What Is the Difference Between Hispanic and Latino?

difference between hispanic and latino

Verywell / Laura Porter

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

These identities can be claimed by anyone, regardless of their heritage. Researchers and publishers (including the U.S. Census) do not dispute how people identify.

In order to use these terms appropriately, it helps to understand their differences and when it is appropriate to use each one. Knowing the origins of the Hispanic and Latino labels, what they mean, how they are used, and how people self-identify helps you gain that understanding.

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, culture, and identity. 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 have a background in a Spanish-speaking country. In other words, Hispanic refers to the language that a person speaks or that their ancestors spoke. Some Hispanic people speak Spanish, but others don't.

For this reason, people who are Hispanic may vary in their race and also where they live or originate. For example, a person from the Dominican Republic and a person from Mexico might both call themselves Hispanic because they share in common a spoken language and a legacy of Spanish colonies.

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.

However, it is important to note there is some discussion about whether people in the Caribbean actually identify as Latino in the case of non-Spanish-speaking countries. 

For example, the majority of Haitians do not identify as Latinx despite being part of Latin America. Jamaica, an English-speaking nation, isn’t always included as being part of Latin America either, and Jamaicans do not tend to identify as Latino. 

The Bahamas, Curaçao, and Dominica are also places that are occasionally lumped into Latin America but are not Latinx or Hispanic.

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, or not. For instance, while people from Brazil are considered Latino (because Brazil is a Latin American country), they are not considered Hispanic because Brazil is a former Portuguese colony, not a Spanish one.

People who are Black and Latino often identify as Afro-Latino, while other Black people of Latin American descent forego the Latino/Hispanic labels altogether.

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. However, there are exceptions to this tendency. For example, the word Hispanic is generally preferred and more widely used in Florida.

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.

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, 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.

Latinx is a label that has emerged as an LGBTQ+ and gender-inclusive alternative to Latino and Hispanic. However, statistics suggest that many people still prefer to use Latino.

Identity

According to Pew Research Center, two-thirds of Hispanic people 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 people 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 ways in which a Hispanic/Latino person might identify themselves (or, they may not have a preference):

  • Hispanic
  • Latino/Latina
  • Latinx
  • By their country of origin (e.g. a person may identify as "Salvadoran," from El Salvador or "Colombian," from Colombia)
  • A hyphenated label (e.g., first-generation folx whose families are from a country outside of the U.S. might say that they are Salvadoran-American, or "my family is from El Salvador")
  • American

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

While Hispanic and Latino are sometimes used interchangeably, they have different meanings. Hispanic refers to individuals who are Spanish-speaking or have a background in a Spanish-speaking country. Latino refers to those who are from or have a background in a Latin American country.

These terms encompass culture, ethnicity, and identity and are rooted in shared cultures and not racial categories. When using one of these terms to refer to a specific person, always respect their preference.

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4 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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