Hispanic vs. Latino: What’s in a Name?

Check out this incisive blog post on the great debate–Hispanic versus Latino, that is–written by Daniel Cubias.

He provides a slice of just some of the tensions framing this “debate” within the Latin American-descent population of North America.  If you are new to the topic of us, it’s a good beginning.  And if you’re you and you is us then, well, how about that?

Cubias doesn’t offer much of a solution and, as a professor of Chicana/o ~ Latina/o Studies (yes, that’s right, I did just use all those words and slashes) let me declare my reluctance to offer any bold opinion as to which we should “all” be using.  As with most “debates,” the most important understanding to take away is not the results of an either/or dichotomous battle but a bird’s eye view of the arena of contestation.

The real lesson in all of this is three-fold:

1. Latin American-descent populations are diverse and, at times, rivalrous to an extent that makes inter-ethnic, inter-national, and/or inter-identity formation difficult, to say the least.

2. The question to ask is, really, what frames and nurtures these diverse examples of identification?  This is not a debate about language at all.  It is about what that language says about what we think of ourselves.  Identity is about memory and visions of the past and future.  The unique historical experiences and circumstances which have given rise to this current “debate” are the real story for us as Latinos/Hispanic and as non-Latino/Hispanics to educate ourselves about.

3. No matter what you think about this in intellectual terms, identity is a historically situated phenomenon.  People will call themselves what they want because of the time, place, and circumstance of their life experience.  Barring a widespread–and I mean WIDE–movement in this country, there will be no lasting resolution to this debate.

And, just so you know, I am proud to call myself a Chicano.

5 thoughts on “Hispanic vs. Latino: What’s in a Name?

  1. Perhaps an “either/or” solution in a “both/and” world.

    Can’t a loaf of bread be both “bread” and “wheat”? Can’t a car be both an “automobile” and a “Ford”?

  2. With apologies for popping in a few days late … I come to this from a slightly different perspective. I once received an affirmative action grant when I was a student at Cal. As I recall, some form I filled out included something I had never seen before: the opportunity to identify myself as Spanish-American, which I am (my father was 100% Spanish). Happy to see this, I checked the box, and the next thing I knew, I was eligible for a grant.

    In a broad, Wikipedia, sense, I am Hispanic (Wikipedia identifies Spain as being part of the “Hispanosphere,” and identifies Hispanic Americans as being anyone with the Hispanosphere in their ancestry). But I can’t help thinking that I’m just another Euro-American, no different from, say, an Italian-American. But there are so few actual Spanish-Americans that Hispanic may be a useful label after all.

    Still, as you note, people will call themselves what they want. I have never been called anything but white by other people, even in the summer when my olive skin turns the color of my Andalusian compadres. Certainly I get all of the privileges of being a white male, and I suffer no prejudice from others since I “pass” as white, and since Spanish-American doesn’t really resonate with anyone.

    But as I spend more time in Andalusia, I find myself more connected to that part of my background. In the end, I suppose I am a product of my parents: one Spanish, the other a white girl from Berkeley. I am both bread and wheat … well, OK, I’m really jamón and hot dogs.

  3. Chicano vs. Latino vs. Hispanic

    Chicanismo derives it’s origins in the Chicano Movement which sought, among many things, to answer the existential questions: Where did we come from? How did we get here? Where are we going?

    In a (Eurocentric) lexicological context chicano derives from the mexica tribe (pronounced Mesheeca: Nahuatl) which is what the aztecas called themselves (much like Dine for Navajos). Note: The Aztecas did not have a written language which makes this analysis eurocentric. The term was used to name Mexico (Mesheeco) and those who reside there Mexicanos (Meshicanos). Mexicanos was shortened to Chicanos which as you may note was spelled phonetically. Along that same line of reasoning many Chicano activists use “X” in place of “Ch” to spell the adjective as to honor it’s semantics: “Xicano”. This is also done for the spelling of names, i.e. Xris as a form of decolonization. Also, to honor the xicana feminist movement, i would add the queer Aztlan movement, we also use the spelling Xican@s, as to disrupt the patriarchy undertone of privileging only biological males by using Xicano/Chicano/Latino/Hipsano/etc. Those who wish to employ a more technical way to disrupt this grammatical patriarchy use the suffixes -a/o or -as/os instead of @/@s. Further disrupting the intrinsic patriarchy of written Spanish the norm is to place the feminine before the masculine. The ending -o is the masculine suffix for words whereas the ending -a is the feminine ending. If speaking about both genders one traditionally ends the word with -o/os in Spanish. My apologies for reifying this.

