What's in a Name? Hispanic, Latino, and More Explained

name tags with the identity labels: latino, hispanic, latine, latina, latinx, and a last one that says i dont really care anymore

Identity labels (which are socially constructed) continually evolve as they shift through generations and as people grapple with predefined categories. As individuals redefine and express themselves, these labels are bound to transform, especially within intricate and often misinterpreted communities like Latinos whose racial backgrounds range from Indigenous to Black to white, to the ever elusive but not formerly recognized, “Brown.”

Latinos represent all races. It’s important to note that Hispanics are considered an ethnic group, which means they share a common language, culture, and heritage, but not a common race.

According to Pew Research Center, a 2019 poll showed that nearly half of Hispanics (47% to be exact) preferred to identify with their family's home country, while 39% went with "Latino" or "Hispanic," and a solid 14% just called themselves American. With so many in the Latine community using specific and general labels, how do they choose which ethnic or racial category to tick? (By the way, at Luz Media, we use all these terms freely. We won't claim to be the final word on this never-ending debate.)

It's also interesting to note that Hispanic personal identity begins to fade across generations. Pew Research also found that at least 11% of American adults with Hispanic ancestry no longer identify as “Hispanic.” Rather, they report having “Hispanic or Latino” ancestry instead of using a label as their racial or ethnic label. By the 4th generation of U.S.-born Latinos, only about 50% are using the Hispanic or Latino label, and the other 50% identify as non-Hispanic with Hispanic ancestry or heritage.

As if that's not complicated enough, it should further be noted that there’s been an increase in some U.S.-based Latinos who have reconnected with their Indigenous roots and who decline to acknowledge any Spanish lineage or who instead choose to claim their indigeneity only or partially, whether genetically accurate or not.

As “Hispanic Heritage Month” celebrates the histories, cultures, and contributions of American citizens whose ancestors came from Spain, Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central and South America, it's important we understand and respect the diverse ways in which each individual chooses to identify. Labels often carry deep personal, historical, and cultural meanings, and it's a testament to the richness of the community that so many terms exist.

The beauty of identity is that it's fluid, multifaceted, and deeply personal, and understanding these labels is just the beginning of appreciating our rich heritage.

So, without delving further into the complex topic of race and identity, which could fill an entire Ph.D. curriculum, we'll focus on the surface-level subject of the identity labels that exist for Latinos, Latine, Hispanic, and whatever you choose to call yourself (and what people who aren't Latino call us).

What is Hispanic?

a name tag that says Hispanic

This term refers to people who originate from Spanish-speaking countries. It includes Spain but excludes Brazil (where Portuguese is the official language). For instance, the reasoning goes that both someone from Spain and another from Mexico would be considered Hispanic because they both come from Spanish-speaking countries. The term was popularized in the U.S. during the 1970s Census as a way to categorize residents who identified with Spanish culture or origin, irrespective of race.

Many Latinos are weary of this label because it emphasizes the language and European Hispano roots and, in turn, the connection to Spain. For some time, "Hispanic" was the preferred term for those with roots in Spanish-speaking nations in Latin America. However, it has lost favor for what was seen as a more "precise" term for our community, "Latino.”

Hispanic remains as a legacy term, but is highly disfavored in its use to describe people from Latin American countries, rather than Spanish-speaking European countries like Spain.

What is Latino/Latina?

a nametag that says Latino/Latina

"Latino" (for men) and "Latina" (for women) are terms used predominantly in the U.S. to describe people who hail from Latin America or have ancestry there. This encompasses a large group of countries from Mexico in North America, through Central America, the Caribbean, and down to South America. As mentioned earlier, while Brazilians aren’t usually considered Hispanic (because their official language is Portuguese and many don’t speak Spanish), they are Latino because Brazil is in Latin America.

The term "Latino" gained widespread recognition in 1997 when the Office of Management and Budget included it in government publications. It was also used on the 2000 Census alongside "Hispanic/Latino." Its purpose was to create a broader umbrella for people with origins from various Latin American countries and a few Caribbean nations.

However, here's the issue: not everyone traces their roots to post-colonial Latin America. For instance, consider native Mexicans before Spanish colonization, native Mexicans in the U.S. prior to the Mexican-American war, and some Brazilians and other South Americans who don't identify as Latino. There’s also the gendered language component that many U.S.-based Latinos don’t identify with and argue isn’t inclusive of the non-gender conforming community.

