It’s Hispanic Heritage Month, and every year a debate rages about what to call people of Latin American and/or Spanish-speaking origins. Categorizing Latinx and Hispanic people has long been a controversial, messy process in the United States.
Let’s start by defining what each term means:
- Latinx: Someone who can trace their heritage to at least one of 33 countries in Latin America and the Caribbean, including Portuguese-speaking Brazil. This identity is tied to geography and excludes Spain.
- Hispanic: Someone whose heritage includes Spanish-speaking people — from anywhere, including Spain. This identity is tied to language and excludes Brazil. For some, this term further emphasizes the colonization of Spain in Latin America.
According to a Pew Research Center study, more than half of people have no preference, but when they do, it skews toward “Hispanic” and varies regionally.
OK, but why Latinx and not Latino?
Latinx (pronounced la-teen-ex) is a gender-neutral term for Latino/Latina. It’s meant to be more inclusive of people who don’t identify with the gender binary of male and female.
The origins of Hispanic
Hispanic first appeared on the census in 1970. Before then, Hispanic and Latinx people were classified as white, and by their country of origin. Grassroots activists and Spanish-language broadcasters spearheaded the campaign to make “Hispanic” a widely used term, but for different reasons.
Activists thought this new categorization would lead to more political visibility and funding for groups often overlooked by the government.
Spanish-language broadcasters, however, were looking to sell advertising to a broader category of Spanish speakers in the U.S., rather than smaller markets like Puerto Ricans or Cuban Americans — but they needed a name for that larger audience. In subsequent censuses, Spanish-language broadcaster Univision aggressively campaigned to encourage people to mark themselves as Hispanic.
The Origins of Latinx/Latino/Latina
Latinx/Latino/Latina derives from Latin America — a term coined by the French as “Amerique Latine.” It signified places colonized by people of Latin descent who speak Romance languages like Spanish, Portuguese and French. This is why Haiti, colonized by France, is often included in the definition of Latin America.
This phrasing was established during the rule of Napoleon III as a way to justify French intervention and colonial expansion in Latin America. The Battle of Puebla, where Cinco de Mayo comes from, when French troops tried to invade Mexico, is one example.
Many people in the U.S. prefer Latino/Latina/Latinx because it doesn’t directly tie them to their Spanish colonizer, but what many fail to realize is this term was designated by another colonial power with similar ambitions.
So which one to use?
If you’re unsure what people prefer, just ask. Many people who would be considered Hispanic or Latinx prefer to go by their country of origin or heritage. Some people who are indigenous might prefer to be identified by their indigenous tribe or nation. Others, mostly Mexican-Americans, prefer to identify as Chicanx/Chicano/Chicana, which gained popularity during the Chicano civil rights movement in the 1960s. If you’re unsure whether to use Hispanic or Latinx, be mindful of the context.
Are Latinx and Hispanic a race?
According to official U.S. policy, Latinx and Hispanic are ethnicities and not races. There’s a lot confusion about this too — 19 million Latinos and Hispanics checked the “some other race” box in the census. Many Latinx and Hispanic people are of mixed ancestry. Often, when people incorrectly refer to Latinx and Hispanic as a race, they’re referring to “mestizos,” or mixed race people of both indigenous and European ancestry.
In Mexico, the majority of the population (62%) identify as “ mestizo. ” However, you can be of any background and be Latinx or Hispanic. Afro-Latinx people are of African descent and are from Latin America, such as Cardi B (Dominican) or Tyson Beckford (Panamanian). Some have Middle Eastern heritage, like Salma Hayek and Shakira (both part Lebanese). Peru even had a president of Japanese ancestry: Alberto Fujimori. It’s safe to assume there isn’t one way to “be” or “look” Latinx or Hispanic.