    Chicano has transcended the original racial pejorative of describing an American-born individual with Mexican/Mexican American heritage. Chicanismo, for some, is not a racial category or essence such as “blackness,” rather it is a social and political consciousness attached to the Chicano Movement (see MEChA El Plan de Santa Barbara/El Plan Espiritual): the commitment to seeking social, economic, political, and educational justice for all La Raza in the U.S., particularly, those from “Aztlan” or the ancestral homelands of the Aztecas (S.W. United States: some suggest Utah). Chicanismo membership should not, for many, be extended to those outsde of La Raza (those who share indigenous/Spanish heritage). However, bestowing honorary Chicano membership to allies is more accepted today with the advent of inclusion, colorblindness and American multiculturalism.

    It is commonly held that “latino” it is short for “latinoamericano” or “americano latino”. “latino”, as an ethnic identity, is preferred by the majority of Latin Americans who come from the regions outside of North America. Many who do not self-identify with chicano or Hispanic prefer “Latino”. ”Latino” is yet another european construct-that is creation of european racial/ethnic ideology-and pays homage to the fact that most “latinos” have Spanish heritage (Spanish being a Latin-based language). “Latino” like “hispanic” is widely viewed as making invincible one’s indiginous roots. Subsequently, the use of “latino” has become widely popular among American mestizos as to avoid using “hispanic” to self-identify. On the same token many Raza avoid using Chicano because of its orthodox connotation of having Mexican/Mexican American ancestry or due to its association with chicanismo. Chicanismo ideology has been critiqued as being anarchical, seccesionist, radical, violent and even reverse-discriminatory. Let me take a moment to acknowledge that “La Raza” is also a contested identity. Many dwell on the literal translation-the race-and note that this also essentializes many peoples in a very reductionist fashion.

    Mestizaje or having spanish and indiginous ancestry is the trait which binds La Raza but which is not shared, nor affirmed, by all individuals of La Raza. Note that not all individuals, whether self-identified as chicano, latino or hispanic accept the use of the term La Raza for a myriad of reasons. I use the term as a “catch-all” descriptor. Most of those considered members of La Raza are biologically/genetically “Mestizo”. “Mestizo,” yet another european construct, is generally used to describe individuals with indigenous (Meso-American) and Spanish genes and/or biological essence (this includes many Native Americans). The first documented mestizo was the child of “La Malinche” or “La chingada madre” or Malinalli Malintzin or Doña Marina, who was a Nahua/Aztec/Mexica woman who married Hernan Cortes.

    It is not well documented where the term “Hispanic” originated but most attribute its etymology to “Hispania” or the Iberian peninsula not “Hispaniola” which is a Caribbean island. For this reason it is seen as making invincible the indiginous side of the hybridity which resulted from spanish conquest, colonization and inter-breeding. Most agree that “Hispanic” is not interchangeable with “Spanish”-the latter is the term used to describe those who come from the Iberian Pennisula the former used to describe American-born members of La Raza. However, many Mexican Americans—particularly those with deep roots in Aztlan— self-identified as “Spanish,” which I claim was a distancing strategy used to avoid being cast as Mexican due to the many negative associations with being Mexican. Those associations led the dominant white to socially, economically, politically marginalize/disenfranchise those of La Raza who were marked as “other” by skin color, language, culture, etc. Those marked as outsiders were oppressed/denigrated as to maintain white supremacy. This resulted in many brown Americans being forced to endure oppression of all sorts: physical brutality (including lynchings), segregation (residential/educational), enslavement (indentured servitude/exploitation), regimes of assimilation/cultural genocide (i.e. punitive assimilation/acculturation), unequal enforcement of legal sanctions, racial/ethnic profiling, surveillance, etc. Due to the pervasiveness of racism, colorism, and “racist enthnocentrism” in American society many raza vehemently defended their pure “Spanish” heritage through narratives and documentation. I’ll expand on this more below.

    It is widely accepted that “hispanic” as an ethnic category was created by the U.S. government to distinguish European “Whites” (anglo-saxon/european/”honorary” whites) from Mestizos and even Spaniards. In the first half of the 20th Century many Mexican Americans, Mestizos and Spaniards were categorized as “White” on census and vital statistic documents (i.e. birth cirtificates). This did not translate into the possession of “whiteness” however. Because spaniards are, for all intents and purposes, white europeans and more so due to the material benefits/privileges gained by the “possesive investement” in whiteness many raza sought to declare/defend their spanish or white heritage through producing birth certificates/census records of an ancestor which clearly states their race as “white”/”spanish”.

