Commentary

The debate on Latino vs. Latinx vs. Hispanic is the song that never ends

October 4, 2021 5:50 am

Dia de los Muertos is celebrated on Nov. 1 and 2 as a way to demonstrate love and respect for deceased family members. It’s largely celebrated in Mexico with altars like these. (Photo by Rebecca Rivas)

Growing up in El Paso, Texas, in the ’80s and ’90s, the diversity at my school could’ve been broken down into two categories — children who were born in the United States and students who weren’t. 

But almost all of the students’ families came from Mexico at some point, and we called ourselves Mexican-Americans or just Mexicans. 

Now I tend to identify as Chicana or Latina, but I don’t mind being called Hispanic.

When I was writing my most recent article about Hispanic Heritage Month in Missouri, I sent a text to my parents to ask which term they prefer to use: Hispanic or Latino.

What followed was a long text debate between my mom and dad — who were probably sitting across the kitchen table from each other. In the end, my mom landed on Hispanic, and my dad on Mexican American but would concede to Hispanic if necessary. Neither liked Latino and hadn’t even heard of Latinx. 

They both thought being called Chicano was offensive because the word was a racial slur when they were growing up. Historians say it dates back to the early 1900s. Yet I like Chicana because it’s a nod to civil-rights leaders like César Chávez and Dolores Huerta, as well as a new generation of Mexican-Americans who feel a sense of responsibility to uplift our people.

Three Latinos. Same family. Same ethnic heritage. But very differing and strong feelings about identity and the words we use to describe ourselves.

Imagine trying to find a term to categorize an entire nation of people whose roots stem from Latin-American countries, which all have distinct cultures, foods and feelings about their relationship to the United States. 

And just when you thought the debate was just between Latino or Hispanic, in comes a new generation with Latinx or Latine as a way to make Latino gender neutral (since Latino is masculine in Spanish). 

So what do these words mean?

Imagine trying to find a term to categorize an entire nation of people whose roots stem from Latin-American countries, which all have distinct cultures, foods and feelings about their relationship to the United States.

As Pew Research Center describes, the terms “Hispanic” and “Latino” are pan-ethnic terms meant to describe the population of people living in the U.S. of that ethnic background. 

The U.S. Census Bureau most often uses the term “Hispanic,” while Pew Research Center uses the terms “Hispanic” and “Latino” interchangeably.

Some people have drawn sharp distinctions between these two terms, saying that Hispanics are people from Spain or from Spanish-speaking countries in Latin America (this excludes Brazil, where Portuguese is the official language), while Latinos are people from Latin America regardless of language (this includes Brazil but excludes Spain and Portugal). 

“Despite this debate, the ‘Hispanic’ and ‘Latino’ labels are not universally embraced by the population that has been labeled, even as they are widely used,” the Pew Research Center writes.

Aside from my parents, I also decided to pose the Hispanic vs. Latino vs. Latinx question in a chat to some old friends who were part of Adelante, a bilingual newspaper published out of the University of Missouri School of Journalism in the early 2000s. 

The Adelante staff mainly consisted of graduate and undergraduate journalism students from around the world, but we also worked hand-in-hand with members of the Latino community throughout Missouri. 

The conversation was robust, and links were flying in almost immediately. 

Some have embraced the terms “Latinx” or “Latine,” and shared TikToks of young people talking about how language evolves and needs to be more inclusive of the LGBTQ community. Others found them to be elitist and not representative of how communities refer to themselves, which a Washington Post column also concluded. 

From my experience, Missouri reflects a similar trend that a Pew Research Center found — that the term “Latinx” has not quite taken root. 

Only 23% of U.S. adults who self-identify as Hispanic or Latino have heard of the term Latinx, and just 3% say they use it to describe themselves, according to a nationally representative, bilingual survey of U.S. Hispanic adults conducted in December 2019 by Pew Research Center.

Maria Sanchez, a real estate agent in Carthage and a leader in the group Hispanic Connection, said Hispanics is most commonly used in her community. So for the article, I went with that. 

Back in the early 2000s, I remember debating Latino vs. Hispanic in the Adelante newsroom — sometimes right before the newspaper went to print. At that time, many were saying they preferred Latino because Hispanic infers that people with Latin-American heritage are tied culturally to Spaniards. 

However, the term Latino refers to “a sense of community through a history of colonization from Spain,” said G. Cristina Mora, a sociology professor at UC Berkeley and author of Making Hispanics: How Activists, Bureaucrats, and Media Constructed a New American

At the time Adelante was printing, “Hispanic” had started taking root in our communities and “Latino” had just appeared on the Census for the first time in 2000. The term “Hispanic” was actually born out of fervent activism from largely Mexican-Americans, Puerto Ricans and Cuban Americans in the 1970s who wanted more political representation for Spanish-speakers in the U.S. 

Yet even back then, coming up with one term was extremely difficult. Mora does a great job of explaining the history of getting Latinos counted in the Census during interviews with NPR’s Code Switch and the Atlantic’s The Experiment.

Bottom line is that talking about identity requires a delicate balance. There’s not a correct answer to the Latino vs Hispanic vs Latinx debate, and trying to say that there is will probably get you an earful from any direction you turn. 

What I came away with from my various conversations is that people take so much pride in their individual heritage. And while unity among all Latinos is important, we need to honor each person’s experience as best we can.  

Or as Mora puts it, “Striving toward one national image, while it gives you power, you also run the risk of homogenizing incredibly important differences.”

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Rebecca Rivas
Rebecca Rivas

Rebecca Rivas covers civil rights, criminal justice and immigration. She has been reporting in Missouri since 2001, most recently as senior reporter and video producer at the St. Louis American, the nation's leading African-American newspaper.

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