Honoring and respecting an individual’s ethnicity can take many forms, from being educated about their history to understanding terminology used to help express their identity.
With regard to the latter, some may be confused about the differences between the terms Hispanic, Latin, Latinx, or Spanish. They’re not interchangeable, and each carries a significant and unique meaning.
Hispanic typically refers to a person who speaks Spanish, as well as someone who is descended from a Spanish-speaking population whether they’re fluent in the language or not. It came from the Latin word Hispanicus, which likely referred to people living in Hispania (now Spain’s Iberian Peninsula) during the Roman Empire.
If Hispanic is largely associated with language, Latino is more closely aligned with geography. The term typically refers to a person who is from or descended from people hailing from Latin America. It stems from latinoamericano—Latin American.
Neither term should be assumed to indicate race, as each one is inclusive of various racial groups. Latinos can be white, Black, indigenous American, mixed, or more. And while some people fitting these descriptions choose to use the term, others may not. Both Hispanic and Latino can be broad and sweeping ways for institutions like the U.S. Census Bureau to identify a population, or by researchers. (The U.S. government officially began recording Hispanic population data in 1980 and Latino data in 2000.) It does not mean the person being cited necessarily identifies as Hispanic or Latino.
A 2015 PEW Research Center survey found that 50 percent of respondents who fell under the common definition of the term Hispanic described themselves by their family’s country of origin, while 23 percent identified themselves as Latino or Hispanic; 23 percent referred to themselves as American. The survey also found that 32 percent of Hispanics preferred the term Hispanic over the 15 percent that preferred the term Latino; 51 percent had no preference.
Or, they may identify with more than one category. Latinos who speak Spanish may be both Hispanic and Latino. But the reverse may not necessarily hold true. Brazilians are Latino, but they speak Portuguese, so they wouldn’t typically be referred to as Hispanic.
Latinx has become an alternative to separating the terms Latino and Latina, which refer to gender. Latinx is gender-neutral.
If someone identifies as Spanish, they’re likely from or descended from people from Spain. That someone speaks Spanish does not make them Spanish.
The terms Chicano and Mexican-American refer specifically to descendants of people from Mexico and who may not identify as either Hispanic or Latinx.
Most of these categorizations are based in the United States and are not necessarily used in the country of origin being cited. Some people who fit the definition of Hispanic or Latinx might embrace the term, or they may not. In a complex ethnic landscape, it’s up to the individual to decide what word or words best express their identity.