Defining My Terms

Right away, I’m likely to piss somebody off. This is because I’m wading into the whole “Hispanic” vs. “Latino” lexicon fistfight. You may not know this, particularly if you are of the Anglo persuasion, but there is an ongoing debate over which term accurately identifies people whose ancestors come from somewhere south of modern-day Texas. 

This area encompasses over twenty countries spread around Central America, South America, and the Caribbean. Add to this fact that many of these countries have multiple cultures with diverse customs and even different languages, and it quickly becomes clear that coming up with one word to identify all these people is like calling everything you put in your mouth “food.”

But in America, at least, we have narrowed the choices down to “Latino” or “Hispanic.” Each comes loaded with political baggage. Say “Latino” to a brown-skinned person, and you might receive a snappish “I don’t speak Latin!” in response. Refer to someone as “Hispanic” and you could hear that the word refers to Spain, the country that “raped my ancestors” or “subjugated the Aztecs” or some other historical atrocity that constitutes a fresh wound to people who have taken too many poli-sci classes.

Special note: the word “Spanish” applies only to a native of Spain or to the language. We tend to hate it when we’re called “Spanish.”

To add to the confusion, many people want their home country to be a reference point. This is particularly big with the Dominicans, the Cubans, and the Puerto Ricans. And self-described Chicanos are likely to seethe with hot-blooded rage (now there’s a stereotype!) if they are called anything other than their preferred term.

But I simply do not have the patience or computer memory to start every post with “speaking of Ecuadorians and Bolivians and Guatemalans and Quechua speakers and Garifuna immigrants…”

So I’ve decided to use the terms “Hispanic” and “Latino” to encompass the whole damn ethnic pie. And I will use the words interchangeably. I do this because I think both words are perfectly legit, and there’s no need for a lucha over them. I also do this for the sake of linguistic variety in these posts. Along those lines, I will probably also sprinkle in the terms “brown scourge,” “swarthy dudes,” “hot little tamales,” and “God’s gift to the Western hemisphere,” depending on context.

Therefore, don’t look too deeply into my word choice. The politics of this blog will be clear enough without getting into the hidden subtext of terms I picked just because I was tired and began cutting and pasting at random.

Now that we have that settled, I should mention that regardless of the word I chose, there’s likely to be some debate over what person/group/socioeconomic entity I’m referring to. After all, who constitutes a Latino is often up for grabs.  For example, a half-Anglo blogger in the Midwest (ahem) is probably not whom pollsters are referring to when they laud the monolithic “Hispanic community.”

But that’s another post.


7 Responses to “Defining My Terms”

  1. 1 Don
    March 6, 2008 at 12:12 pm

    Let me be the first to congratulate the Hispanic Fanatic. As a melatonin-challenged former resident of the Midwest, let me also dispel any fears that might exist in the blogosphere with regard to the Fanatic’s intentions. Despite his unauthorized access to technology (he isn’t supposed to like doing this type of thing…like camping, for example), I can assure you that his postings will be acceptable viewing for ecumenical casserole eaters throughout Keillor country and across the fruited plain. Read without fear, brothers. Read without fear.

  2. March 6, 2008 at 5:22 pm

    As an Anglo, or as I prefer to be referred to, an American, I have to agree with your point regarding the race label. Hispanic, if I recall correctly, comes from the need of the Census takers to have a single name for the widely disparate group of peoples. As for Latino, it seems to this Italian/Polish/French/Native American American mutt a more appropriate term for the majority of the races of people that has in its race recipe Spanish blood. While this blood wasn’t desired nor needed, it is part of the heritage of the majority of these people. Latino, to my Caucasian ears, evokes the Mexican, Honduran, et al, while Hispanic sounds made up, which, again, if I recall correctly, it was. Thank you for explaining your stance on this situation right up front as it will set the framework for what is respectful in this blog. Good luck on your new adventure!

  3. 3 RUG
    March 7, 2008 at 5:40 am

    Dear Fanatic – I too debate over what word to use to identify myself to others and use the terms interchangeably. Do I call myself Hispanic, Latino or should I simply identify myself from where my ancestors are from and call it a day. Even then, do I say American-Peruvian or Peruvian-American? (Some say if you are born in the US, then the American part comes first, if you immigrated here, then the American part comes at the end … whatever.) I’ve even read that being referred to as Latino is more refined than being called Hispanic … Quite honestly, I don’t care if they use any of the above terms, as long as it’s not used in a derogatory manner. I know who I am and it’s obvious others know what I am by their attempts to be pc and categorize me. In the end, all of us Hispanic, Latinos, etc. are probably all a mix of the differences races that came to our countries centuries ago … races that came to take the riches of our ancestors’ countries or who voluntarily or involuntarily came to work its lands. So go ahead, call me Hispanic, call me Latino – I won’t get insulted. Just don’t call me Spanish … they’re from that other continent.

  4. 4 Rafi
    March 8, 2008 at 11:03 pm

    As a non-Hispanic / non-Latino / non-Chicano (that term seemed to go out of style around the time Saturday Nght Fever left theaters), I haven’t spent much time on this issue. I went to school with lots of Cubans. As noted in the blog, they tended to prefer the term “Cuban.” They obivously shared a language and some culture with others of hispanic origin, but they bristled at the thought of being lumped together with every Mexican and Dominican. I suspect that if you gathered in a room a person whose family immigrated from Cuba in the 1930’s with one whose family came from Puerto Rico in the 1950’s and one whose family came from the Mexico in the 1980’s, you’d have a pretty diverse group. Most of what they’d have in common is the ability to point out all their differences in two languages at once.

    “Hispanic” and “Latino” are useful terms in a limited way. They describe a broad category. As soon as someone talks about how Hispanics are going to vote in the next election, the term reveals more about the lack of knowledge possesed by the person using the term than it does about the group being described. It is people who are not part of the group who tend to overuse the term and oversubscribe to the various cliches surrounding it.

    And since I’m not part of the group, I’ll stop right about here. Nice blog so far.

  5. 5 Rob May
    March 11, 2008 at 11:45 pm

    As being both of Mexican and Spanish heritage, among other origins, I can possibly understand how a Guatemalan could get offended if they are asked if they are Mexican, but, I just can’t understand why any person of Latin descent gets upset about being referred to as Hispanic? The reality is this- during the Spanish colonial period in the Americas, tens of thousands of Spaniards migrated to North, Central and South America, not to mention many of the Caribbean islands, bringing their culture along with them. To say that their culture has no part of the fabric of what has become Latin America is to deny the fact that this is the natural progression of “civilization” as we know it. And in case you are wondering, I do speak Spanish and when my parents got mad at me as a kid, I was sure to hear my name, “Roberto!” rattling between my ears…

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