Hispanic, Latino/a, or Latinx: The Cultural Significance of Terminology

By Ashton Vicente | Communications Associate
Reviewed by Rebecca Parrilla | Director of Content & Research

As communities and workplaces celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month, the question on many well-meaning minds concerns appropriate language: What term is preferred by people of Latin American- and Spanish-descent, and why does it matter?

Terminology has been contested for decades, which is understandable considering that 18.7% of the population (62.1 million people) in the United States alone identify with Latin-Hispanic roots. Each term holds nuanced, cultural significance through its historical context and impact, which can be better understood by examining its origin.



In the 1930s, anyone from the Latin American landmass was categorized as “Mexican” on the United States census, and it wasn’t until the 1970s that the other 32 Latin American countries began receiving recognition, albeit via an incomprehensive “other” category.

During the Nixon era, specialists were consulted to determine an all-inclusive, pan-ethnic label for the community, and “Hispanic” was eventually settled upon and incorporated in the 1980 census as the term with least resistance. “Hispanic” is the English derivation of the Spanish word hispano and refers to a Spanish-speaking person whose culture is influenced by Spain; the term was selected because it sounded less “foreign” in its representation of an American minority.

The decision wasn’t without opposition, however, as it excludes people from non-Spanish-speaking countries (such as Brazil and Haiti) and highlights the influence of Spain as a colonizer rather than indigenous Latin American cultures. Author and historian Paul Ortiz explains that the term “erases all of the centuries of pre-Columbian history, culture, and civilizations that existed before the European conquest and colonization of the Americas.”



On the other hand, today’s more commonly used “Latino” is short for latinoamericano—or a person from Latin America—and deemphasizes imperialist connections (Spanish is a gendered language: Latino is the masculine version of the word and Latina the feminine.) The term was coined in the 1800s as Latin American countries gained their independence. Though it fell out of use in the United States, “Latino/a” gradually reemerged in English as a pan-ethnic alternative to “Hispanic” and was eventually included on the census for the first time in 2000.

More recently, the Pew Research Center reports that the majority of people of Latin American-descent choose to identify with their family’s country of origin (Mexican, Guatemalan, Cuban, Dominican, etc.), followed by simply “American,” and then “Hispanic” or “Latino/a.” This preference demonstrates the unintentionally exclusive nature of broad terms like “Hispanic” and “Latino/a,” which some people interpret as assuming a single culture within a region instead of recognizing their individual identities.

In an interview with NPR, sociologist Cristina Mora noted the diverse, Latin American diaspora’s opposition to being grouped together, as separate communities have their own unique cultures and priorities. She cited examples such as Puerto Rican concerns about statehood and rights as U.S. citizens, who feared they would be overshadowed by the statistically larger Mexican American population.



In further considering the many intersecting identities that make up a community, “Latinx” gained popularity in the early 2000s as a non-binary alternative to Latino and Latina. Yet according to Pew’s 2020 survey, “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.” “Latinx” is most frequently used by younger adults (ages 18-29) with college experience, especially people who speak primarily English. It has been criticized as being difficult to pronounce in Spanish and as forced linguistic assimilation by white people.

Alternatively, author and professor David Bowles argues that “Latinx” was borne of the queer, Latin American population who sought a word to represent themselves in English conversation. Journalist and author Ed Morales similarly describes the term as “a new badge of honor for people, especially young people, to identify across different marginalized communities and draw strength from that.” Such gender-inclusive language goes beyond preference and can impact health outcomes and productivity, acting as a signal for acceptance that empowers LGBTQ+ employees in the workplace. More recently, some people in primarily Spanish-speaking communities suggest the term “Latine” as a gender-neutral alternative to “Latinx,” as the “e” ending flows more naturally in Spanish.


Words Matter

As evident throughout history, shifting language results from the acknowledgement of diversity and evolution of cultural competency practices. There will never be a “politically correct” catchall term to describe such a diverse, expansive population; rather, the focus should lie on recognizing and celebrating each individual, as identity is deeply personal. It is always best practice to ask how a person prefers to identify to inform future conversations. Attentive language affirms a person’s authentic self and demonstrates your commitment to meet them where they are with respect to their unique, lived experience.

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