Hispanic or Latino? A Sociolinguistic Perspective

We recently published Speaking Spanish in the US by Janet M. Fuller and Jennifer Leeman. In this post Jennifer writes about the difference between the terms ‘Hispanic’ and ‘Latino’.

Recent growth in the share of the US population that identifies as Hispanic or Latino (as well as feminine Latina and the gender-neutral and non-binary Latinx) has been accompanied by increased attention to the labels themselves. There are ongoing debates about whether these pan-ethnic labels correspond to an ‘authentic’ identity, or people’s own sense of themselves as well as their lived experience or if, conversely, they are an ‘artificial’ creation of the US government. Nor is there consensus among scholars, advocates or anyone else whether that identity, assuming it actually exists, should be considered ‘ethnic’ or ‘racial.’ While we explore both of these issues in our new book, the focus of this post is on a third point of contention: the labels themselves. Specifically, is there a difference between Hispanic and Latino/a/x, and if so, what is it? The meaning of these labels is a perennial topic of lively discussion. It is especially timely this year, given that 2020 is a census year and the US census includes a question on Hispanic or Latino origin. Sociolinguistic perspectives on language, and on the relationship of language to identity, can offer insights into the meaning of the terms as well as into why such discussions are important and never seem to reach resolution.

On one hand, many dictionaries present Hispanic and Latinx/o/a as synonyms, as does the US Office of Management and Budget (the federal agency that mandates the race and ethnicity categories to be used on the census), and many speakers use the two terms interchangeably. One the other hand, numerous scholarly essays, news articles, and social media posts insist that they are not in fact the same. Although there is some variation in popular and scholarly explanations of the purported differences, etymology typically figures prominently. Specifically, most authors trace the origins of the word Hispanic to Hispania, the region of the Roman empire that comprised the Iberian Peninsula (Spain and Portugal today); some accounts also describe Hispanic as an Anglicized shortening of hispanoamericano, an inhabitant of Spain’s former American colonies. For its part, Latino is described as a deriving from latinoamericano, and many authors note that Latin America is a 19th century construction differentiating the areas in the Americas colonized by France, Portugal and Spain from those colonized by England. Thus, many claim that Hispanic refers to people with a connection to former Spanish colonies (but not Brazil) while Latina/x/o includes all Latin Americans and their descendants (but not people from Europe). Ethnoracial and linguistic diversity within Latin America and Spain is often glossed over in such discussions.

For the most part, etymologically-based accounts of the difference between Hispanic and Latinx/a/o assume a straightforward and enduring one-to-one correspondence between words and their meanings, as well as a similarly rigid understanding of identities and their relationship to labels. In this view, once we know the origin of a word, we know its meaning. However, one of the basics of human language is that it is always undergoing change; not only do pronunciations and sentence structures change over time, so do the semantic and social meanings of words. Thus, while etymology is interesting, and it can tell us something about how words have been used historically, it doesn’t reveal their complete meaning. For sociolinguists, the meaning of words is not contained within the words themselves but in the way they are used and understood in a given context. In the case of ethnoracial labels, this often goes hand-in-hand with varied social constructions of ethnoracial categories, which can vary from place to place as well as over time.

In addition to characterizing identities as socially constructed, sociolinguist approaches also stress that language plays a central role in the creation and performance of identities. Indexicality, or the way that particular linguistic forms or practices ‘point to’ particular attitudes, stances or identities, is key to this process. Specifically, when speakers speak in a particular way, or use one particular word, they rely on socially shared associations between linguistic forms and social meanings to signal something about themselves. Symbolic and indexical meanings play an especially important role in shaping people’s preferences for either Hispanic or Latino/x/a. For many people, the term Hispanic is seen as elevating European heritage and erasing Native and African cultures, peoples and languages. Despite the equally Eurocentric etymology of Latino/x/a, this term for many people indexes a more inclusive recognition of diversity.  In some contexts, using Latino/x/a (and especially when pronounced with Spanish, rather than English, phonology) is a way of enacting a particular kind of ethnoracial pride and/or sociopolitical awareness. In addition, the use of Latinx can signal one’s support for gender inclusivity. In sum, the choice between Hispanic and Latino/x/a (as well as other identity labels) depends not only on the specific ethnoracial identity of the person it refers to, but also on the sociopolitical stance and identity of the speaker. Importantly, indexical meanings are also variable and contextually dependent, rather than fixed within the words themselves. As such, it’s not surprising that the precise meanings of these labels, as well as which one is ‘better’, is highly contested, as are debates about just what it means to be either one.

Jennifer Leeman

For more information about this book please see our website

If you found this interesting, you might also like Learning and Not Learning in the Heritage Language Classroom by Kimberly Adilia Helmer.

4 thoughts on “Hispanic or Latino? A Sociolinguistic Perspective

  1. Nicely done, Jen! I think your discussion and consideration of each term was helpful to those who hadn’t thought much about either one before. As for me, I’m happy to be both! I like to say that, as a Garcia, I have relatives all over the Spanish speaking world, whether Hispanic or Latin-x. I claim both my indigenous and European identities as a mezcla of native Mexican, Spanish and French ancestors. Now, why does the Census keep forcing a very limited choice under the “race” category? It’s about time they widened the choices or got rid of that question entirely!

    1. Thanks Maryellen! As you know, census ethnoracial classification is a very complicated issue with a wide range of symbolic, material and political implications. There are ongoing discussions and debates both inside and outside of the Census Bureau on how to improve the questions and categories in order to better match people’s lived experience and sense of their own identities. While getting rid of the (imperfect) categories might seem appealing, I think it’s important to recognize the role of ethnoracial statistics in documenting inequities (which can be an important first step in addressing them).

      The book examines some of the shortcomings of the current classification system, some proposed changes (such as combining the Hispanic/Latino question and the Race question into a single question) and the debates surrounding them.

      I want to stress that Identity categories and labels are just one way that language plays a role in the construction and performance of identity, and we also discuss other ways that people enact their identities through language, such as by using a particular pronunciation, by speaking a particular variety of Spanish, or by combining English and Spanish.

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