The Struggle for Proper Terminology for Hispanic/Latino Communities [White Paper]

There is a lot of dynamism and variation with the labels used to identify the segment of the U.S. population whose origins are the Spanish-speaking countries and territories of North, Central, and South America and the Caribbean. This variation and dynamism has also created some confusion. This post seeks to present some of the contextual and political reasons for the use of Hispanic or Latino, as well as the newly-minted terms such as Latinx. Hopefully, this presentation will clarify their use.

What are these terms? What do they mean? Who uses them? In order to engage these questions, we need to begin by discussing why we use these terms.

The fact that, in 2022, we are using these terms should be seen as a successful outcome of the civil rights struggles of earlier generations. The fight for equal and fair treatment on the part of the African American population in the 1950s and 1960s created an opportunity for other groups in the United States to coalesce and similarly struggle against the discriminatory practices of a society that rejected and subordinated them because they were not White or perceived as culturally non-conforming. These groups are Native Americans, Asian Americans, and the population of interest for us today, people of Spanish-speaking descent. From this point, this latter group will be referred to as Hispanics, and we can then begin to consider other terms.

As the federal government became more receptive to the claims and demands of these other groups, there came the need to account for their conditions. Mexican American/Chicano and Puerto Rican activists highlighted and documented the dire conditions of material inequality they faced in their communities. But oftentimes, these descriptions of inequality remained anecdotal or incomplete because the federal government did not collect data on these groups, or if it did, it was only at the most local levels, such as selected counties or states.

This was the result of how Puerto Ricans and Mexican Americans had settled as they arrived in the United States: Puerto Ricans in the Northeast, Mexican Americans in the Southwest. Bear in mind, however, that one-third of the United States used to belong to Mexico until the U.S. defeated Mexico in the war they fought between 1846 and 1848. When the United States took over half of Mexico’s territory, it also took over 100,000 people who did not move or migrate to the United States. Rather, the border moved over them. Similarly, when the U.S. took over Puerto Rico as a colony in 1898, it also took on nearly 1 million Puerto Ricans.

Because the United States severely restricted immigration from southern and eastern Europe beginning in the 1920s, and because it already prohibited any immigration from Asia, it began to promote immigration from Mexico to the U.S. Southwest and migration from Puerto Rico to the Northeast and Hawai’i. The Mexican population in the U.S. (including both those born in Mexico and their descendants born in the U.S.) nearly doubled between 1910 and 1920 to 700,000, and it doubled again between 1920 and 1930 to more than 1.4 million. Between 1910 and 1930, the Puerto Rico-born population grew from 1,500 to 52,000. (Puerto Rico’s population also grew from 950,000 in 1899 to 1.5 million in 1930.)

Mexicans and Puerto Ricans were discriminated against because of their largely (but not exclusively) mixed-race status, their “foreign-ness” — embodied in their language, religion, and other social practices — and their working-class status. In the same way that African Americans were subjected to Jim Crow discrimination and lynchings in East Texas, so too were Mexicans in West Texas. The Mexican barrios were clearly segregated from the rest of any given town or city in Texas or California, and Mexican schools were subject to the so-called “separate, but equal” doctrine. The term “Mexican” itself was often hurled and understood as a racial slur. For Puerto Ricans in places like New York, discrimination may not have been as stark as in the South or Southwest, but they nevertheless experienced unequal treatment for sharing many of the same characteristics as Mexicans or African Americans in the north and midwest.

Mexican and Puerto Rican activists began to protest against the education inequality that led to sub-par educational outcomes and students dropping out of school, discriminatory employment practices, housing conditions, subpar medical treatment, and police abuse. In the 1960s, the federal government began to pay attention to these groups in large part because of how similar the claims of unequal treatment were to that of African Americans and because of inattention or active neglect on the part of state governments. As a consequence of their plight taking national notice, the federal response entailed gathering data from these populations at the national level. Therefore, one of the first ways in which the government began to account for these groups was to count them in federal statistics.

