You've heard the terms Hispanic, Latino or Latinx, and Spanish before, and perhaps interchangeably. The reality is, however, these terms all mean different things. While not everyone who speaks Spanish, has family in Latin America, or was born in Spain identifies with these labels, we can all educate ourselves about the distinctions. So, what makes these terms different? Here’s a quick breakdown and a brief history about each term:
What does Hispanic mean?
The term Hispanic describes a person who is from or has ancestors from a Spanish-speaking territory or country. There are roughly 60.6 million Hispanics in the U.S., which makes up 18% of the total population, according to Pew Research Center findings in 2019. Mexicans hold the lead, making up nearly 62% of Hispanics in the U.S., followed by Puerto Ricans and Cubans.
The definition of Hispanic excludes Brazil because Portuguese is the country's primary language, but it does include Spain, even though it’s in Europe. Globally, there are more than a dozen Hispanic countries and one territory: Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Cuba, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Puerto Rico, Spain, Uruguay and Venezuela.
Hispanic was a term first used by the U.S. government in the 1970s after Mexican-American and Hispanic organizations lobbied for population data to be collected. Subsequently, in 1976, the U.S. Congress passed a law mandating information about U.S. residents from Spanish-speaking countries to be recorded. Today, Hispanic appears as an “ethnicity” on official forms for government, education and employment purposes.
What does Latino mean?
Latino, Latina and Latinx are geographic terms, which refer to a person from Latin America or of Latin American descent. This includes Brazil, but excludes Spain. For the rest of the aforementioned countries, there’s crossover, because Hispanics can also call themselves Latino, Latina or Latinx.
The term Latino emerged in the 1990s as a form of resistance after scholars began "applying a much more critical lens to colonial history." Some opted not to use the word Hispanic because they believed it carried the heavy history of colonialism, slavery and genocide done by the Spanish. In 1997, Latino officially appeared on government documents as an option alongside Hispanic. Since 1980 and 2000, Hispanic and Latino have also become part of the U.S. Census, respectively.
Latinx, most commonly pronounced “Latin-EX," is a gender neutral alternative to Latina and Latino. The intersectional term is meant to show solidarity to those in LGBTQIA+ community who prefer not to identify as a male or female. Though the term has been used for more than a decade, only 23% of Hispanics in the U.S. have heard of it, and only 3% identify as such, per a 2020 Pew Research Center report.
What does Spanish mean?
The word Spanish refers to both a language and a nationality. A common mistake is calling a Spanish-speaking person Spanish. A person who speaks Spanish is Hispanic. A person who is from Spain or has origins from Spain is Spanish.
The Romance language originated from Latin, and it was first spoken in Spain. Today, Castilian Spanish is the most popular dialect in the European country. Despite this, it’s the fourth country with the most native Spanish speakers. Mexico, Colombia and Argentina are the top three in the world.