September 15-October 15 is officially National Hispanic Heritage Month, where we recognize the accomplishments of Hispanic Americans and how they’ve influenced American culture, history, and identity. Throughout the next month, Very Good Light will be sharing a series of stories that aim to put a spotlight on the Hispanic American experience. From Hispanic Americans in Hollywood to entrepreneurs blazing their own path, we’re telling the stories that have shaped the fabric of American culture. Hispanics are a vital part of America’s past, and their achievements are essential to a prosperous future.
Ask any Spanish-speaking person in the United States what ethnicity they are and you might get a few different answers.
Hispanic, Latino, Latina, and Latinx are all labels used to describe a group of people with shared ancestry, but using those labels correctly is a bit more nuanced. Spanish is the official language in 20 countries across three continents, and within those countries are different cultures and dialects that make them all unique and difficult to contain under one umbrella.
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It all comes down to language and labels. Spanish is a gendered language. If you’re talking about a friend, you would say “amiga” if it’s a girl or “amigo” if it’s a boy. If you’re unsure who you’re talking about, you would default to the male noun classification. In a group of men and women, you would say “amigos,” again, defaulting to the male form of the noun.
In 2020, we know this is problematic because gender is a social construct. It’s a spectrum, and there are people that are fluid, as well as people that don’t identify as either male or female. Linguistically, this is a problem that can’t be easily solved. The Spanish language has been around for centuries, and while language can and should change constantly, the solution is not as simple as adding “they/them” to our vocabulary. The problem lies at the very foundation of the Spanish language.
Aside from the language problem, these labels also relate to location. It’s all very confusing and nuanced, so let’s break it down.
Hispanic refers to someone who is a native of or descends from a Spanish-speaking country (excluding Brazil, whose people speak Portuguese). It’s a term that came into use in the U.S. in the 1970s as an umbrella term for the Spanish-speaking groups that were in America, from Mexicans to Puerto Ricans to Hondurans, etc.
It was important for people from these various backgrounds to come together under one name to lobby for resources that would improve their communities, who were historically othered and under-served. There’s power in numbers, and by connecting those individuals from different backgrounds, Hispanics were able to unite their communities as one to fight for rights and laws that would benefit all of them.
Some people have a problem with this term because it highlights Spain, which colonized most of Latin America after Christopher Columbus reached the shores of Cuba in 1492.
Latino refers to men from Latin American countries, with Latina referring to women. This term includes Brazil but does not include Spain. There are some who reject this term because it tries to group many distinct cultures under one umbrella.
Latinx is a gender-neutral term to describe a person of Latin American descent. The “x” replaces the male and female endings “o” and “a” that are part of the Spanish language. It’s a term that was invented here in the United States in 2014 to be more inclusive and gender-neutral, which is more similar to the English language.
Because the term is relatively new, Spanish-speaking Americans have been slow to adopt it. A new report by the Pew Research Center says that while one in four Hispanics have heard of the term, only 3% use it to describe themselves. Few, if any, people living in Spanish-speaking countries know of or use the term at all.
Some say it’s problematic because it’s primarily English speakers who use this term, and by doing so, they impose those social norms on other cultures. Others argue that adding the “x” (a consonant) to words that used to end in “o” or “a” (vowels) makes those words unpronounceable in Spanish, as well as confusing. Take the word “amigo,” for example. “Amigx” is confusing and clunky when you place two consonants together at the end of a word.
This refers to someone who was born or has ancestral ties to Spain. They might also be called a Spaniard. It’s a nationality—like Cuban or Mexican—not a race or ethnicity. Someone who speaks Spanish is not Spanish unless they’re from Spain.
The terms are often used interchangeably, but as you can see, they mean very different things. A person from Mexico can identify as Latino and Hispanic, but a person from Spain would not refer to themselves as Latino.
Some people might reject the idea of belonging to such a large group such as Hispanic and Latino, and instead identify themselves by their country or origin or heritage. If you’re not sure how to refer to someone, the best thing you can do is just ask. These terms are complex and complicated, and Spanish-speaking people themselves often disagree on their usage.
In the end, people get to define themselves. If they want to be Hispanic instead of Latinx, it’s up to them to determine which label aligns with their personal values and beliefs. After all, there’s nothing more problematic than pushing a label on someone else that they don’t agree with, whether that label refers to gender, sexuality, or origin.