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Latino’ Or ‘Hispanic’: What’s In A Name?


Aired 4/18/12

We all know the fastest growing minority group in this country is Hispanic, right? Or is it Latino? Is there a difference? Fronteras Desk reporters set out to determine what those terms really mean to the people they are supposed to describe, and which one is most accurate.

The entry for 'Hispanic' in the Associated Press Stylebook.
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Above: The entry for 'Hispanic' in the Associated Press Stylebook.

The terms "Latino" and "Hispanic" are often used interchangeably. In fact, we, at the Fronteras Desk, have done so in our reporting. But we recently embarked on an investigative journey to figure out what those terms really mean, and which term most accurately describes the population we often assume it does.

It all started with a story my colleague Nadine Arroyo Rodriguez did a few weeks back – about a survey by the Pew Hispanic Center that found three-quarters of Hispanics/Latinos don't identify with either term.

Listener James Rogers, whose background is Brazilian, wrote in to say Hispanic and Latino don't mean the same thing.

“The story presupposed that the categories Hispanic and Latino only include Spanish-speakers," Rogers told reporter Devin Browne at his office in Phoenix, "and there’s a lot of Brazilians who would define themselves as being Latino, as well.”

Brazilians, of course, speak Portuguese. And as Rogers pointed out, there are more Portuguese speakers on the South American continent than Spanish speakers. Plus, there are more than 1 million Brazilians living in the U.S., according to the Brazilian government (the U.S. government says the number is closer to 400,000).

Rogers doesn't consider himself Hispanic, but he does fancy himself a Latino.

“I think the term Latino describes me because my ancestry is from Latin America,” he said. In fact, the term Latino is generally considered a shortened form of "Latin American."

Ok, point taken: don't marginalize the Brazilians.

That got us thinking, who else might we be marginalizing when we lump together Latinos or Hispanics?

As good American journalists, our first stop was the Associated Press Stylebook. Here are the entries for the terms "Hispanic" and "Latino."

Hispanic A person from – or whose ancestors were from – a Spanish-speaking land or culture. Latino and Latina are sometimes preferred. Follow the person's preference. Use a more specific identification when possible, such as Cuban, Puerto Rican or Mexican-American.

Latino Often the preferred term for a person from – or whose ancestors were from – a Spanish-speaking land or culture or from Latin America. Latina is the feminine form. Follow the person's preference. Use a more specific identification when possible, such as Cuban, Puerto Rican, Brazilian or Mexican-American.

So Rogers was right. Brazilians are presumably included in the "or from Latin America" part of the description for "Latino."

We're happy to follow people's preference. But what about when we're talking about the population as a whole, as in the coveted Latino/Hispanic voter?

Fronteras reporters went out to take the pulse on the streets. Nick Blumberg in Phoenix interviewed several young women at a press conference held by the Arizona DREAM Act Coalition.

"I think I can relate more to being Hispanic," said Jackie Sanchez. "I think it’s more of a community thing, and Hispanic is being, like, from Mexico. Because that’s where I’m from, so I’m Hispanic."

Her friend Dulce Matuz felt differently.

Hispanic or Latino?

We want to hear from you: Which term do you prefer? Why? Share your story by clicking here.

“I like the term Latina because in my mind I think of Latin American," she said. "And it also brings some flavor and identity to myself.”

At a community center in San Diego, reporter Adrian Florido interviewed Valentina Torres during a cultural exchange between Mixtec indigenous people from Oaxaca, Mexico and Spanish and English speaking San Diegans. Many Mixtecs — and many immigrants from indigenous groups throughout Latin America — don't speak Spanish or English, but rather their native language.

Torres said she doesn't see herself as Hispanic or Latina.

“My indigenous background and culture is very different from Latin American countries,” Torres said. “I usually mark the little box that says ‘Other.’

There you have it. We have one Hispanic. One Latina. And one “Other.” This is precisely the problem.

We asked UCLA professor David Hayes-Bautista if he could shed some light on the matter. He's the director of the Center for the Study of Latino Health and Culture at UCLA.

Hayes-Bautista wrote an article about the “Latino” versus “Hispanic” dispute in the American Journal of Public Health back in 1987. He’s traced the history of these terms —as they've been used to describe a pan-Latin American population in the U.S. — to the California Gold Rush days.

The debate has never been resolved, he said.

“In the almost 50 years I’ve been involved in sort of the Chicano, the larger Latino movement in this country, I have never found one single term that satisfies everyone," he said.

So he tries to pick the least polarizing term, which he thinks is Latino.

But if you really want to be precise when looking at something like a survey of the Latino vote, or a study of Hispanic health trends, you have to figure out who exactly is included, he said.