The catch-all term that was supposed to include everyone unfortunately has more gaps than the well-worn chanclas we refuse to part with.

What is Latinx?

a nametag that says Latinx

"Latinx" is the solution to the gendered Latina and Latino terms that was created as a gender-neutral and inclusive term, mostly adopted among younger generations and LGBTQ+ communities in the U.S. It's a way to encompass all identities, beyond just male and female, from the Latin American diaspora.

One common argument against the term "Latinx" is that seeks to change the foundational nature of the gendered Spanish language. Spanish language purists can’t accept the fact that a language could be changed in any way, although language is always in flux and changes all the time. It's worth noting that Spanish was the language of colonizers, and if the genocide of indigenous Latin-Americans had never occurred, many of us who aren't of Spanish descent might be speaking local native languages and dialects today. So, the "our Spanish is sacred" argument is a tough sell.

That being said, the disdain for this term is fairly widespread. Regardless of validity of critique or not, the vast majority of people simply don't identify with Latinx. According to the Pew Research Center, 1 in 4 U.S. Hispanics are familiar with the term "Latinx," but only 3% actually use it. They also report that young Hispanic women are the most likely to use it.

What is Latine?

a nametag that says Latine

As the Spanish language continues to evolve for Latinos in the U.S., the gendered language with nouns often ending in "o" for males and "a" for females, created a need for a gender-neutral term. Given that Latinx was so disliked and didn’t work well linguistically, "Latine" emerged as a gender-neutral alternative to Latino/Latina/Latinx. The term has gained traction, especially in recent years, amongst those who seek a term that avoids binary gender distinctions.

Pronounced LAA-TIN-AYE, this term is no stranger to challenges, just like Latinx. However, the term Latine can be smoothly integrated into Spanish pronunciation. So, now we have a gender-neutral term that's both pronounceable and usable in Spanish.

Latine is the latest addition to the label game and seems to be gaining acceptance among our community. Since it's easy to say in Spanish, it looks like this term, initially the underdog, might be here to stay.

As an aside, Luz Media has adopted Latine Hispanic Heritage Month as its preferred label for the month.

What is Afro-Latino?

a nametag that says Afro Latino

The term “Afro-Latino” is used to describe Latin Americans with African ancestry. Latin America, due to historical factors such as colonization and the transatlantic slave trade, has a significant number of people who identify as both Black or Afro and Latino. This term underscores the importance of recognizing and celebrating the diversity of the larger Latino community.

The term Afro-Latin@/x/e has gained widespread popularity as a response to the historical invisibility and deliberate erasure of Latin-American and Caribbean individuals with African heritage.

For even further clarity, "Black Latinos" is a label that includes Latinos of mixed race or those who don't identify with the "Afro" descriptor. These terms have risen in prominence as they enable discussions and confront the prevalent issues of anti-blackness and colorism within both our native Latin American countries and the United States.

In particular, the terminology regarding Afro and Black Latinos is evolving rapidly. After being marginalized and discriminated against for so long, the Afro-Latino community is eager to express their experiences and identities. Their voices are vital in the Latino community as a whole, and we wholeheartedly support their efforts to define their identities and shout out their pride in their Afro and Black roots.

What is Chicano?

a nametag that says Chicano

According to the 2019 U.S. Census Bureau population estimate, among different Hispanic subgroups (that's their term, not ours), Mexicans were the largest group, making up a significant 61.4 percent. Following the Mexican group, were Puerto Ricans (9.6 percent), Central Americans (9.8 percent), South Americans (6.4 percent), and Cubans (3.9 percent). So, it's only right that we mention the OG label: Chicano.

Chicano is a term that originated in the United States and describes Americans of Mexican descent. It became popular during the Chicano Movement of the 1960s and 1970s when Mexican-Americans sought to regain control of what was a mostly derogatory term and define their identity in terms of cultural heritage, rather than immigration or class status, or assimilation. It's a proud declaration of Mexican-American heritage and has political and social connotations tied to civil rights and empowerment.

After the term’s popularity waned a bit, it has recently started gaining momentum with younger generations and popping back up into popular culture through music festivals, art displays, and celebration of Chicano culture more broadly.

