In spite of Shakespeare’s impertinent question, “What’s in a name?” names do matter.
Take Hispanic and Latino, for example. Do we really understand these names? Do we understand what it means when we call someone Hispanic or Latino?
The term Hispanic first appeared as a descriptor on the 1980 census. Prior to that, the bureau had used terms such as “persons of Spanish surname” and “persons of Spanish mother tongue.” However, because of its implicit ties to people who speak Spanish, the term also describes people who come from Spain.
Latino, on the other hand, derived from the Spanish word for Latin, denotes persons of Latin-American descent. According to research conducted by Diversity Inc., Latino is considered more inclusive because it also frequently refers to Brazilians. Despite Portuguese being its primary language, many think of Brazil as part of Latin America.
So, who’s right and why does it matter?
“One of the most amazing cultural shocks is the mainstream necessity of fitting everything into categories,” says writer Ruben Correa, who admits to being of German, French, Sephardic Jewish, Portuguese, and Brazilian descent. “It's kind of difficult at first to ask an Argentine person if he is Hispanic or Latino.”
Dr. Jose Aranda, associate professor of Chicano and American literature at Rice University, notes that he often hears “Latino” used as a descriptor by people in the Northeast, while he finds “Hispanic” used in the same way in Texas.
“I’m a Mexican-American, but I think of myself as Chicano,” says Aranda. “Most Mexican-Americans I know say they’re Hispanic. But if you press them further, they might go ‘I’m Tejano’ or ‘I’m Chicana.’”
Neither Correa nor Aranda is offended when someone refers to them as Hispanic or Latino. Aranda is more concerned with having his students understand that culture is separate from race. Even now, the U.S. Census Bureau specifies that Hispanic and Latino are not race designators; they are ethnic descriptors.
As an exercise, he has his students write down all the derogatory names they have ever heard about someone who is Latino, and he addresses them and points out why “wetback,” and “bean picker” are offensive.
“We address it and we move on. It helps all of my students to see how they are thinking and how they can evolve,” he says. “A lot of the debate about Hispanic versus Latino on the part of people who aren’t of one of those cultures is based on a lack of understanding.”
Aranda, however, knows that it takes time to develop open-mindedness, and he says that it troubles him to see politicians creating what he calls a “matrix of fear,” referring to illegal aliens as threats. Still, he says he’s hopeful for the future.
“I think we’re entering a very culturally mixed generation,” he says. “And I think we’ll see more and more conversations about race and ethnicity and more people coming together. I am very hopeful.”
Correa, too, shares a hope for the future. Although Correa says that someone labeling him as Hispanic or Latino does not bother him, he knows that it troubles others. He also feels that people genuinely seek a better understanding of cultures separate from their own, and that words are very powerful things.
“If we dig deeper, we might find that we have a lot more in common than we once thought. And if we look forward, the prospect is even more promising,” he says. “Despite all the rampant bias and phobia, beyond their past and ancestors, when Hispanics or Latinos come to the U.S. they come to build the future, not to rescue any remains from their past.”