clock menu more-arrow no yes

Hispanic, Latino, or neither? Why people can't agree on these labels.

Mario Tama/Getty Images

This morning, Vox published a comic strip by Terry Blas that explains the different meanings of "Hispanic" and "Latino." Some Latino writers took issue with the illustration, particularly with the claim that people from Spain are Hispanic.

I began responding to some of these concerns on Twitter. But I quickly realized that 140 characters is not enough to hash out some of these complex issues of identity, some of which I've dealt with in my own life.

This might seem like a semantic debate (and, technically, it is). But it also reflects a broader debate about how people identify themselves, and the complications that arise from trying to fit people from dozens of countries into one or two labels.

As someone who was born in Venezuela and whose dad is from Spain, I agree with the comic. I think Latino refers to anyone from Latin America, including Brazil (which primarily speaks Portuguese) and Caribbean countries (some of which primarily speak English, French, and Dutch, among other languages). And I think Hispanic refers to people from Spanish-speaking countries, including Spain. So I personally identify as 100 percent Hispanic and 50 percent Latino, since I'm half Venezuelan and half Spaniard.

The federal government, according to the Pew Research Center, also agrees with the comic: The official definition of Hispanic is "Americans who identify themselves as being of Spanish-speaking background and trace their origin or descent from Mexico, Puerto Rico, Cuba, Central and South America and other Spanish-speaking countries." (The government does, however, let people identify however they want in their census form, which lets the feds avoid the need to adjudicate some of these issues.)

But not everyone agrees. Some Latinos and Latinas think Latin American countries that don't primarily speak Spanish — so a bunch of Caribbean countries and Brazil — aren't Latino, even though they're technically part of Latin America. Some Hispanic people think Spaniards shouldn't be considered Hispanic, since they argue the term should refer only to countries that Spain colonized. Some people from both groups think it's totally fine for anyone to identify as Hispanic or Latino as long as they have some Spanish or Latin American ancestry. Some people from Caribbean countries don't relate to Latino or Hispanic at all. Others prefer choosing another term, such as Chicano.

And a lot of people just don't care, as a Pew survey found:

Pew Research Center

Why is this so complicated?

Part of the problem is the federal government's inability to stick to one definition — from decade to decade, many people might find themselves belonging to an entirely different ethnic or racial group according to the US Census's ever-shifting definitions.

But the other problem is people are trying to apply simple labels to complicated identities. Even among Spanish-speaking Latin American countries, there is a lot of diversity: Venezuelans and many South Americans, for example, see their liberator as Simón Bolívar, a Venezuelan military leader who fought back Spain in various nations' revolutionary wars. Mexicans may admire Bolívar, but their great liberator was Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla. (As a comparison, both men are treated much like George Washington is in the US.)

That's just one example. Different Latin American places also have varied tastes in food (Venezuelans have arepas and empanadas, Mexicans have tacos and burritos), music (Puerto Ricans have salsa, Dominicans have merengue), and so on. There's a lot of diversity.

Latino and Hispanic are trying to capture those complicated histories and cultures in simple labels. That's going to cause some problems and disagreement along the way. So some of my fellow Venezuelans and Spaniards may tell me that I'm not really 100 percent Hispanic and 50 percent Latino, even though that's how I've identified all my life.


Sign up for the newsletter The Weeds

Understand how policy impacts people. Delivered Fridays.