What is Mestizo and Mulatto?

a name tag that says Mestizo and Mulatto

The term mestizo means mixed in Spanish and is generally used throughout Latin America to describe people of mixed ancestry with a white European and an indigenous background. Similarly, the term “mulatto” – mulato in Spanish – commonly refers to a mixed-race ancestry that includes white European and black African roots. In 2015 the Pew Research Center reported that Latinos identifying as “mixed race” was on the rise. In the study, respondents were asked if they identify as “mestizo,” “mulatto” or some other mixed-race combination, one-third of U.S. Hispanics said they do.

This tracks with the recent increase in the U.S. Census, where the increase in Hispanics reporting as “multiracial” continues, as it has been since the 2010 Census.

The topic of race and ethnicity for Latinos is as complicated as it sounds, and if we missed anything, it wasn't on purpose, we promise! The fact of the matter remains that U.S.-based Latinos don’t fit into a single box, and yet, for practicality purposes for media, research, policy-making, and a number of other important reasons, striving for an efficient way to refer to this community is an important endeavor.

No one term is going to be liked by all people. At Luz Media, we always strive to use the terms people identify with first, and a pan-ethnic term second. So, don't let this article stress you out too much. Remember, at the end of the day, we're all just trying our best.

Why it’s ‘necessary’ for young Latinas to see their stories reflected in movies and television

This article republishedfrom the 19th News with permission.

There’s an iconic scene toward the end of the 2002 movie “Real Women Have Curves” that cemented the film’s status as a powerful moment for Latina representation.

Fed up with the sweltering summer heat in her sister’s East Los Angeles dress factory, 18-year-old Ana Garcia, played by actress America Ferrera, takes off her shirt. Ana’s mother, Carmen, played by Lupe Ontiveros, quickly moves to cover her daughter’s body.

“Look at you; you look awful,” Carmen says, referring to Ana’s weight.

“How dare anyone try to tell me what I should look like, or who I should be, when there’s so much more to me than just my weight,” Ana says during the exchange.

Ana’s sister and another woman working in the factory come to her defense. To Carmen’s horror, the women each start to remove their clothes to compare their perceived body flaws. By the end, they are laughing, sewing dresses in their underwear and vibing to music in a powerful display of pride in their body fat, their stretch marks and their different sizes.

Lupe Ontiveros (as Carmen Garcia) and America Ferrera (as Ana Garcia) in Real Women Have Curves (2002) directed by Patricia Cardoso (HBO)

Patricia Cardoso, director of “Real Women Have Curves,” knew it was an important story to tell. At the time, few other films had centered the stories of Latina girls and teens in the United States, she told The 19th. “Real Women Have Curves” offered a glimpse into a world that was relatable to so many: the financial considerations for a working-class family, a complicated mother-daughter relationship, a first-generation Mexican-American teen with dreams of going to college in New York City.

In the 21 years since its release, the number of Latina coming-of-age stories has increased — and so has the representation within them. There are more actresses being cast and a wider variety of viewpoints being told that reflect the complexity and humanity of a diverse population that has historically been reduced to harmful stereotypes. But both in front and behind the camera, disparities remain, Latina women in the film and television industry told The 19th.

“There’s still a lot more needed because there’s not enough representation,” Cardoso said. “I teach at the University of California, Riverside, now, and the majority of my students are first-generation college students. They have only seen themselves reflected on screen a few times growing up, and it’s usually not realistically and not dealing with the issues they face.”

One 2021 study by researchers at the University of Southern California analyzed 1,300 top-grossing films between 2007 and 2019 and found that 3.5 percent, or 45 of the movies, had Latinx leads or co-leads. Of those 45 films, 24 of them had Latina leads.

Across the 100 top-grossing films in 2019, 35 had no Latinx characters at all and 59 had no Latina characters. Ninety-five of the films had no Latinx characters with disabilities, and 98 had no LGBTQ+ Latinx characters.

The study shows both existing challenges for Latinx representation, and how the numbers have improved somewhat over the years.

Like Cardoso, for filmmaker Aurora Guerrero it was difficult to think of many movies or television shows 25 or 30 years ago that depicted the adolescence of U.S. Latinas. Mainly, there was “Selena,” the 1997 movie starring Jennifer Lopez about the life and rising fame of Mexican-American singer Selena Quintanilla.

The year 2002 brought “Real Women Have Curves” and the Disney Channel original movie “Gotta Kick It Up!,” both starring America Ferrera. The latter tells the story of a dance team at an under-resourced middle school in Southern California. The movie has received some criticism for the absence or Afro-Latinas and for repeating a common White savior narrative in Hollywood, with a non-Latinx teacher stepping in to save the school dance team.

