Latino, Hispanic, or Both?

by Cecilia Genzlinger, Spanish teacher

It is not a surprise that most people don't really know the difference between the terms "Latino" and "Hispanic." In fact, there are even many Hispanics and Latinos who don't know the difference!

As a first-generation immigrant from Mexico to the United States, I had no idea what the distinction was between the two terms. In Spanish-speaking countries, we do not make any such distinction. It is enough to say, "I'm Colombian, or Puerto Rican, or Mexican, or Spanish, or Brazilian."

However, when an individual moves to a country where it is sometimes important to identify yourself within a specific group based on ethnicity or language, native Spanish speakers have to put themselves in the classification that fits best for them. 

That's where my research began.  

And here is how I understand the usage of the two terms, although according to a recent Pew survey, many Americans from Latin America do not prefer one term over the other. 

First, what is the origin of the word "Latino"? Latino refers to any person who was born in a country where the native language comes from Latin, such as Portuguese, French, Italian, and Spanish.

Second, what is the derivation of the word "Hispanic"? Hispanic does not refer to race; it is an ethnic distinction. Hispanics come from all racial backgrounds and exhibit a wide variety of physical traits. The term "Hispanic" is merely a translation of the Old World word "Hispania" (Latin) or "Hispano" (Spanish).  People from Latin America are all Latino, but not all are Hispanics (note Brazilians, who are Latino but not Hispanic!).

In my personal journey,  I have been doing a lot of reading in an effort to find the concept that I agree with the most. Finally, after a little more than a year, I have succeeded. Here is what I believe is the concept that best describes the difference between Latino and Hispanic in the United States:

  • Hispanic: from a country whose primary language is Spanish; it is a term that is telling you about language.
  • Latino: from Latin America 

Neither of these terms refers to racial identities. Latin America has a long and complex history that intersects Native American people, European colonists, enslaved Africans, and immigrants from around the world. As a result, there are native Latinos, white Latinos, black Latinos, Asian Latinos, and many more mixtures. 

There is so much more than just two "labels" for native Spanish speakers. Being born in a country in Latin America means more than just being a Latino or Latina. Personally, I love to celebrate my whole identity as a Hispanic Latino Americana with European roots, a woman who is a first-generation immigrant to the United States, as well as a third- and fourth-generation immigrant to Mexico.

It was great sharing my personal journey of discovering my own identity in this country. What's your story?