These days, it seems that the terms “Latino,” “Hispanic,” and “Spanish” are interchangeable in colloquial speech. Few people know the difference, including those who fit into these categories. Much like other racial and ethnic terminology, the words we use to describe Spanish speakers and those of Hispanic origin are confusing, inadequate, and often inapplicable.
My son, for example, could be categorized as a white Hispanic. Yet, that’s only because he is part white and he looks white like me; in truth, he has non-white ancestry on his father’s side. He is a Spanish speaker, while many who look more Hispanic than he does don’t speak any Spanish.
“Hispanic” is not a race, but an ethnic term. Although it originally signified a family connection to Spain or Portugal, it now means having a connection to Latin America. This could mean speaking Spanish or not, having dark skin or light skin, and engaging in a Latin American, Central American, or South American home culture to whatever extent you choose.
As we all know, though, it means much more than that. In fact, it means something different to everyone.
Before we can teach our kids what it means when they check the “Hispanic” box on forms throughout their lives, we need to evaluate what the word means to us. I did some informal research – asked friends and family (adults and children) what “Hispanic” means to them – and here is a sampling of the responses:
“Delicious food, saucy personalities, killer music and beautiful people (inside and out).”
“Born and raised in a Latino country and 1st language being Spanish.”
“Rich culture and family traditions.”
“Celebrating Spanish things with your family.”
“Always speaking Spanish when someone around you doesn’t know English.”
“Close families, tight-knit circles.”
Also, check out this previous post from Eugenia about her personal exploration of cultural labels.
To me, “Hispanic” is a blanket term, a general category. There are more differences than similarities amongst Hispanics, but non-Hispanics tend to gain a skewed understanding of the group because they may be exposed to only one type of Hispanic person. For example, in Orlando, we associate the term with Puerto Rican and other Caribbean cultures, since they make up the majority of the Hispanic population here. We think of a particular kind of food, dance, and use of language only. It is therefore hard to grasp what Hispanic denotes on a national scale.
For those of us who are not of Hispanic origin, it is even more important to consider how we use this and other words to describe the people around us – even, as is the case for me, our own children.
What does “Hispanic” mean to you? Do you prefer any particular term to describe your ethnic background and culture?