Still, “Gotta Kick It Up!” remains a treasured nostalgic re-watch for many Latina millennials. In different ways, “Real Women Have Curves” and “Gotta Kick It Up!” showed layers to the Latina teen experience. There were nerdy bookworm characters in addition to the rebellious cool girl. Some faced high expectations from their families or experienced anxieties navigating a White-dominated society.

For years, Latina characters have been hypersexualized, portrayed as loud and vain or as very strict and religious, without much nuance. Those portrayals can affect how the world treats Latinas and how Latina girls see themselves. Research indicates that seeing negative stereotypes or portrayals of women and girl characters in entertainment has harmful effects on mental health and body image.

Seeing more varied examples of Latinas as children and adults can help young Latinas understand they are not alone in their experiences, said Rosa Parra, a film critic who writes for The Daily Chela, a Chicano and Hispanic news website. Certain characters can also help young girls envision what their lives could be like in a particular career or at a particular college, Parra said.

Addressing stereotypes is a balancing act because some stereotypes develop from a seed of truth, she added.

“Do I have a tia or cousins who are very religious? Absolutely. And yes, I know people who can be loud and obnoxious sometimes. But it’s about showing a range of personalities and lives,” she said. “We’re such a diverse group of people. We have different shapes, sizes, skin tones, hairstyles, cultures and languages. It is unfair to just paint all of us as a monolith.”

More exploitative Latinx depictions often flatten a character into a single trope without adding more depth, Guerrero said. She worked on the set of “Real Women Have Curves” as an assistant to Cardoso while working on her own groundbreaking feature film.

Ten years after “Real Women Have Curves,” Guerrero’s “Mosquita y Mari” premiered. The 2012 film follows two Chicana teens in Los Angeles as they deal with school and family, in addition to their romantic feelings for each other.

Guerrero builds the connection between the two teen girls through subtle glances and touches that capture the butterflies, the confusion and the fear that many LGBTQ+ teens experience with a same-sex crush. Guerrero said she was tired and angry about the continued lack of queer Latinx stories in film and television.

“I wasn’t afraid to do it. I felt it was necessary, and I was empowered to do it,” Guerrero said. “The only thing that scared me was the question of whether I was going to be able to get funding for it.”

Initially, that fear was a reality as Guerrero struggled to get the money she needed. Ultimately, her team crowdfunded an $80,000 production budget, and “Mosquita y Mari” was released to critical acclaim.

Venecia Troncoso and Fenessa Pineda in “Mosquita y Mari” (2012) directed by Aurora Guerrero (THE FILM COLLABORATIVE)

Today both “Real Women Have Curves” and “Mosquita y Mari” are celebrated for breaking barriers of Latina storytelling in film; however, Cardoso’s and Guerrero’s struggles did not end after these successes. Following their respective films, they both faced years of rejection and struggled to find other opportunities as directors and filmmakers. Cardoso said she couldn’t get work as a director for 15 years after 2002. For Guerrero, she continued to face hurdles nearly three years after 2012.

In both cases, Black filmmaker Ava DuVernay offered a lifeline, by bringing them on to direct episodes of her Oprah Winfrey-backed show “Queen Sugar.” The support from DuVernay helped them to maintain steady work in television, they said, but it also highlights an ongoing problem for Latinx storytellers. “Not a lot of people have that ability. Not a lot of people have Ava to be their bridge. You know, she can’t hire everybody,” Guerrero said.

Over the past couple of decades, new projects have emerged elevating different Latinx perspectives, including the shows “Gentefied” and the reboot of “One Day at a Time,” and movies like Marvel’s Spider-Verse series and DC Universe’s “Blue Beetle,” which both focus on male characters. Blockbuster movies focused on young Latinas are still harder to find, with 2019’s “Dora and the Lost City of Gold” and this year’s “Spy Kids: Armageddon” as notable exceptions.

Creating more pathways for a larger variety of Latinx people to have a role in film and television creation will allow more authentic storytelling and coming-of-age films that young people can relate to.

“So many women of color, so many Latina women get passed over for an opportunity to direct,” Guerrero said. “So there are these barriers that are very difficult to get past when people don’t take the time to really see you, to really consider you and let you compete with your talent.”