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International Voices

The Fault in Our Names: The Difference Between Latinos and Hispanics

Naming is a powerful action. When we chose to label something, we automatically establish a relationship of dominance over that object. Imagine having the power to classify a whole group of people. Wouldn’t you have authority over their identity?

Those who hold control of a regime are aware of the power of naming, and often decide to change or avoid the meaning of terms in order to condition society to follow their ideology.  This oppressive measure has become common in the United States, especially today with the Trump Administration; recent American political rhetoric has employed hostile interpretations of the words “Latino” and “Hispanic” that perpetuates the misperception toward those who identify with and belong to these two groups. To an extent, the two of them have become almost synonymous to one another, yet the debate around these two distinctions suggests that many still don’t know how “Latino” differs from “Hispanic.”

Ultimately,  two terms are not interchangeable: each word conveys a different meaning resulting from different historical processes. The least complicated out of the two is the notion of “Latino” for men and “Latina” for women. The term was coined by Emperor Napoleon III of France in the second half of the 19th century. His hope was to unify the American countries whose background was closest to the Latin or Roman heritage (Latin America) against the English-speaking parts of the same continent (Anglo America). Latino/Latina thus refers to a person born in such Latino countries or whose background is from that region.

Latino is essentially a geographical distinction even though there are cultural similarities between people from all over Latin America. For instance, Brazilians speak Portuguese, Mexican Spanish, and Haitian Creole, and these three languages are closely related to each other because of their Latin roots. Other similarities lie in religion and the legal system as well. The Roman Catholic Church and civil law were both evidence of the control exerted by the Latin system in the New World.

However, Latino is only a geographic distinction and a person does not have to follow any of the aforementioned characteristics to be Latino. Someone may speak English and follow Islam but if he is born in or has background from a Latin American country, he is a Latino. A key point that differentiates Spain and Portugal from this distinction is that they are in Europe and don’t subscribe to this definition.

While “Latino” speaks only to the geographic region with direct Latin heritage in the Americas and not to the cultural practices of its inhabitants, “Hispanic”does take into account culture but not geography. It identifies a person who shares cultural similarity to someone from Spain but is not necessarily Spanish.

History clarifies this paradox. Once Spain became a country in 1492, its rulers directed a national project in which the Spanish language and the Catholic faith would be the keystones for unification. As Spain spread its culture throughout Africa, the Americas, and Asia, the people who embraced the Spaniards’ language and beliefs came to be labeled as “Hispanos” or “Hispanics,” which means a person with Spanish heritage. However, they were not necessarily “españoles” or “Spanish” because many native Africans, Americans, and Asians had never set foot on Spain, yet they shared the Spaniards’ language and religion. As a result, “Hispanic” refers to someone who has Spanish heritage without any physical relationship to Spain.

The possibilities of Hispanic identity are therefore numerous. A person can be Hispanic and Asian as many Filipinos were for 400 years. A person can be Hispanic and black as the people of Equatorial Guinea are today. A person can be Hispanic and born in Australia. The ultimate factors that determine  “Hispanidad” or “Hispanicity” are language and religion.

For a citizen of the United States, this diverse notion of the term Hispanic is perhaps the most difficult to grasp. Such unified diversity is foreign to most of American history. Identity and alliance in this country stem from the notions of race and ethnicity rather than geography or culture. Thus, attributing the terms “Latino” and “Hispanic” to an American racial and ethnic category is common but incorrect, worsening as the current political climate has intensified around group mentality and broad generalization without nuance.

In a nutshell, “Latino” is a geographic distinction while “Hispanic” is a cultural identity. Yet it is not all black and white because there are overlaps and idiosyncrasies between the two. Brazilians are definitely Latinos but not Hispanic because they speak Portuguese. This is also the case for Catalans who are citizens of Spain but are not Hispanic because they speak Catalan.

Identity is a complex issue that depends on a person’s own perception of themself. Thus, if there ever comes a time when you are doubting whether to identify someone as Hispanic or Latino, ask them how they identify themself. Because not all Hispanic and Latino people have the same background, the label they identify with can be a great way for us to learn something new instead of involuntarily exerting power over them.