“What do they mean? Who was really in there? Was it by surname, was it by language, was it by birthplace?" he said.

In the end, Hayes-Bautista said, it’s a complex, and fuzzy, population cohort.

After gathering the information, I called my editor so we could make a final decision on which term the Fronteras Desk should use. The term "Latino" does seem more encompassing, we decided, although people with roots in Latin American indigenous communities could still feel left out of that category.

The not-so-perfect verdict was — Latino.

But we'll still do our best to describe our sources by the term they think fits them.

Interactive Feature

Latino or Hispanic?

View Latino or Hispanic? in a larger map

Fronteras: The Changing America Desk asked what the words Latino and Hispanic mean to you, and which word or words you use. We got responses from across the country. Take a look at what people had to say! Add your own response here.

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Avatar for user 'Missionaccomplished'

Missionaccomplished | April 27, 2012 at 10:09 a.m. ― 4 years, 11 months ago

I would say Rogers has it about right.

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Avatar for user 'franciscocroquer'

franciscocroquer | April 27, 2012 at 12:02 p.m. ― 4 years, 11 months ago

The Associated Press Stylebook is wrong. A Hispanic is somebody from or whose ancestors were from the region of Hispania (Spain and Portugal). So, therefore, Brazilians are Hispanics. And Latinos would be people with Latin background (French, Italian, Mexicans, etc...) So, people from Guayana or Haiti would be considered Latin but not Hispanic. That's what It means but for whatever reason, people don't want to be associated with something they considered a lower standard.

Another thing that beats me is why the race used by Immigration authorities consider Arab as Whites in the same group as Anglo or Northern European.

Why do we need those names? I don't know.

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Avatar for user 'benz72'

benz72 | April 27, 2012 at 12:22 p.m. ― 4 years, 11 months ago

Race names aren't logical. I’ve never been anywhere near the Caucasus and wouldn’t be able to identify that region’s cultural peculiarities if my life depended on it. In what way is a naturalized US citizen from Morocco less of an African American than a darker skinned individual who has never been to the continent of Africa? People euphemize and shrink from language they think might associate someone with a group they don't view themselves as a part of. It’s a big waste of time and effort for a classification that is (to me at least) meaningless. I really wish we could be post-racial; we just seem too fixated on skin tone and ancestry for now.

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Avatar for user 'krispyier'

krispyier | April 29, 2012 at 2:38 p.m. ― 4 years, 11 months ago

Am I allowed to weigh in as a non-Latina/Hispanic?

I don't like 'Hispanic' since it evokes historically Spanish, even if it derives 'Hispania' (which I'm not so sure about). When I studied Portuguese, we used 'Luso~' for things, people, and places historically Portuguese, but both terms, as the article ends with, says that there still remains the stickier issue of indigenous groups who have never really been historically colonized in the Americas, like Amazonians, for instance. Even nationality terms obscure are not as descriptive as they may seem throughout the Americas and other settler societies like NZ and Australia. I know several people who are Korean but immigrated here from Argentina. Are they Hispanic or Latin@? Are they even Argentinian?

All that said, I tend to use Latin@ when necessary. I try to say, "from a Spanish-language dominant country" if I'm trying really hard to be accurate.

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Avatar for user 'Len'

Len | April 29, 2012 at 4:23 p.m. ― 4 years, 11 months ago

Benz. You write " I really wish we could be post-racial; we just seem too fixated on skin tone and ancestry for now." But on another page you defend stopping people and demanding to see their "papers" because their skin color indicates they may be from countries to our south.

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Avatar for user 'Candler'

Candler | April 29, 2012 at 11:44 p.m. ― 4 years, 11 months ago

The definitions are neither up to arbitrary individual preference nor are they correct in the AP stylebook. Why? Because the definition is critical to whether someone is eligible for $$ as a designated ethnic minority or whether someone is eligible for preference in a company that practices affirmative action. Someone didn't do their homework for a topic that could get pretty deep.

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Avatar for user 'benz72'

benz72 | April 30, 2012 at 8:06 a.m. ― 4 years, 11 months ago

Len, please re-read what I wrote. I said the law should apply equally to everyone. I also said that profiling makes sense in enforcement of laws where it can help better target scarce resources. (e.g., Everyone CAN be patted down at the airport, but we SHOULDN’T waste time on the 90 yr old granny being wheeled through in the airline-provided chair).

What I did NOT say is that people should be stopped and checked because of their skin color. I also believe that the AZ law we are discussing not say that either. (I believe it requires checks on suspicious persons stopped for other reasons, but please cite evidence to the contrary.) I honestly don’t have a problem with checking everybody the police, social services, hospitals, the DMV or any other tax funded organization come into contact with, suspicious or not. Hopefully that will make the difference clear.

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