    Socially speaking, Mexican Americans wanted to be “white” or invested in whiteness as to enjoy the material benefits of “whiteness” also known as white privilege. Legally, “white” Americans could easily maintain their hegemonic status as long as Mestizos were legally “white”. Discursively, if Mexican Americans were honorarily “white” then they could not be considered to be socially/legally disadvantaged and racial stratification could be explained by cultural differences versus white nationalistic/supremacist ideology. The American racial hierarchy-with whites at the top-is preserved when claims of racial prejudice/discrimination are contextualized within race neutral, colorblind, equal opportunity and post-racial paradigms. Furthermore, if Mexican Americans were legally “white” they could not bring litigation against institutional whiteness and were exempt from equal protection/opportunity.

    After the supreme court case Hernandez v. Texas (1954), Mexican Americans became a “race-apart” (see the PBS documentary “A Race Apart”) and a protected class under the 14th Amendment. This meant that Mexican Americans and other members of the “brown mennace” needed to be legally defined.

    It is claimed that the ethnic category “Hispanic” did not appear in U.S. Census or government documents until the 1970’s. The categories which are employed today are “White-non-Hispanic” or white Americans, “White-Hispanic” or “criollos” (whites from Latin America i.e. those of German descent who come from Argentina) and “Hispanic-non-White” or Mestizos. These categories butress the pervasive colorism which persists among la raza. Further complicating the issue, many “coyotes” (black, native, spanish), “mullatos” (black and Spanish: not PC), Afro-Cubans, Brazilians, and Portuguese do not identify with being “Hispanic”, “Latino”, or “Chicano” despite being seen as “hispanic”.

    All these terms are problematized, especially by critical theory, as treating la raza as essentially monolithic and criticized as being unable to account for the many differences which exist within and between the various “hispanic/latino” sub-groups. Similarly post-colonial theory holds that these racial/ethnic categories are remnants of the colonial project designed to divide, label, categorize, differentiate, essentialize and “other” la raza. Many post-structuralists see race as socially constructed subjectivities/positionalities versus biological/genetic variables. These ethnic categories also do not acknowledge the existence bi/poly-racial individuals or those who wish to affirm a raceless persona. Social science, and the like, tend to treat these racial/ethnic categories as independent variables which can easily be plugged into structural equations. This for, critical theorists, reifies the racial hierarchy because they are commonly used to compare la raza with white America with whiteness placed at the center and seen as the norm or benchmark of normativity.

    These racial/ethnic categories described above can be “externally ascribed”, meaning people are placed into these categories by decoding markers of difference such as skin color, language/anccent, cultural expressions/aesthetics, etc. by means of what many call the “normative gaze”. “Externally ascribed” identities are widely seen as complicating an individual’s “internally ascribed”, or self-reported/self-determined, racial/ethnic identity. The way in which someone comes to determine their “internally ascribed” Racial/ethnic identity is explained/detailed through racial/ethnic identity formation models (Erickson, Helms, Phinney). These models are usually linear and sequential as to suggest that one progresses along a continuum, starting with childhood, eventually “arriving” at an “authentic” racial/ethnic identity. These models also suggest that an individual progresses forward through stages of identity formation and doesn’t allow for identity regression meaning once you’ve passed through the “immersion/emersion” stage (Helms), for example, you will never return or go back through the “disintegration” (Helms) stage.

    So what does this say about racial/ethnic identity politics in America?: so much is at stake in affirming an “internally ascribed” identity which may or may not trump any “externally ascribed” identity especially if the “externally ascribed” identity is stigmatized. Socially speaking, so much is attached to racial signifiers like ethnic/racial categories that we will deny or avoid affirming our “true” (not with a capital T as this is all subjective and socially constructed) racial/ethnic heritage and arm ourselves with a less-denigrating identity, i.e. “Spanish”. This is one conundrum that “whites” don’t have to navigate and even enjoy the ability to appropriate other racial/ethnic identities without reprisal: proof positive of “white privilege”. Ironically, white Americans do avoid affirming a “racist white” identity and can “other” such whites.

    Most young Americans of color wish to be socially defined in colorblind or raceless terms in order to be emancipated from having assumptions made about their intrinsic character, abilities and worth based upon your race/ethnicity. While it may be a reality that America is no longer overtly racist, cultural reproduction persists. The American (neo)liberal notion that we are a post-racial society defined by equal opportunity (aka colorblind meritocracy) discursively denies the pervasiveness of racism/racial discrimination and makes invincible the taken-for-granted racial hierarchy that stratifies Americans. This leads many to the “culture of poverty” paradigm or discursively attributing the many social/political/economic disparities which occur along lines of race/ethnicity in America to the cultural deficiencies of the subjugated versus white privilege, white nationalism and white supremacy/hegemony.

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