The most visible of these statistics are derived from the census count that takes place in the U.S. every ten years. However, the first attempt to count Hispanic and other minority populations settled in cities was disastrous, given their drastic undercount in the 1970 decennial census. 

An associated challenge was how to account nationally for a population that was dispersed throughout the country but concentrated regionally and sharing some common characteristics, even if Mexicans and Puerto Ricans themselves highlighted stark differences.

As a result of the census undercount, the federal government convened a “Spanish Origin Advisory Committee” for the Census Bureau that gathered Mexican American, Puerto Rican, and Cuban representatives, since the latter group began to arrive in the U.S. in very large numbers during the 1960s.

One of the first concepts developed by the Census Bureau was that of “Spanish Origin” to refer to this population, noting that language, and perhaps culture, was a salient characteristic of this group for the government. It is also important to note that despite the fact that a lot of the discrimination and unequal treatment towards this population centered on their physical appearance, particularly as a mixed-race group, the Census Bureau categorized the bulk of this population as White through the 1960s (with the brief of exception of the 1930 census).

The community advocates in the committee lobbied both for using national origin terms such as Mexican and Puerto Rican but also sought a catch-all term to include people who did not identify with any country in Latin America, such as Tejanos, Californios, and Hispanos, as well as people who were of mixed backgrounds, like Puerto Ricans and Cubans. 

Finding a catch-all term to include all of these groups became contentious in and of itself. Spanish Origin was used through the 1960s and 1970s, but these community advocates were not satisfied with a term that treated them as an ethnic group grouped with whites when they felt they were not treated as whites, nor did they consider themselves White.

Parallel to these efforts were the efforts of federal civil servants who had been named to the Ad Hoc Committee on Racial and Ethnic Definitions within the U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare in 1975. The Committee was formed after the Department issued a report on educational issues affecting Native Americans and Hispanics that was criticized by advocates for the terms they used in identifying these groups. This ad hoc committee debated for six months over terms such as “Spanish-speaking,” “Spanish-surnamed,” “Latin American,” “Latino,” and “Hispanic,” ultimately settling on “Hispanic.”

In 1977, as a result of these events, the Office of Management and Budget issued Directive No. 15 on Race and Ethnic Standards for Federal Statistics and Administrative Reporting in order to provide “standard classifications for record-keeping, collection, and presentation of data on race and ethnicity in Federal program administrative reporting and statistical activities.” The directive explained further that “these classifications should not be interpreted as being scientific or anthropological in nature, nor should they be viewed as determinants of eligibility in any Federal program. They have been developed in response to the needs expressed by both the executive branch and Congress to provide for the collection and use of compatible, nonduplicated, exchangeable racial and ethnic data by Federal agencies.” It defined Hispanic as “a person of Mexican, Puerto Rican, Cuban, Central or South American or other Spanish culture or origin, regardless of race.” The purpose of these categories was threefold: civil rights compliance reporting, general program administrative and grant reporting, and statistical reporting.

But even though the federal government made the Hispanic category official in 1977, there was never complete satisfaction with the term. This dissatisfaction translated more visibly into the mechanism to collect the data most widely used in the United States: the census. We can observe how the census questionnaire did not use any overarching or pan-ethnic category in 1970. (It did use a residual category labeled “Other Spanish.”) In 1980, the Census Bureau introduced the category Spanish/Hispanic and maintained it for the 1990 census. But in 2010, the Census Bureau also introduced the term “Latino” as an alternative or additional catch-all term.

So, what was the dissatisfaction with the term Hispanic or the reluctance to use Latino? According to Grace Flores-Hughes, one of the Ad Hoc Committee members, opposition to Hispanic stemmed from the term’s association and emphasis on Spain and Spanish colonialism at the expense and subordination of Indigenous Amerindian peoples and cultures. Others similarly opposed Hispanic because it ignores, neglects, and/or subordinates peoples of African origin or descent and their cultural contributions. Some other folks also complained that the term Hispanic had been imposed by the Nixon Administration, and as a result, they rejected it. 

