What Is the Difference Between Hispanic and Latino?

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Are you wondering what the difference is between the terms Hispanic and Latino? While Hispanic usually refers to people with a Spanish-language background, Latino is typically used to identify people who hail from Latin America.

In order to use these terms appropriately, it helps to understand their differences and when to use each one.

Hispanic vs. Latino

You might think of Hispanic and Latino as terms used to describe racial categories, similar to the terms white, Black, or Asian. However, the groups that comprise Hispanics and Latinos are actually diverse in terms of race.

The terms "Hispanic" and "Latino" refer to ethnicity and culture. They are groups based on shared culture rather than skin color, race, or other physical features. However, the groups are also broader than ethnicity, which can make the terms confusing.

Hispanic

Hispanic refers to people who speak Spanish or who are descendants of those from Spanish-speaking countries. In other words, Hispanic refers to the language that a person speaks or that their ancestors spoke.

For this reason, people who are Hispanic may vary in their race and also where they live or originate. For example, a white person from the Dominican Republic and a brown-skinned person from Mexico might both call themselves Hispanic, even though the only thing they may have in common is their spoken language.

Latino

In contrast, Latino refers to geography: specifically, people from Latin America including Central America, South America, and the Caribbean. Like being Hispanic, being Latino says nothing about your race; Latinos may be white, Black, Indigenous, Asian, etc.

A person who is Hispanic may also be Latino, but this is not always necessarily the case. For example, a person from Spain would be Hispanic but not Latino because Spain is a Spanish-speaking country but not a Latin American country.

A person who is Latino may also be Hispanic. For instance, while people from Brazil are considered Latino (because Brazil is a Latin America country), they are not considered Hispanic because their native language is Portuguese not Spanish.

Differences by Geographical Area

There are also differences in usage of the terms Hispanic and Latino by geographical region. While urban areas and those on the coasts tend to prefer Latino, rural areas in places like Texas and New Mexico are more likely to use the term Hispanic.

History

While the terms Hispanic and Latino have existed for centuries, it wasn't until they were introduced into the United States Census that they became more popularized. The census is used by the government to study aspects of the population.

During the 1960s, there was a common theme of poverty and discrimination among Mexican Americans in the southwest and Puerto Ricans on the east coast of the United States.

While the government initially saw these as regional issues, the joining of the Latino communities across the nation to address these issues led to a new perspective and a new method of categorization.

The 1980 census was the first to include a question asking respondents if they identified as Spanish/Hispanic as part of their ethnicity. Respondents could also identify their race (e.g., white, Black, Asian, American Indian or Pacific Islander).

The term Latino first appeared on the 2000 census as an option for ethnicity.

Later, these terms were also introduced to forms of identification such as driver's licenses, birth certificates, and school registration forms.

In this way, the use of these labels serves the purpose of allowing the government to accurately categorize the changing population and to identify trends by shared cultures.

In Media and Popular Culture

Popular culture and the media have helped to connect the Hispanic and Latino communities and further popularize these groupings based on their shared experiences.

Spanish-language media such as commercials, television shows, magazines, niche websites, news stations, and social media accounts reflect this understanding.

In general, the media appears to prefer the term Latino, likely because Hispanic tends to refer only to language, while Latino is broader and refers to people, music, and culture, etc. Moreover, it's possible that in the media, the term Latino feels more inclusive.

Identity

According to Pew Research Center, two thirds of Hispanic individuals feel that their Hispanic background is part of their racial background. This suggests that those who identify as Hispanic or Latino have a different conceptualization of race or ethnicity than others.

Further, within the Hispanic or Latino community, there are also differences in how people self-identify.

For example, Black Latinos may identify themselves as Afro-Latino or Afro-Caribbean. This helps to distinguish themselves from those who share their race but have different cultural backgrounds.

When to Use Each Term

How do you know when to use which term? While it's true that the terms Hispanic and Latino can engender a sense of community and common history for those who self-identify, imposing one of these labels on another person is unhelpful.

Instead, it's best to respect whatever label a person gives themselves or to avoid labels altogether if that is their preference. In general, there are a number of different possibilities in which a Hispanic/Latino person might identify themselves:

  • Hispanic
  • Latino
  • By their country of origin (i.e. a person may identify as "Salvadoran," from El Salvador or "Colombian," from Colombia)
  • No preference
  • As an American (if they have been in the United States for several generations or don't feel connected to the Latino/Hispanic community)

In general practice, it's best never to ask someone about their ethnicity unless they bring it up. For some, this implies that they are a foreigner when they might have lived in the United States their whole life.

By the same token, if someone is trying to place a label on you that feels uncomfortable, you are free to choose your own identity.

A Word From Verywell

If you are confused about the difference between the terms Latino and Hispanic, the simplest thing to remember is that Hispanic refers to Spanish-language populations, while Latino refers to Latin American countries and culture.

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Article Sources
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  1. Anwar Y. I say Hispanic. You say Latino. How did the whole thing start? Berkeley News. 2014.

  2. Parker K, Horowitz JM, Morin R, Hugo Lopez MH. The Many Dimensions of Hispanic Racial Identity. Pew Research Center: Social and Demographic Trends. 2015.