A Primer on Hispanic, Latino and Latinx for Hispanic Heritage Month

You may have noticed the recent entry into our language of the word Latinx.

Even before that, “Latino” seemed to replace, or live side-by-side with, “Hispanic” when describing Americans who hailed from Latin America, or whose families did.

With 61 million Americans, or 19% of the country, self-identifying as Hispanic/Latino, this is now the nation’s largest minority group, even larger than Black/African American, and still the second-fastest growing, behind Asian American. Eight U.S. states each are home to more than one million Latinx, with Mexican-Americans comprising nearly two-thirds of that total. Another 20 nations supply the vast majority of Hispanics to the U.S., with all but one – Spain – in the Americas.

Most Hispanics in the U.S. are American-born and speak English fluently. In fact, the number of Hispanics speaking English as their primary language surpassed the number speaking Spanish at home (about 71% of each) for the first time in 2018.

Latinos make up just six percent of the population in South Carolina, whose population growth is fueled primarily by the influx of white, non-Hispanic in-migration from other states.

It is worth noting that most Hispanics in our country identify themselves much more with their country of origin than with the concept of Hispanic or Latino in the first place. Salvadorans have more in common with each other than with Dominicans, Peruvians or Puerto Ricans. Americans of Spanish-speaking descent consider themselves Americans, just as Italian, Chinese and Irish Americans have done for centuries.

During Hispanic Heritage Month, October 15-November 15, we pause to consider the influence of Hispanics in America and to better understand the various semantic references to this racially and nationally diverse group. Hispanic cultures, foods and language have become part of everyday American life and many leading business people and celebrities celebrate their Hispanic heritage.

The Ethnonym “Hispanic”
What is “Hispanic,” and why is there a competing term, “Latino”? Hispanic means Spanish-speaking and generally refers to people whose heritage derives from Mexico, Central and South America, and the Caribbean, colonized by Spain in the 15th-19th centuries. Native populations at the time of colonization (though of course, no humans are native to the Americas) traced their ancestors across the Bering land bridge into Alaska from Eurasia beginning about 14,000 years ago.

When considering Hispanics, that does not include people from Brazil, who speak Portuguese, or people from Belize, a former British colony whose official language is English. It does technically include people from Spain and Equatorial Guinea, a small nation in western Africa, which both use Spanish as their official language.

Latino vs. Hispanic
Many whose ancestors come from Central and South America object to being linked with the Spanish colonizers whose rampage through their colonies was at least as shameful as our nation’s treatment of its own indigenous populations. They sought a term that focused on their Latin American heritage and not the lingual vestige of the Spanish military conquests. For that, they coined the term Latino.

However, while Latino does eliminate Spain (and Equatorial Guinea) from the equation, it allows Brazil and Belize back in. For many discussions, this makes perfect sense; e.g. if discussing individuals from nations in Latin America regardless of their native tongue. Many speakers conflate Latino with Hispanic, but they do have slightly different meanings.

Many are searching for a term that means Spanish-speaking peoples from Latin America. Both Hispanic and Latino are proxies for this but don’t exactly hit the mark.

Removing Sexism From the Ethnonym
In Spanish, the male form of a word is used when referring to mixed groups. Thus, all people of Latin American descent, both Latinas and Latinos, are referred to as Latinos. In recent years, the recognition that “Latino” is inherently sexist has led to creation of the gender-free Latinx, pronounced La-TEEN-ex. 

Whether this catches on or is generally eschewed as semantic nit-picking remains to be seen, but Latinx has gotten a boost from the consciousness-raising that has accompanied the recent movement for greater racial justice.

An Educational Portal to Prosperity 

The Lowcountry Graduate Center celebrates Hispanic Heritage Month and welcomes people of all backgrounds to pursue their dreams through higher education and skill-enhancement.  We must acknowledge, however, that gaps exist between Whites and people of color.  In Metro Charleston, 85% of the jobs in computer science, engineering, and high tech are filled by Whites, while nearly as many fill jobs as practitioners and technicians in healthcare.  Meanwhile, only 42% of the lowest paying, custodial and caregiving positions in healthcare are filled by Whites.  Collectively, both educators and employers across the U.S., including those of us in the Lowcountry of South Carolina, must act with intentionality to alter the circumstances of those trapped in jobs where upskilling is the ticket to changing life’s trajectory.  An indisputable relationship exists between economic prosperity of virtually every U.S. metropolitan area today and its racial/ethnic inclusivity. 

We can flourish as a peaceful and prosperous nation while we celebrate our separate heritages and cultural traditions.