“Hispanic” vs. “Latino”: When To Use Each Term

by Alyssa Pereira

From boxes on census forms to drop-down menus on job applications, we often see Hispanic and Latino positioned side by side, seemingly as interchangeable terms to describe the race and heritage of a population that makes up nearly 20% of the United States.

It’s easy to see why these two words are so often conflated and frequently confused. But Hispanic and Latino are properly used for different purposes, and describe qualities of two different populations that sometimes overlap and sometimes don’t.

Over the last several decades, as the evolution—and some might say revolution—of American culture and politics has paved the way for more nuanced discussions about race and heritage, the discrepancies between the words have widened. But even today, Hispanic and Latino, or the gender-neutral Latinx, remain inherently entangled, and are still easily misused by even the most perspicacious student of geography.

It might sound complicated, but don’t fret! There’s a key to knowing when to use one or the other: one term is related to the language and the other to the land and culture.

Let’s explore the distinctions between Hispanic and Latino and Latina (and Latinx).

What does Hispanic mean?

Hispanic is an adjective that generally means “relating to Spanish-speaking Latin America or to “people of Spanish-speaking descent.” It can also be used as a noun when referring to a US resident who is “of Spanish or Spanish-speaking Latin-American descent.”

In popular use, Hispanic can generally be used to describe anyone from (or descended from) Spanish-speaking parts of Latin America, the Caribbean, or Spain itself.

First recorded in English in the late 1500s, Hispanic derives from the Latin hispānicus, adjective of Hispānia, meaning and source of the name Spain. Historically in English, Hispanic referred to Spain and its people in the Iberian peninsula. By at least the early 1900s, there is some record of use of Hispanic to refer to lands and people colonized by the Spanish in the Americas—the so-called “New World.”

How activists got Hispanic onto the US census

But Hispanic didn’t spread in the American English lexicon until at least the mid-1970s. Up until this point, many US residents of Central American, South American, and Caribbean descent had usually been compelled, without any other option, to check the boxes marked “White” or “Black” on official forms.

In the 1970s, activists began lobbying the US Census Bureau to group together Americans descended from Mexico, Cuba, Puerto Rico and elsewhere in Latin America, rather than ask them to declare an origin from a particular country, as they had to do on the 1970 Census. These activists, inspired by the Civil Rights movement, were seeking the new designation as part of a push for equality and a recognition of diversity, and a new term they believed would highlight the differences and hardships these residents faced as a result of their shared Central and South American provenance.

The activists were successful. In the mid-70s, a young Mexican-American government worker, Grace Flores-Hughes, and a diverse group of Spanish-speaking federal employees were tasked with selecting a word for a new federally defined heritage category for the 1980 US census. Their goal was to find a single term that encompassed the burgeoning Mexican, Cuban and Puerto Rican populations in US states. After much deliberation, they landed on Hispanic.

The term caught on, and thanks in part to a boost in popularity from ads aired on Univision and during Spanish-language TV shows, Hispanic became a more broadly acceptable label.

What does Latino mean?

Latino is an adjective and a noun that describes a person “of Latin American origin or descent,” especially one who lives in the United States. The form Latina refers to a Latin American woman. Latinx emerged in the early 2000s and has since spread as a gender-neutral or nonbinary way to refer to a person of Latin American descent. An important—and perhaps surprising—note on Latinx: According to one 2019 poll, the vast majority of Hispanic and Latin Americans say they do not identify with the word.

Learn more about Latinx at our extensive and informative Historical Usage Note at our entry for Latinx.

Latino is recorded as early as the mid-1940s in the United States ultimately shortened from the Spanish latinoamericano (“Latin American”), but it wasn’t included on the US census for the first time until 2000—20 years after “Hispanic.”

The reason for the inclusion of Latino? Hispanic proved too narrow a term because it excluded people descended from South America’s largest country, Brazil. Portuguese, the primary language of Brazil, may not be Spanish, but it is also a Romance language—that is, it evolved from Latin, hence the term Latin America. Latin America is the part of the American continents south of the United States in which Spanish, Portuguese, or French is officially spoken (as a result of European colonialism).

There is another argument against Hispanic: many who now exclusively use Latino, Latina, or Latinx argue that Hispanic reflects the imperialist history of Spain as a European colonizer in Latin America, rather than the rich cultures of the indigenous peoples of the continent. There also remains the matter of Latin in Latin America, which is Eurocentric.

While Hispanic was at one time overwhelmingly favored in the late 20th century, Latino, when applicable, is growing more popular with younger generations seeking to stay rooted in their cultural identity.

When Hispanic and Latino overlap—and when they don’t

When it comes to the words themselves, there’s an important difference to Hispanic and Latino:

  • Hispanic specifically concerns the Spanish-language-speaking Latin America and Spain
  • Latino specifically concerns those coming from Latin American countries and cultures, regardless of whether the person speaks Spanish

In another way of looking at it, Hispanic is linguistic and Latino is terrestrial.

So, there are many people who fit the description of both terms. For example: if a woman was born and raised in Buenos Aires, Argentina, and Spanish was her first language, she may be called a Hispanic Latina.

But there are also those who don’t fit both. For example: if a man was born and raised in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, and Portuguese is his first language, he is Latino because he is from Latin America, but he is not Hispanic because he speaks Portuguese. This distinction would apply to citizens from some island nations of Latin America, like English-speaking Jamaica or French-speaking Haiti, where Spanish is not the primary language spoken. On the flipside, a person from Madrid could be said to be Hispanic, but not Latino, because they natively speak Spanish but are from Europe; however, we may more commonly refer to them as Spanish.

When to use Hispanic vs. Latino

While there are key differences in the definitions of Latino and Hispanic, many people who identify as both don’t have a preference between the two terms. A 2013 Pew Research Center study shows more than half don’t lean one way or another between the two words.

Among those who do have a preference, nearly half of Hispanic and Latino Americans prefer Hispanic to describe their ethnicity; about a quarter prefer Latino.

The most preferred descriptor, however, may be a person’s specific country of origin. A 2012 Pew Research poll found more than half most frequently use their country of descent to describe themselves, e.g., Mexican, Dominican, Cuban.

Despite these cultural labels and identifiers, many Hispanic and Latino Americans disagree on the matter of race. The same Pew study found half self-identify their race as “Hispanic/Latino” or “some other race”; 36% identify their race as “White.” (And as for the difference between race and ethnicity, you may be wondering? Well, that important topic deserves treatment all its own.)

The differences between Hispanic and Latino are complex, historical, and often very personal. So, which do you choose next time you find yourself reaching for such a descriptor? Remember, consider the context, the language, and the land—and why not ask a person how they prefer to refer to themselves?

Alyssa Pereira is a freelance writer in San Francisco, California. Her work has been featured on SFGate.com, SPIN Magazine, the San Francisco Chronicle, Paper, Vice, and others.

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Has this discussion piqued your interest in exploring the dynamics between race and ethnicity? Read our article that dives into the complex entanglement of these two terms. And then take a peek at this informative article on the meaning of Indigenous and Indigenous Peoples’ Day.