Opposition to Latino, on the other hand, relates to how expansive the term itself can be to include people of Italian, French, or Portuguese people as well. Some of them may have been subject to discrimination and even violence, as had been the case for Italians, but their experience was distinct from the experience that people of Mexican origin or Puerto Ricans had faced. Furthermore, the term Latin had been used as a demeaning term.

In order to gain greater insight into how these terms came about, we need to go a bit further back in history than the 1960s and 1970s. The origins of these concepts hark back to the 18th century. Before the American territories gained their independence from their European colonizers, there was a clear understanding among the elites that America was divided into English/British, Spanish, French, Portuguese, and Dutch political and cultural spheres. After France lost its North American possessions to Britain in 1763 and Haiti achieved its independence in 1804, the dominant cultural domains in the Western Hemisphere were the British-controlled territories and the Spanish-controlled territories. From the perspective of the Spanish territories, the American cultural spheres were largely Hispano América and Anglo América. During the wars of independence during the first quarter of the 19th century and in the immediate aftermath of those wars, the reigning concept between political and cultural elites up and down the Western Hemisphere was that of America and American, irrespective of geographical location and origin of the imperial colonizer.

The United States, at that time, was a role model as the first country to fight and gain its independence. However, as the United States invaded and then wrested half of Mexico beginning in 1846, and then began to encourage filibuster interventions in Central America (e.g. Nicaragua) and the Caribbean (e.g. Cuba) in the 1850s, that model image as a champion of liberal republicanism and independence was tarnished, and with it grew the need to distinguish the United States from the rest of the American countries. (The United States was similarly crafting its own differentiation campaign on the basis of continentalism, Manifest Destiny, and American [U.S.] exceptionalism in order to advance its expansionist goals.) A great deal of the ethnocentric and bigoted depictions of Mexicans and others from the former Spanish-controlled territories began during this period.

Therefore, Americans from south of the U.S. border began to emphasize their distinctions from those north of the border by highlighting their language, culture, values, and their Catholic faith, in contrast to those in the north. For some, this took the form of highlighting their connection to Spain and its culture. Others sought a connection to Europe and the civilization that centered around Rome by emphasizing a Latin culture. Some in the latter group were coinciding with developments in Europe, particularly in France, that sought to distinguish a Latin culture and civilization from a Germanic one. Among French imperialists, the idea of Latin America was also useful as they sought to reclaim their influence in the Western Hemisphere by invading Mexico and installing an Austrian emperor as ruler in April 1862. (On May 5—Cinco de Mayo—Mexican forces fought back against the French.) The French ultimately lost and left Mexico in 1867. However, the term Latin America endured. But so has the term Hispano América.

As we can see from this brief overview, those who claim that Latin American or Latino is less imperialistic than Hispanic or Hispanoamericano may not have considered this trajectory. However, the underlying logic behind both terms is their contrast to Anglo or Anglo-American, and from this perspective, both terms are applicable. Latino or Latin American is certainly more expansive than Hispanic or Hispanoamericano. But this expansiveness raises the question of whether those of French origin or descent (e.g. Cajuns) or Portuguese and Brazilian origin or descent have experienced the same historical discrimination as the Mexican-origin or Puerto Rican population.

So how is it that this population that originates in countries formerly controlled by Spain in North, Central, and South America and the Caribbean identifies itself? By and large, this population prefers to use the national origin name: Dominican, Salvadorian, Ecuadorian, and so on. This is the case for two main reasons. First, particularly for those who are immigrants, national identity is deeply ingrained in our countries of origin. We distinguish ourselves within the boundaries of a specific territory in contrast to people who live outside of that territory. We carry this national identity as we travel beyond our country of origin.

Second, when we settle in the United States, one of the primary identities people in this country recognize or identify with is race as well as ethnicity. This is why nationality is often used to identify others. But also, nationality has often been used to racialize people. While nationality or ethnicity may only refer to culture, it has been a long practice in this country to racialize nationality. For people of Hispanic or Latino origin or descent, this has happened because a great deal of the population is of mixed racial background: European and Native American, European and African, Native American and African, or a combination of them all, including Asian.

