Which is Politically Correct: Latino or Hispanic?

What is the difference between Hispanic and Latino?

Business woman checking mails outdoor.
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The United States Federal Government often groups people together for information gathering purposes and in many cases does not distinguish between and origins despite the words having two separate identity meanings to individuals and unique dictionary definitions.

Regardless of any other personal preference because the dictionary definitions alone are different, neither term should be universally used to the exclusion of the other.

Adding to the debate on which term is considered politically correct is that depending on who you ask, you will likely get a different definition.

One of the reasons for this lack of clarity is because any word used to identify a person as part of a large group can be both subjective and a matter of choice -- even when there is an actual concrete definition.

Which term is considered politically correct in business (and private) dealings? That depends on who you are addressing and individual preference of the person you are addressing.

Polls and studies conducted on the subject of Latino vs. Hispanic, conflict so substantially that it is hard to really know the personal preferences of individuals on anything other than a very broad and unreliable scale. For this reason, care should be taken to be sensitive in the business environment when referring to anyone who speaks Spanish by either term.

It Is Generally Okay To Ask A Person's Origin, But Not Their Race

When in doubt, it is better to ask someone how they would like to be referred to than assume you know best. One way to pose the question is to simply ask, "Are you of Hispanic or Latin American origin?"

Never ask "what race are you?" because neither term describes a race, and in some situations, asking this question in the workplace may even be illegal and can expose you to potential liability under anti-discrimination laws.

  It also shows a lack of cultural sensitivity to individuals.

The Definition of Hispanic

It is important to understand that the definition of Hispanic (and Latino) varies widely depending upon the source you use. Some say that 'Hispanic' refers to race, but this is not true. The U.S. government specifically distinguishes Hispanic and Latino as terms to define regions of origin and not a person's race.

The U.S. Census Bureau also concurs that Hispanic refers to the region, not the race, and uses the term to describe any person, regardless of race, creed, or color, whose origins are of Mexican, Puerto Rican, Cuban, Central or South American, or of some other Hispanic origin. Areas conquered by the Spaniards were considered part of a region originally called Hispania, which is where the term "Hispanic" may be derived from.

The Office of Management and Budget combines both origins into one group, but still defines "Hispanic or Latino" as "a person of Cuban, Mexican, Puerto Rican, South or Central American, or other Spanish culture or origin, regardless of race."

Since it can be quite difficult to know which term to use, a greater emphasis should be on what terms not to use; that is, those terms that are always considered politically incorrect.

Is 'Chicano' Acceptable?

That depends largely on the individual. Almost universally, the word 'Chicano' has been deemed unacceptable, and may be considered  derogatory by some individuals. The term, first intended to degrade, was not coined by Mexican people, but by whites and other races. It referred to people of Mexican heritage but was intended to be disrespectful, labeling Mexicans as an inferior class in society.

However, even this term has no hard and fast rules as many Mexican-Americans do proudly embrace this term.  Actor Cheech Marin is one example of a Mexican-American who identifies publicly as being Chicano, as does former Texas State Representative Paul Moreno.

Chicano Punk, a website created as a project for an American Cultures/Chicano Studies class, concedes that the origins of 'Chicano' were intended to be derogatory in nature, but goes on to elaborate on an important point -- that it can also have a very positive and powerful meaning for others:

Socially, the Chicano Movement addressed what it perceived to be negative ethnic stereotypes of Mexicans in mass media and the American consciousness. The Chicano Movement is sometimes called La Causa (The Cause).

The terms Mexicanos and Xicans preceded the label Chicano but all have the same intended meaning. And, while some Mexican-Americans are comfortable with being identified as Chicano, others are not. Unless you are Mexican-American yourself, or the person being identified as declared otherwise, do not use Chicano.

In 2012, Huffington Post wrote an interesting article on the evolution of terminology noting that:

Francisco P. Ramírez, though his Los Angeles Spanish-language weekly “El Clamor Público,” proposed the term ‘la raza’ to denote Mexican Californians. Other self-identifiers were la población, la población California and nuestra raza española. Richard Griswold del Castillo, however, noted that, in the Mexican culture in California, “the increasing use of ‘La Raza’ as a generic term in the Spanish-language press was evidence of a new kind of ethnic consciousness."

In other words, whether the term 'Chicano' is a source of pride or a word to be avoided may be somewhat dependent upon how a particular individual feels.

Important Points to Remember

Being culturally literate is not necessarily the same as being culturally sensitive.  When in doubt, ask because individually, people from all walks of life may identify -- or want to be identified in a way contrary to mainstream labels.  In fact, simply labeling anyone for any reason can be deemed offensive and unnecessary, especially if being used for stereotyping or other divisive purposes.

The difference between Latino and Hispanic:

  • Latino generally refers to countries (or cultures) that were once under Roman rule. This includes Italy, France, Spain, etc. Brazilians are considered to be Latino but are not considered to be Hispanic.
  • Hispanic describes cultures or countries that were once under Spanish rule (Mexico, Central America, and most South America where Spanish is the primary language).

In American-English, Latino has come to be equated with Hispanic and are often used interchangeably without offense despite identifying two different origins, but neither term should be used to describe a race. Additionally:

  • Latino: When referring to gender neutral, identifying both men and women, use Latino.
  • Latina: When specifically referring to women, use Latina.

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