/Latinos use most frequently?


To summarize the survey data in one sentence (for those uninterested in the details shown in the table), surveys repeatedly find that these terms do not matter to most Hispanics/Latinos. However, if pressed for an answer, more participants chose the term Hispanic.

Here are some key findings from some of the best-quality surveys conducted in the last few years [5-8]:

1.      Only 20% of Hispanics living in the U.S. use the pan-ethnic terms “Hispanic” or “Latino” to describe their identity.

2.      In a survey of 5,103 Hispanics from several countries, 50% of participants said they had no preference between Hispanic or Latino. Among the other 50% who have a preference 33% said they prefer the term Hispanic while 15% chose Latino.

3.      A more recent survey found that 53% of Hispanics prefer to describe themselves as “Hispanic,” 26% prefer “Latino,” 2% prefer “Latinx” and 18% have no preference.

4.      A Gallup survey found that only 4% of participants preferred “Latinx,” and 57% said that terms didn’t matter. 23% preferred Hispanic and 15% Latino.

A caveat of most surveys is that they use census definitions that are known not to capture the data for this population appropriately. However, despite variations due to age, survey methodology, and other factors, "Hispanic" is usually the first choice.


I have chosen to use the term “Hispanic” in my book titles and articles to respect that choice, and because the importance of the Spanish language or linguistically appropriate communication in health care is a key message of my writing. However, I will occasionally use the term “Latino” to respect the choice of the authors I am quoting, and I even use it to describe myself from time to time.


I agree with the argument that these terms have little relevance in everyday life and that one word cannot define me.


The terms we use to quantify the needs of a population, such as Hispanic or Latino, cannot possibly define its true identity. – Paola Mina-Osorio

Hispanic or Latino are rarely used outside the United States where the demonym corresponding to the country of origin is preferred, e.g. Mexican, Ecuadorian, Colombian, etc.


Even within the U.S., as more and more diverse Latin American immigrant groups arrived, they chose to differentiate themselves according to their country of origin.  


4. If Hispanics/Latinos rarely use these terms to describe themselves, how are they used and why do we need them?


Terms that define each population are used primarily to quantify its needs. Data from the census is used to determine the distribution of public funds for programs including those involving education and health care.


Deciding on the best terminology to be used in the census to count people accurately and distribute resources appropriately aroused much controversy among the members of an advisory committee put in place during the Nixon administration [9]. The committee, which included Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, Cubans, and members of other races and ethnicities, chose the term “Hispanic” over “Latino.”


“I hope that my daughter will be conscious that the idea of Latino/Hispanic was actually rooted in an effort to work for social justice and political inclusion. Though we are a diverse community, many still grapple with disadvantage, discrimination and underrepresentation. ─Cristina Mora, Making Hispanics: how activists, bureaucrats, and media constructed a new American [10].

While the census terminology has evolved, it still does not accurately count Hispanics/Latinos. I'll discuss how the census counts Hispanics in a separate article.


Key takeaways:


  • Labels like Hispanic or Latino are needed to quantify our population and its needs.

  • No individual label can capture the diversity or true identity of a community.

  • Survey data suggests that most of us agree that words are not important.

  • Our community's goal is to recognize that people of all races and ethnicities, regardless of the labels they choose to identify with or are imposed upon them under specific circumstances, require and deserve fair and appropriate healthcare and education.

  • Whichever your choice of terminology, embrace your heritage and focus on the commonalities we all share, regardless of your country of origin. ¡Unidos somos mas!

“Labels, like Spanish or Hispanic or Latin, come and go, but identity is something totally separate. What matters is who I am.” –Sara Ines Calderon

 

A similar version of this text was published in the author's book “Un Doctor Por Favor: Why We Need More Hispanic Physicians And Why You Should Be One of Them.” and excerpted with permission.

 

References:


  1. Oxford University Press, Oxford English Dictionary, in Oxford English Dictionary. Oxford University Press. Available from: https://www.oed.com/.

  2. Author The roots of “Hispanic”. Periodical The roots of “Hispanic”, 2003. Available from: https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/politics/2003/10/15/the-roots-of-hispanic/3d914863-95bc-40f3-9950-ce0c25939046/.

  3. National Public Radio, Who Put The ‘Hispanic’ In Hispanic Heritage Month?, in Code Switch. 2017: npr.org. Available from: https://www.npr.org/sections/codeswitch/2017/09/23/552036578/who-put-the-hispanic-in-hispanic-heritage-month.

  4. Merriam-Webster. ‘Latinx’ and the gender inclusivity. 2018; Available from: https://www.merriam-webster.com/words-at-play/word-history-latinx.

  5. Lopez, M. Hispanic Identity. 2013. Available from: https://www.pewresearch.org/hispanic/2013/10/22/3-hispanic-identity/.

  6. Waldinger, R. Transnationalism. Between Here and There: How attached are Latino immigrants to their native country? Pew Research Center 2007 October 25, 2007; Available from: https://www.pewresearch.org/hispanic/2007/10/25/vi-transnationalism/.

  7. Pew Research Center, September 2022, “Most Latinos Say Democrats Care About Them and Work Hard for Their Vote, Far Fewer Say So of GOP” Available from: https://pewrsr.ch/3LPpLjb

  8. Mccarthy, J.  Whitney D. Gallup: No Preferred Racial Term Among Most Black, Hispanic Adults https://news.gallup.com/poll/353000/no-preferred-racial-term-among-black-hispanic-adults.aspx

  9. Federal Interagency Committee on Education, Report of the Ad Hoc Committee on Racial and Ethnic Definitions of the /federal Interagency Committee on Education. Journal, 1975. Available from: https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED121636.pdf.

  10. Mora, G.C., Making Hispanics: how activists, bureaucrats, and media constructed a new American. 2014, Chicago The University of Chicago Press. Available from: https://www.press.uchicago.edu/ucp/books/book/chicago/M/bo15345128.html.


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