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

You may have heard the terms Latino and Hispanic. What about Latinx? Here's what these terms mean and how to use them correctly.

Latinos are currently the largest minority in the United States, yet many people are still confused about how to refer to this diverse group of people. Latinos are descendants from the populations of more than 54 million indigenous people who mixed with Africans brought over as slaves as well as the 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 one single umbrella term is, well, 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 it’s because it is. So much so, that even Latin Americans residing in the United States are not in agreement with what they should be collectively called.

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Whom does Hispanic encompass?

According to David Bowles, PhD, associate professor at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, the term Hispanic comes from this 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.” It’s from this push that the term Hispanic came to define people of “Latin America 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 and lumped them together with other Spanish speaking Americans across the country, including those from Puerto Rico, Colombia, and other countries. The need for the term was also recognized by community organizations that lobbied for inclusion in the 1970s census so Latinos could be “counted” and gain access to federal support for specific social needs. Find out where the concept of race came from to start with.

Resistance to the term Hispanic immediately arose from the very people the word was intending to represent. Why? The term Hispanic has a connotation which 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 in the East Coast of the United States as well as among older generations of Latinos.

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Is Latino any better?

The term Latino is one that came into popular use in the 1990s as an alternative to the term 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. Bowles explains, that in the 1830s “a French thinker named Saint-Simonian Michel Chevalier started saying the citizens of these countries were a ‘Latin race.’ Other thinkers joined in the usage of the word, including Chilean poet and sociologist Francisco Bilbao who spoke of ‘La raza latinoamericana.'” Bowles is quick to point out that Latino was never “meant to replace people’s primary ethnic identifier.” That is to say, that people from Nicaragua would still identify as Nicaraguan first and secondly as Latino.

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, since Spanish is a gendered language. “Latino” is a masculine noun but is also used to describe a group of people of mixed gender. Additionally, there is growing concern that the term Latino is exclusionary of those of Afro-Latino backgrounds. For these reasons it’s no surprise, this term is also imperfect. Enter the creation of the newly popular Latinx.

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What about Latinx?

Bowles defines Latinx as, “a gender-neutral and non-binary version of Latina/o.” Latinx is a way of inclusively calling someone a 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 than the female. The preference for male over female is a long-standing practice in the 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. The term may have also arisen in 2004 within the LGBTQ+ Latino community who sought to identify with a more inclusive term. The term is quickly growing in popularity in the United States and is used more frequently in the United States than in Latin America. The idea is that this term offers better representation for women and the non-binary community as its sole purpose is for the sake of inclusivity.

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

Once again, this term sparks plenty of resistance. One criticism of the term is that “it’s a way to take American values and anglicize the Spanish,” says Lopezrevoredo. Lopezrevoredo does not use the term Latinx to define herself because while she feels that Latino does denote gender neutrality, she also 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.”

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How should you use each term?

Wondering when to use Latinx vs. Hispanic and Latino vs. Latinx? When it comes to knowing how to refer to people from the region of 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 as their first preference. 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, since 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 has to be OK.

Next, read on to find out which term you should be using: Black or African American. Then, read about these Hispanic Americans who made history.


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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