For Hispanic Heritage Month, Let's Define Our Terms
August 27, 2009
by Bradley Osborn
Each year the president proclaims Sept. 15 through Oct. 15 to be National Hispanic Heritage Month in the United States, as authorized by Congress. The Census Bureau tells us that Hispanics are now the largest minority in the United States.
The Office of Management and Budget (OMB) defines Hispanic as a person of Cuban, Mexican, Puerto Rican, South or Central American or other Spanish culture or origin, regardless of race.
Some folks object to the term Hispanic, noting that it is a catch-all word meant to encompass anyone whose culture has been influenced by Spanish colonialism or hegemony. It is not a racial designation, but rather an ethnicity or cultural identity. One can be of any race and still be Hispanic. Hispanic is somewhat analogous to Anglo, in that someone might be called an Anglo simply because he or she speaks English. However, some people consider themselves to be Hispanic even though they don’t speak a lick of Spanish.
The word Hispanic is derived from the Roman (Latin) term Hispanicus, genitive of Hispania (Roman territory later consolidated as Spain). Pairing national demonyms with the word American, e.g., Peruvian American, is usually discouraged because the entire Western Hemisphere is considered to be the Americas. People who choose to identify as Mexican American, or Cuban American, etc., do so for reasons of clarity due to the proximity of their lands of origin to the United States.
The word Latino/a is short for latinoamericano/a (Latin American) and refers to people in the Western Hemisphere whose heritage is at least in part tied to colonial powers that spoke any of the Romance languages. Specifically this means Spanish, Portuguese and French. Other tongues like Romanian and Italian are also Romance languages. Although many explorers hailed from the Italian peninsula, Italy was not a consolidated country until the late 19th century and therefore did not participate in the colonizing of the Americas.
Lasting French influence in the Americas was generally limited to Quebec, the Caribbean and a few other spots. Even an Anglophone country like Belize might be considered to be part of Latin America, because many of its citizens share ancestry with those in other Latin American countries and many Belizeans are bilingual. Both Hispanic and Latino peoples can be anywhere on the continuum of Native Americans, Iberian or Gallic immigrants, descendants of Africans or a blend of any of these biologically, linguistically or culturally.
Other terms one might encounter include creole or criollo (western-born person of European descent), indios (indigenous) and morenos (brown-skinned). If you encounter a new friend or colleague whom you suspect might be Hispanic or Latino, the best plan is to simply ask that person how he or she identifies himself or herself. If the person is European, he or she may in fact object to the labels Hispanic or Latino/a.
Blatino/a a person of both Black and Latino heritage
Boricua Puerto Rican, from the Taíno name for the island, Boriquén
Chicano/a a person of Mexican American heritage
Hispanic a person of Mexican, Puerto Rican, Cuban, Central or South American or other Spanish culture or origin, regardless of race
La Raza a term of empowerment for Latinos meaning “The Race”
Latino/a shortened form of latinoamericano/a (Latin American), meaning anyone whose heritage was influence by the colonial powers of Romance language-speaking Europeans
Nuyorican a person of Puerto Rican descent who resides in New York City
Spanglish a portmanteau, the conflation of Spanish and English, used in everyday parlance
travesti/vestida a cross-dresser or transvestite, sometimes incorrectly extrapolated to mean transgender
More Cultural Information
Guadalupe Centers Inc. guadalupecenters.org
Greater Kansas City National Hispanic Heritage Committee
CNN's Latino in America airing on CNN beginning mid-October