Do you know the difference between Hispanic, Latino, and Spanish?

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Photo by Gustavo Alves | Unsplash

Hispanic, Latino and Spanish are popular terms people use to identify themselves. Many who identify as Hispanic, Latino, and Spanish, recognize their family’s origins and/or speak the Spanish language. But it’s not uncommon to hear these phrases used interchangeably.

Whether the distinctions are brought up in conversation or your favorite Spanish-speaking show got your mind thinking about these terms, the difference between Hispanic, Latino, and Spanish is important to learn. The next time you hear the terms being mixed up, you can help spread the word about the unique differences.

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 62.1 million Hispanics in the U.S., which makes up 19% of the total population, according to Pew Research Center findings in 2020. In 2019, Mexicans held the lead, making up nearly 62% of Hispanics in the U.S., followed by Puerto Ricans and Cubans.


Photo credit: John Coletti - Getty Images
Photo credit: John Coletti – Getty Images

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 a crossover, because Hispanics can also call themselves Latino, Latina, or the gender-neutral term Latinx, and vice versa. What’s more, the term Afro-Latino can be used to describe Latinx people with African ancestry.

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 Hispanics. Since 1980 and 2000, Hispanics and Latino have also become part of the U.S. Census, respectively.

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.

Can Hispanics be Latinos?

Yes, a Hispanic person can also be Latino or Latina. But this might not always apply depending on the country.

Source: Pew Research Center

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