Which is it, Hispanic or Latino?

Story highlights

Latinos straddle two worlds: where our families came from and where we live

What's the difference between the terms Hispanic and Latino?

For many, using either term to describe this group feels limiting

The plight of the "where are you from" question explained

CNN  — 

If there’s one thing everyone should know about Hispanics in the United States, it’s that this rapidly growing minority has an undefined identity crisis.

Why? Because of the confusion surrounding what to call people whose ethnic background is from Latin American and Spanish-speaking countries. Some even feel 100% American or 100% Latino – or Hispanic, depending to whom you’re talking.

How do you know which term to use? “Hispanic” and “Latino” are often used interchangeably and aim to describe the same group of people, but technically they do not mean the same thing.

What’s more, within Hispanic communities in the United States, most people identify with their country of origin and often use hyphens to represent their loyalties to both cultures: like “Mexican-American.”

We’re constantly having to straddle two worlds: the one where our families came from and where we’ve chosen to live.

To make matters even more complicated, all that can change depending on where Latinos are in any given moment.

When I’m in my parents’ native country of Peru, I’m American with Peruvian parents and that’s that. No matter how hard I’ve tried to be “Peruvian enough” to my fellow Peruvians, I might as well be a gringa in their eyes.

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And, when I’m back in United States, someone will inevitably ask me where I’m from in a way that suggests I’m not from the good ol’ U.S. of A.

In other words, imagine having to constantly tell people that you’re made of two colors: blue and yellow, but all people see is green, and you constantly have to go in the light and show them you are made of both colors.

Identifying as Hispanic or Latino comes with its ups and downs. But perhaps breaking down what these terms mean and how they’re used within this diverse community of 54 million Latinos can help shed some light on our experience.

Hispanic or Latino?

Years ago, I attended a media networking event hoping to meet more established journalists.

I remember saying something along the lines of, “Ah, the joys of being Hispanic,” and an older Latina woman turned around and said, “No, sweetie, you are a Latina. Don’t refer to yourself as Hispanic. The government invented that word for us.”

Um, OK. I think I hit a nerve.

Then, a younger Latino man snickered and asked her to not take those labels so seriously. She quickly turned to him and, judging by her wide eyes and stiff demeanor, she clearly did not agree. Her eyes then met with mine and she looked at me as if I had to make a choice: Hispanic or Latino? What’s it going to be?

The room immediately felt as if it divided into two uncomfortable teams.

I could feel the warm embrace from the “Hispanic team,” which was easygoing and used both terms interchangeably, and imagined them saying to me, “Come on over! Hispanic? Latino? Whatever you feel is best.”

But the looming eyes of “Latino team” made me feel obligated to side with them and take some kind of political stance on the term. Using Latino had a slight “sticking it to the man” feel.

I wasn’t sure how I felt about identifying with either term, so I decided to hold my tongue, take a deep breath and smile.

Even though this woman I had never met tried to impose her label on me, she was partially right.

The term Hispanic was first used by the U.S. government in the 1970s in an attempt to count people from Mexico, Cuba and Central and South America but what she failed to mention was that the term has existed for centuries.

Back then, there wasn’t a private or public sector that had a uniform way of collecting data on the Hispanic community, so a committee was formed and it opted not to use Latino because, if taken literally, it could include Europeans of Latin origin.

The goal was to accurately account for this growing and discriminated against population so laws could be implemented to help with their needs as well as trace their accomplishments.

The term Latino finally came to fruition in the 2000 census as a more inclusive way to include mixed races known as “mestizo” or “mulato” in Central and South America.

In short, Hispanic refers to language and Latino refers to geography.

One reason for my ambivalence with both these terms is that I didn’t grow up using either one.

I was born and raised in New Jersey by my Peruvian immigrant parents in a predominantly Hispanic community where everyone identified with their family’s country of origin. I was Peruvian for the better half of my life and it’s perhaps why I use the terms interchangeably and have no preference.

I’m not alone.

Most Hispanics in the United States prefer to use their country of origin to describe themselves most often. About half said they have no preference for either term but for those who did, Hispanic was preferred over “Latino,” according to the Pew Research Center.

“For example, in California, the state with the largest Hispanic population, 30% say they prefer ‘Hispanic’ and 17% say they prefer the term ‘Latino,’” according to Pew. The results were similar in Florida and New York.

The only exception is Texas where there was an overwhelming preference for “Hispanic.” Among Hispanic Texans, 46% prefer the term Hispanic, while 8% say they prefer Latino.

But this wasn’t always the case.

“There was a time when Latino was primarily used in the West Coast and Hispanic on the East Coast,” said Mark Hugo Lopez, director of Hispanic Research at the Pew Research Center.

The use of both pan-ethnic terms are unique to the United States, Lopez added, as is the ongoing identity debate on which term to use.