Hispanic vs. Latino: Narrowing Down the Difference

People often use Hispanic and Latino interchangeably, and it’s an easy mistake to make because there is overlap between the two groups. However, Hispanic and Latino do have distinct meanings. The former refers to Spanish-speakers, while the latter refers to people from Latin America.

Spain and Latin America map with Hispanic vs Latino definition Spain and Latin America map with Hispanic vs Latino definition
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Hispanic: Spanish-Speaking Descent

Hispanic broadly describes things that are from or pertaining to Spain. When referring to people, Hispanic specifically refers to people who are of Spanish-speaking descent.

The term was introduced in the 1970 U.S. Census as a broad category to differentiate and include Latin Americans, many of whom were otherwise classified as white.

Latino: From Latin America

Latino refers to people from Latin America or descended from Latin Americans. This term grew in the 1990s as a resistance to the Spanish-centric nature and Spain’s colonialist history inherent to Hispanic.

The Growth of Latinx

While there’s no exact record of its first appearance, Latinx has shown some increased usage since the 2010s. Where Latino and Latina were inherently gendered, Latinx was designed to be a more inclusive, gender neutral form. While some people see it and think “la-tinks,” Latinx is pronounced “lat-in-ex” or “lah-teen-ex.”

Its usage and existence has seen some controversy within the Latino community itself. Less than one-quarter of adults who identify as Hispanic or Latino have heard the term Latinx, and only about 3% actually use the term.

Using the Right Word

Hispanic and Latino are sometimes used interchangeably, even within official government capacities, but it’s definitely important to use the right word when referring to a specific group or person.

For example, a Brazilian-American might identify themselves as Latino because Brazil is a Latin American country. However, that same person might not consider themselves Hispanic as Brazil’s main language is Portuguese. On the other hand, someone from Spain might identify as Hispanic but not Latino.

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Where Chicano Fits In

Chicano, or sometimes Xicano, refers specifically to people of Mexican descent. While some people see it as interchangeable with Mexican-American, Chicano has its nuances, mainly in recognizing African and Indigenous roots while resisting white assimilation.

Chicano precedes both Hispanic and Latino. It was initially used as a classist and racist slur, but Mexican-Americans reclaimed the term in the 1960s in the civil rights movement.

The Trouble With Pan-Ethnic Labels

As with most large identifiers and umbrella terms, there is no perfect answer. The important thing is to address people the way that they identify themselves. While these terms are important for larger, cultural contexts, it’s always better to consider them as complementary to a person’s national identity, not as a replacement.