Latino, Hispanic and Latinx: What the Terms Mean and How to Use Them

Not sure when to use Hispanic vs. Latino or Latino vs. Latinx? We asked the experts what each means and when to use them.

Latinos are currently the largest minority in the United States, yet many people are still confused by how to refer to this diverse group of people. And unless they belong to the group, most are stumped when faced with the decision of whether to use Hispanic vs. Latino or Latino vs. Latinx.

Latinos are descendants of the populations of more than 54 million indigenous people who mixed with Africans brought over as slaves as well as European colonizers. They lived in the region now considered Latin America, which includes Mexico, Central and South America, and certain Caribbean Islands, and each had varying languages, customs and traditions. Understandably, to classify the distinct and rich cultures of Latin America under a single umbrella term is complicated.

Things get further complicated because the “need” to classify this huge population is inherently an American one. Citizens of each country in Latin America generally, and pretty much exclusively, refer to themselves by their nationality (e.g. Peruvians or Colombians). Yet in the United States, we’ve gone through a series of terms to refer to this population, with the most recent being Hispanic, Latino and the trending Latinx.

If this sounds confusing and complicated, that’s because it is—so much so that even Latin Americans residing in the United States are not in agreement about what they should be collectively called. We’re diving in to the details so you’re clear on what each term means—for Hispanic Heritage Month and beyond. When you’re done, celebrate this group of people by learning about the Hispanic women and famous Hispanic Americans who made history, and by reading books by Hispanic authors.

Whom does Hispanic encompass?

According to David Bowles, PhD, associate professor at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, the term Hispanic comes from an association with la Monarquía Hispánica—the Spanish Monarchy—dating back to the time when Spain colonized the Americas after Christopher Columbus “discovered” the land. Those who belonged to the monarchy are Hispanos.

This term came to include people from all Spanish-speaking countries but excludes those where Spanish is not the primary language, such as Brazil, where Portuguese is spoken.

Analucía Lopezrevoredo, PhD, a sociologist and founder of Jewtina y Co., states that the American “desire to categorize people is one of the most interesting sociological things.” Like the concept of race, the term Hispanic began as a system of classification.

During the 1970 census, the U.S. government needed a term with which to classify Latin American people from the West Coast, who typically came from Mexico and Central America. It lumped them together with other Spanish-speaking Americans across the country, including those from Puerto Rico, Colombia and other countries, and called them Hispanics.

The need for the term was also recognized by community organizations that lobbied for inclusion in the 1970 census so people from Latin American countries could be “counted” and gain access to federal support for specific social needs.

Resistance to the term Hispanic immediately arose from the very people the word intended to represent. Why? The term has a connotation that aligns too closely with Spanish imperialism and the desire to associate more closely with the “whiteness” this implies. Many feel that the alignment with Hispanic rejects both the indigenous cultures of the region and their association with brownness.

Unfortunately, colorism is alive and well within the Latin American community; as oppressive as the term feels for some, it’s used regionally on the East Coast of the United States as well as among older generations of Latinos.

Is Latino any better?

The term Latino came into popular use in the 1990s as an alternative to Hispanic, although the word was in existence long before. Latino is a shortened way of saying Latinoamericano, meaning Latin American. Its origins date back to the beginning of the 19th century, after the wars of Spanish American Independence.

In the 1830s, “a French thinker named Saint-Simonian Michel Chevalier started saying the citizens of these countries were a ‘Latin race,'” Bowles explains. “Other thinkers joined in the usage of the word, including Chilean poet and sociologist Francisco Bilbao, who spoke of ‘La raza latinoamericana.'”

He’s quick to point out that Latino was never “meant to replace people’s primary ethnic identifier.” That is to say, people from Nicaragua still identify as Nicaraguan first, Latino second.

So when it comes to Hispanic vs. Latino, which is better? The beauty of the word Latino is that it’s more encompassing than Hispanic because it embraces people from all of Latin America, including citizens of French-speaking Caribbean nations as well as those from Brazil. Yet this term also has its issues—Spanish is a gendered language, after all.

Latino is a masculine noun but is also used to describe a group of people of mixed gender. (The word Latina, feminine in construction, describes a woman of Latin American heritage.) Additionally, there is growing concern that the term Latino is exclusionary of those of Afro-Latino backgrounds.

Enter the newly popular term Latinx.

What about Latinx?

Bowles defines Latinx as a gender-neutral and nonbinary version of Latina and Latino. Latinx is a way of inclusively calling someone Latino without having to reference the male denotation of the term. To use Latino solely to describe a mixed group of males and females ignores the nonbinary members of the community and elevates the male to a superior status to the female. The preference for male over female is a long-standing practice in Latin American culture, and to deny this as an issue further alienates women from an equal place in society.

The term may have originated from protestors in South America who crossed out the letter “o” at the end of Latino on their protest signs. It first appeared around 2004 within the LGBTQ+ Latino community, which sought to identify with a more inclusive term. It’s quickly growing in popularity in the United States (as is the gender-neutral Latine) and is used more frequently here than in Latin America.

How do Latino vs. Latinx stack up? While Latinx is popular across social media channels, a recent study by the Pew Research Center found that only 23% of Latinos have heard the term and only 3% of the total population is using it. According to the study, Latinx emerges from a worldwide movement to use gender-neutral nouns and pronouns. Young people between the ages of 18 and 29 are among the more prominent users of the term. Unsurprisingly, women, who are most affected by the gender specificity of the Spanish language, are also more likely to use it.

Like Hispanic, this term sparks plenty of resistance. One criticism is that “it’s a way to take American values and Anglicize the Spanish,” says Lopezrevoredo. She does not use the term Latinx to define herself because she feels that Latino denotes gender neutrality and views the letter “x” as too contentious. At the same time, she acknowledges that “it’s important for people to feel as if there is a term that denotes who they are completely.”

How should you use each term?

Wondering when to use Hispanic vs. Latino and Latinx vs. Hispanic? When referring to people from Latin America, it’s important that we listen and follow their lead. Lopezrevoredo leads with the identifiers Peruvian-Chilean, as this is her background and so her ethnic identifiers are how we should describe her.

We should also remember that people identify first with their country of origin. A Salvadoran woman may refer to herself as Salvadoran American. The three terms described above are not interchangeable because individual preferences matter and they allow us to have the agency to claim our own identities.

If you are referring to a group of people of Latin American heritage, it’s appropriate to refer to them as Latinx. You should also know your audience, however; older generations may not be familiar with the term. In this case, referring to them as a group of Latinos, even though the feminist in you might cringe, is appropriate.

Lastly, even Hispanic is appropriate if you know for sure that this particular group or individual refers to themselves as such.

The examination of these terms simply reminds us that no term is perfect and that language is constantly evolving. Our understanding of these ethnic identifiers and acceptance of them needs to also constantly evolve. We do our best to be inclusive today, but tomorrow the needs and terminology may change, and that’s OK.

Next, read on to find out which term you should be using: Black or African American.

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Editor’s note: The opinions here belong to the author. To submit your own idea for an essay, email [email protected].

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