Happy Hispanic Heritage Month! In order to honor Hispanic/Latinx Heritage Month, its people must be acknowledged as a polylithic group. There is much diversity in Hispanic/Latinx nations, cultures, languages and various forms of self-identification, such as the Hispanic vs. Latinx difference, which has been a topic of debate for years.
Who is Hispanic? The U.S. Census Bureau considers you Hispanic if you label yourself as Hispanic. The current criteria is “you are if you say so.” However, many people — college students included — choose to use different terms of self-identification. Whether it’s because the term “Hispanic” only applies to language, or because “Latino/a” is not gender-neutral, Hispanic/Latinx people have used a multitude of identifiers, none of which is all-encompassing. I was curious about how Latinx college students identify, so I sent out an anonymous questionnaire to find out their preferred term(s) of self-identification. Here’s what my respondents said.
The term “Hispanic” refers to those from Spain and Spanish-speaking countries, which excludes people from Brazil. Grace Flores-Hughes, a secretary in the former Department of Health, Education and Welfare, claims credit for the word choice in the Census for 1980 and onwards.
The “New World” lands colonized by the Spanish Empire were historically known as the Monarquía Hispánica, or the Hispanic Monarchy, because the Latin name for the Iberian Peninsula where Spain resides is “Hispania.”
As I am Guatemalan-Filipina, I am reluctant to side with my ancestors’ colonizer (hello, my last name is Toledo) but I can appreciate how this specific identifier can unite my racially mixed identity.
Similarly, Amy, 21, acknowledges how the Spanish influenced Latin America. She tells Her Campus, “It is where my culture comes from and where my parents look for examples on how to be and how to raise me.”
And if you don’t like being called “Hispanic,” there are many other labels to choose from.
The other most used pan-ethnic term, “Latino,” is short for “latinoamericano.” Naturally, the gendered nature of the language prompted the creation of the female “Latina.”
Scholars trace the term “América latina” to 1856, when it was used by Colombia’s José María Torres Caicedo and Chilean writer Francisco Bilbao. The phrase helped unite people and communities south of the U.S. border in anti-imperialist sentiment.
The U.S. Census Bureau found “Hispanic” to be an insufficient category as the linguistic heritage group excludes Portuguese-speaking Brazilians and could include Spaniards. In 2000, the word “Latino” appeared on the census. Since then, it has achieved widespread use as an umbrella term for people from the southern regions below the United States.
Jeremiah, 21, shares that his “parents always told us we’re hispanohablante and Latino but not Hispanic. We come from Latin America but our ancestors aren’t from Hispanic descent, [from] Spain.”
Jeremiah’s comment brings up the important point that language does not make or break an identification requirement, and that the term “Latino” is more inclusive in the linguistic regard. Indigenous people of Latin America may not speak Spanish, which does not make them any less Latin American. Similarly, U.S.-born generations of Latin descent are not any less Latino if they do not speak Spanish.
In an effort to be more inclusive, the term “Latinx” first appeared in 2004 in order to promote gender inclusivity. Princeton University scholar Arlene Gamio, author of Latinx: A Brief Guidebook, wrote that the term “died down in popularity shortly afterward, before gaining popularity again in 2014” to be used primarily by academics and social media users. It is often used in publications in reference to the LGBTQ+ community and young people. The Pew Research Center found that while only 23% of U.S. adults who self-identify as Hispanic or Latino have heard of the term Latinx, just 3% use it to describe themselves.
This term receives heated criticism for its Anglicization of the Spanish language. The gender neutrality of “Latino” is constantly contested. With its added origin in academia, “Latinx” carries a whiff of imperialism.
In rebuttal of the imperialist accusation, Gamio maintains in their book that “Spanish is a colonial language with a violent history” of erasing native languages. As previously noted, dependence on the Spanish language to unify the Latinx population erases the speakers of English, Portuguese, Quechua, and many other languages.
Some college students interpret the “x” as a deconstruction of identity formation across binaries. Daniela, 23, identifies as “Hispanic and Latina/Latinx.” She tells Her Campus, “I am Peruvian American from South America, come from a Spanish-speaking country, speak the language, and consider myself as so.” As complex individuals can exist in many different spaces, people will defy singular-categorization. The “x” in “Latinx” represents that space for interpretation and adaptation.
Gamio supports in the Guidebook that “While Latin does provide a gender-neutral option, Latinx purposefully puts gender at the forefront by adopting ‘x’ as its gendered aspect.” Due to the controversial usage of the letter “x” in Latinx, the suffix “-e” presents a viable gender-neutral identifier for the Spanish language.
Ara, 20, tells Her Campus, “I feel too disconnected from my culture to wholeheartedly identify as Mexican, but I feel secure in my identity to say Latino. The gender-neutral Latine sounds good to me!”
It seems the term “Latine” exists to connect communities — it’s gender non-specific, inoffensive to Spanish speakers, and encompasses all Latin descendants.
Instead of identifying with a pan-ethnic term, some USA-born Latinos find value in specificity by using a hyphen. For example, a United States resident with ancestors from Colombia might label themselves as “Colombian-American.”
Britney, 21, uses both “Latina” and hyphenated descriptors. She shares, “My parents are from Latin American countries so ‘Latina’ seems to be the most fitting and broad self-identification. I use a hyphenated term when I want to be more specific about the place!”
While pan-ethnic terms are community-building, there is a greater potential of being understood when you reveal the culture you come from — or the country of your ethnic origin.
Ger, 21, who says they “identify closely with both Mexican and Argentine culture” distinguishes themself with their ethnic origins, as well as with “Latine” and “Hispanic.”
Alex*, 22, shares that they identify with their country of ethnic origin to elucidate other people. They say, “Both of my parents were born in Mexico. Every time someone asks, I say ‘Mexican’ since it’s more specific.”
Comparably, Krystal, 20, uses the term “Chicana/x.” She tells Her Campus that the terms “Latinx” and “Chicana/x” “best resonate with my expression.”
While the exact origins of the word “Chicano” are unclear, it gained prominence during its reclamation in the Mexican-American civil rights movement of the 1960s known as the Chicano Movement. “Chicano” is a hybrid identity for Mexican-Americans living in the U.S. who have native roots to Mexico. “Chicanx” is praised for being an empowering mixed identity created by the people, unlike other imposed labels that were made for the people, such as “Hispanic.”
At the end of the day, identify with whichever label you like! The Hispanic/Latin community is not a monolith; its people vary greatly in customs and preferences, and that can and should be reflected in their preferred terms of self-identification. When in doubt, ask someone how they like to identify themselves — like with all other identifiers, it’s always better to check first before making assumptions.
*Name has been changed.
Diaz, R. Mechica: Indigenous Origin of the Chicano Hybrid Identity. Southeastern Oklahoma State University.
Lopez, M., Krogstad, J., Passel, J. (2020). Who is Hispanic?. Pew Research Center American Trends Panel. Pew Research Center.
Noe-Bustamante, L., Mora, L., Lopez, M. (2020). About One-in-Four U.S. Hispanics Have Heard of Latinx, but Just 3% Use It. Pew Research Center.