Hispanic vs. Latino vs. Spanish vs. Latin American

Hispanic vs. Latino vs. Spanish vs. Latin American

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After the surprising popularity of a post I did last year, stating the differences between Ethnicity vs. Nationality vs. Race vs. Heritage vs. Culture, I have decided to do another in the same vein. I did that previous post because I needed to understand more about what each word meant, so I researched the topic and then wrote a post about it. Likewise, I feel like clarifying (both to myself and for anyone who is eager to learn) these various words/terms, though I write this as no expert.

I’m not sure how often these words are confused outside of the United States, but I am constantly disturbed by the rampant misuse of these things here. The most disturbing/annoying is that in some places in the United States, anybody of color is called a “Mexican” – even if they are not even Latino! When my parents relocated to Virginia a decade ago from New York City, my mother, who is Indonesian, constantly was asked if she was Mexican; she still gets it, and the ignorance still bothers me. Anyway, let’s clarify these terms, so that we better ourselves and set an example for others:

Hispanic

This first one is complicated, because there are several definitions, each which can be interpreted in a slightly different way. The term “Hispanic” was originally derived from Hispania, the ancient Roman name for the Iberian Peninsula, which is modern day Spain and Portugal. Using this broad definition, Spaniards, Portuguese, and peoples of all countries with a historical link to these two countries (such as Brazil and Mexico from colonization) are considered Hispanic.

This was the original definition, but so many argue today about its overly-encompassing nature that it is refuted and regarded as wrong. This is because modern-day Spain, termed España in the Spanish language, is derived from Hispania. So, using this narrower sense, we get the more common definition that says that being Hispanic refers to the culture, peoples, or nations with a historical link to Spain, which leaves out Portugal, Brazil, etc. The term is more-commonly used in the Western Hemisphere, especially in the United States, and applied to people of those countries which were once colonized by Spain, particularly the countries of Latin America.

Other than these two definitions, another interpretation of the term Hispanic uses the original ancient Roman Hispania for the Iberian Peninsula and then allows Hispanic to only refer to Spain and Portugal specifically, without their Western Hemisphere diaspora and others. Then, a fourth definition narrows it further by saying that Hispanic refers simply and only to the people of Spain, and that’s it; this is due to the fact that Hispania is the namesake of Spain (España).

So, what’s it gonna be? Well, they are all valid definitions, technically, since they are each given credit by reference materials such as dictionaries and encyclopedias. It is good to remember these differences, though, so that if you use the term and get called out on it, you can explain why your usage of Hispanic is valid and appropriate. However, I believe the most popular interpretation would be the second one, which says that Hispanic people are the people of Spain or those with a common link to Spain, which can loosely be defined as people who speak the Spanish language.

Spanish

The term Spanish is easier to understand, because there are no conflicting definitions. Other than being a language shared by many people around the world, Spanish basically refers to anything from the nation of Spain; Spanish people are people whose nationality is of Spain. Just because Mexicans, Peruvians, Chileans, Colombians, and others speak Spanish, they are not Spanish. The Spanish people are also referred to as Spaniards.

Latino/Latina/Latin American

Latin America is defined as all of the Americas south of the United States, including the Caribbean, which speak a Romance language (Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, French, etc.), because these are derived from Latin. Thus, a Latin American is a person of these Western Hemisphere countries, usually ones that speak Spanish or Portuguese primarily. However, it is common nowadays for the term to be incorrectly defined as specifically a person who comes from any Spanish-speaking country in the Americas or the Caribbean. Because of this common misinterpretation, you may find many Brazilians, for example, who hate to be referred to as Latin American.

Latino is a term, primarily used in the United States, that is meant to refer to people from Latin America or of Latin American origin. As the term comes from the gendered Spanish language, Latino can refer to the men of Latin America or, as a group, both the men and the women of Latin America; a Latina would be just a female from Latin America or of Latin American origin. The terms are dynamic enough to include people of the aforementioned countries by heritage, nationality, lineage, or birth country, giving multiple options to people, depending on how they’d like to identify themselves. 

Though rarely acknowledged, technically Haitians are even Latin Americans, as French is a national language and a Romance language. Another side note to consider is that the U.S. government wrongly seems to promote the incorrect position that Hispanic and Latino are interchangeable.

Latin

I thought I’d include this term in there, just to cover all my bases. Latin first and most-commonly refers to a dead language that is the predecessor of the Romance languages of today, and which has even contributed significantly to the English language. Other than that, it is sometimes also another way to say Latino, thus referring to things and people of Latin American origin. You should be able to judge by the context, but when the term Latin is heard today, it is most likely referring to something or someone Latino / Latina / Latin American.

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One thing to note that is accurate for all of the above definition is the fact that, regardless of how someone identifies (Hispanic, Latino, or Spanish), they may be of any race. Another point is that, because these terms are so broad, they don’t properly distinguish the many individual differences in culture, traditions, food, music, etc.; for this reason, the best thing to do is to call someone by their nationality when possible. Hope that helps clear some things up for you!

This is part of my ongoing series, “Versus/What’s the Difference?” With this series, I am to promote a better understanding and love of the differences that make us unique while at the same time casting out doubt; hopefully, this will make us better travelers, better citizens, and better people. For more, check out the “Versus/What’s the Difference?” category ->

Christian "Krzysiek" Eilers is a twenty-something who constantly likes to look up the next flight out of JFK. His life goal is to visit every country in the world; as a young adult working full-time, he often settles on visiting the near countries of Central and South America and the Caribbean, knocking these off the list as it is less of a financial strain than Europe or Asia. Caffeine is his vice, and if he doesn't have a coffee in his hands, then it's probably a green tea. A native of New York City, when he is not traveling, he can find an abundance of cultural influences right in his own city, enough to keep him satisfied until the next country's beckon cannot be ignored any longer.

3 COMMENTS

  1. You pretty much cleared a lot of the confusion up. Another group of people you should consider are the French Canadians (about 20% of the Canadian Population) that should be consider Latin Americans.

  2. I’m Indonesian and I’m always asked if I’m Mexican and it doesn’t bother me. I learned Spanish and now I tell people I’m Mexican. lol

    • Beto, you’re just like me, haha :) Mama saya juga dari Indonesia, dari Bandung. When I lived in VA for a few years during high school, most people there didn’t even know Indonesia was a country, so I was another Mexican to them. It was cool, though, for me; I learned some good Spanish, as well :)

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