Third, the government has made it easy to continue to use national origin labels in asking questions about ethnicity by listing at least some national origin countries, as the Census Bureau does.

But that the people collectively identified as Hispanics prefer above all to use their national origin does not mean they are not willing to also use what are referred to as pan-ethnic labels (i.e., Hispanic, Latino); that is, labels that subsume under a larger umbrella a number of distinct origins. Using results from the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey for 2020, we find that overwhelmingly, Hispanics use one of the national origin categories. This may be simply the case because it is easy to just check off one of those national origin categories. 

But note that in 2020, there were nearly 2 million people who used some other term, whether it was plainly leaving Hispanic or Latino without any additional specific information or because they may have used terms such as Tejano, Californio, or Raza.

In surveys conducted by independent research organizations, such as the Pew Hispanic Center, we see that, yes, the plurality of Hispanics (47%) primarily use their national origin to identify themselves. Nevertheless, 39% use a pan-ethnic term to do so, while 14% use primarily “American.” With this last category, the preference for “American” increases the longer a person’s family has been in the U.S. Those who were born abroad were less likely to identify primarily as American (4%) than those whose grandparents or great-grandparents were born outside of the U.S. (33%).

Note also that Hispanics who respond to these surveys show no preference for using either Latino or Hispanic. The majority will use them indistinctly. For those who chose a preference, Hispanic is more common (27%) than Latino (18%).

As of late, around 2015, “Latinx” appeared as a new term to refer to this population. The purpose of the neologism was to make a more gender-inclusive term from a language that is rigidly gendered. Nouns and other substantives in Spanish have a male and female voice. As an attempt to transcend these “feminine” and “masculine” binaries, some scholars and activists have begun to use the x instead of a or o, making the term gender neutral. 

Some criticize the term because they find it incongruent and unrelatable to Spanish. Others criticize it because they see it as a form of cultural imperialism and elitism, originating in the U.S. while neglecting an existing alternative from the Spanish-speaking world—Latine. Others still criticize the use of Latinx because it erases the struggles for recognition of Latina feminists.

Perhaps because it is a very new term and because it treads in the highly contested terrain of gender and gender identity politics, Latinx is not widely used among Hispanics. Some surveys show that most Hispanics (76%) had not even heard of the term, and only 3% used it. More recent research from California, conducted among Hispanic adults born in the U.S. and who were English-dominant, indicates that as many as 37% of this group have used it at some point to refer to themselves and that 25% uses it sometimes or very often. Nevertheless, even among this population, the majority still used Hispanic most often, followed by Latino.

At the bottom, for LGBTQ activists who use and advocate for the term, the appropriateness of Latinx is less relevant than the call for awareness and action against the unequal treatment, mistreatment, and violence that LGBTQ persons endure within the Hispanic community and beyond. The transgressiveness of Latinx, or the discomfort that it creates among a hetero-normative public, pales in comparison with the aggressions and micro-aggressions LGBTQ persons suffer. The conversation that the use of or antagonism towards the term engenders is for the purpose of consciousness-raising.

We will not conclude by recommending which term to use. The goal today was to bring some clarity to what has become, for good reason, a contentious terrain. ¡Gracias!



Rubén Torres Martínez, Sobre el concepto de América Latina ¿Invención francesa? Cahiers d’études romanes, 32 | 2016, 89-98. Also, Elita Rincón, Origen y significado de la idea de América Latina Cuadernos Latinoamericanos Año 20, No. 36, julio-diciembre de 2009 (pp. 31 – 47).

Mora, G. C., Perez, R., & Vargas, N. (2022). Who identifies as “Latinx”? The generational politics of ethnoracial labels. Social Forces, 100(3), 1170-1194.

Mora et al (2022). As a point of reference, California’s US-born Hispanics represent 25% of all U.S.-born Hispanics in the country, and 17% of all Hispanics in the U.S. irrespective of birthplace.


Subscribe To Our Newsletter

Stay updated and informed!

Share This Post

Stay Informed

Sign up for news and information

Skip to content