Many people are confused by the politics and etiquette surrounding the term Hispanic. This gives rise to questions about who is Hispanic. Are people from Spain “Hispanic”? What about people from Portugal or Brazil? In this Introduction to Hispanic Culture I will begin by providing a rough guide for understanding the identifiers “Hispanic” and “Latina/o.” Hopefully, this information will spark your interest in learning more about the complex and fascinating history of the peoples and cultures that are grouped under these categories.
The term Hispanic became “official” in the 1980 census. Previously, census forms did not recognize that Spanish speaking or Spanish descendent persons were part of the fabric of US society. Instead, there was an assumption that such individuals were either born outside the US or were the children of immigrants. The 1980 census allowed for identification as “Spanish/Hispanic” and one could indicate his or her ancestry as Mexican/Mexican American/Chicano, Puerto Rican, Cuban, or Other. This was a significant change in that it allowed people to identify themselves on the basis of ancestry and culture rather than the more problematic categories of race. Racial classification of Hispanics is not clear cut since one can be white, black, or Indigenous – or any mixture of the three.
Some people object to the term Hispanic in that it over emphasizes heritage to Spain and includes Spaniards in the count. Mexican Americans and Puerto Rican Americans, in particular, advanced the argument that the term Hispanic privileges European heritage at the expense of mixed, Black, and Indigenous ancestry. The term Latino (Latina is the feminine form) was adopted by many to reflect our more recent origins in Latin America. As such, Spaniards are excluded, but not people of Spanish ancestry born in the Americas. The distinction is important from a historical perspective. Latin America and the Caribbean were areas of significant social, political, and economic transformation from the 1500s onward. Further, within the context of United States society, Latinos experienced a great deal of prejudice and marginalization that Spaniards did not. These circumstances created ties between Latinos not shared by Spaniards.
To complicate matters, there are numerous critics of any term that lumps individual cultures into a single group whether the term be “Hispanic” or “Latino.” Proponents of this position argue that this is merely a convenience for the govenerment, corporations, and academics for purposes of enumeration, bureaucratic control, study, and marketing. In reality, there are important distinctions between the cultures that fall under the rubrics of Hispanic or Latino. For example, Mexican Americans and Puerto Ricans have had the longest history in the US and experienced great social injustice. Poverty rates for Mexican Americans and Puerto Ricans are much higher than for more recently immigrated Cuban Americans. Likewise, Mexican Americans and Puerto Ricans are more likely to support the Democratic Party, whereas Cuban Americans are more likely to vote Republican. On the level of cultural traditions and language, all three populations speak Spanish quite distinctly and have their own customs not shared with the others.
Regardless of the politics of identity, the term Hispanic remains in usage alongside the term Latino. Notably, the 2000 US census used the category of Spanish/Hispanic/Latino and provided a space for people to indicate their specific ancestry. Hispanics and Latinos do share some cultural traits derived from Spain, including language and religion (Roman Catholicism is predominant). There is also a kinship deriving from the blending of African and Native American cultures with the European. Our foods, music, and world views have been heavily influenced by our African and Native American ancestors.
In conversation, when in doubt, it is best to use the terms Hispanic or Latino rather than a national identifier. People often are annoyed at being automatically assumed to be Cuban if they are Dominican or Mexican if they are Guatemalan. Latinos (or Hispanics) are proud of their heritage and will often provide clarification if asked in a respectful manner. Future articles will provide in-depth information about the various peoples and cultures that fall under rubric of Hispanic/Latino.