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.

covers of books written by Latine authors

This article republishedfrom the 19th News with permission.

Romina Garber had always been an avid reader of fantasy stories, especially Harry Potter, but something ate at her: She could never find another Latina in the stories.

“I couldn’t find someone that reflected me or represented me, and that always really bothered me,” she said. So Garber wrote the story of a young girl who discovers she’s a lobizona, a werewolf of Argentine folklore. But when Garber began looking for literary representation for the book that would eventually be “Lobizona,” 15 years ago, no one wanted it.

Garber remembers one agent telling her that “no one cared about Argentine immigrants.” There was no American market for the title, and it’s not what people wanted to read. Garber felt her identity, not just her book, being rejected.

“He was talking about me, he wasn’t talking about my characters,” Garber said. “It really crushed me. And after that, I just realized I can’t write about myself.”So she began writing allegorical science fiction instead, creating a world where everyone is divided up by their zodiac sign. Garber found an agent with this new concept and finished publishing the four-book series in 2017. But Garber’s mind drifted back to the first book she tried to sell about an undocumented immigrant lobizona. It felt more urgent than ever: The news was filled with stories of immigrant children being detained in cages during the Trump administration’s border crackdowns.

Now armed with an agent from her science fiction series, her book was sold to a publisher. “Lobizona,” the first in the Wolves Of No World Duology, was released in 2020. Garber regrets that she ever shelved the story in the first place. “I should never have stopped fighting.”

There have been a few standout successes for Latinx authors in the realm of speculative fiction — which includes fantasy, science fiction and dystopian stories — and many are written by women and LGBTQ+ authors. Books such as Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s “Mexican Gothic” and Aiden Thomas’ “Cemetery Boys” have been New York Times bestsellers. Moreno-Garcia’s “The Daughter of Doctor Moreau” is up for the genre’s prestigious Hugo Award.

Publishers have backed a few bright stars, but that doesn’t translate into broader support. Publishing, both the industry and the authors, are overwhelmingly White. For Latinx authors, that can mean an industry that flattens cultural nuances, tokenizing and misrepresenting the speculative worlds they are dreaming into existence.

Analysis has shown that 95 percent of English-language fiction books published from 1950 to 2018 were written by White authors. A 2019 report on the racial diversity of the publishing industry showed 76 percent of the staff are White, primarily cisgender, heterosexual women. Only 6 percent of the publishing industry is Latinx, despite representing 19 percent of the U.S. population.

Speculative fiction has been used to explore Latinx experiences for decades. Foundational scholars in Chicano studies, like Gloria Anadúlza and Cherríe Moraga, have incorporated science fiction storytelling into their works, said Matthew David Goodwin, assistant professor of Chicano studies at University of New Mexico at Albuquerque. His research for the last 15 years has focused on Latinx people in science fiction.

Two key elements of science fiction are representations of the future and technology, said Goodwin. He sees the impact on his students, most of whom are Chicana, when they read Latinx science fiction stories.

“Every single semester, they say, ‘I have never seen a Chicana character in the future. I’ve never seen a Mexican character in the future.’ And they’re very excited about it even if they don’t care about science fiction,” Goodwin said. “They see that’s significant.”

There are specific genre themes that resonate with Latinx experiences, too.

“The migration is really central to science fiction, and Latinx writers are picking up on that. And so the journey to outer space becomes a kind of mirror for migration from Cuba to Florida or from crossing the border,” Goodwin said. “And then you can deal with all the other issues that come in about how workers are treated in the U.S.”

Science fiction gave Garber a chance to highlight real-world problems that the Latinx community faces, even if the characters weren’t explicitly Latinx. Her Zodiac series “tackles xenophobia and discrimination and the prejudices we hold, but I had to do it in this ‘silly’ way of using the zodiac signs, because I found that using real world stuff was so charged,” she said. “It had to be this symbolic representation.”

Goodwin is confident there is an appetite for Latinx speculative fiction: He has co-edited several anthologies of Latinx science fiction. The third one is currently being compiled, and like the last two will be funded via Kickstarter — a direct demonstration of people fronting money to read these stories.

It’s a “no-brainer” that women and LGBTQ+ people are writing some of the most highly acclaimed speculative fiction books, said CeCe Lyra, an agent at P. S. Literary Agency and co-host of “The Shit No One Tells You About Writing” podcast.

“If you have always belonged, if you’ve never had to claw your way … then you don’t have to go to the fantastical. The world that’s in front of you is enough because it’s straightforward,” Lyra said. “You don’t have a second life that you live that you don’t get to share with others.”

In recent years, editors have been more enthusiastic about acquiring Latinx speculative fiction, Lyra said. There was a huge push to acquire more books centered on race and diverse perspectives in 2020, after the Black Lives Matter protests sparked a racial reckoning among industries.

Vanessa Aguirre, an assistant editor at St. Martin’s Press, agrees that demand from publishers is on the rise.

“People are just more aware of the stories that aren’t being told, and the voices that aren’t being centered,” Aguirre said. “Part of the nature of science fiction and fantasy is wanting to explore new worlds,” she said — even if those worlds are new to only the White imagination.

Still, Lyra wonders if the investment feels complete. Authors of color tend to get lower advances for their books, even if they have an established track record of success. She has seen how books that aren’t positioned well — with a robust marketing plan and dedicated staff behind it — don’t succeed.

“It’s a noble initiative. But part of me wonders if it’s more about feeling like you’re checking a box almost as opposed to actually doing the work,” Lyra said. “Because buying the books isn’t enough. … You must properly support these books.”

Part of it, Lyra said, is that many people in the publishing industry don’t know “how to even pitch the story.” Many people are familiar with the Latin American literary tradition of magical realism, which infuses magic into an otherwise ordinary world, and have heard of books like “One Hundred Years of Solitude” by Gabriel García Márquez.

But this can be a double-edged sword: Magical realism is a cultural tradition that offers inspiration to some authors, but it can also be used to pigeonhole others. It is widely accepted for Latinx authors to write magical realism, Goodwin said, but that doesn’t carry over to other speculative genres.

Zoraida Córdova, author of the Brooklyn Brujas series and “The Inheritance of Orquídea Divina,” said that at a publicity event for “Labyrinth Lost” a panelist kept referring to her book as magical realism. Córdova had to correct them and say the book, which follows three sister brujas in Brooklyn, was actually urban fantasy.

A lack of understanding of the Latin American diaspora and few Latinx editors are part of the reason why Córdova thinks Latinx fantasy has struggled to take off. Editors don’t know how to define the genre and don’t know what to look for.

“I hesitate to say that this is because of publishers,” said Córdova, when asked about reasons for a rise in prominent Latinx speculative fiction. “I almost feel like it’s in spite of publishers.”

Garber needed someone to review the Spanish she used in “Lobizona,” but no editors were equipped to help her. She had to ask the book’s translator to review the Spanish in the original text. Later, her publisher chose to translate the book into neutral Spanish, despite all the characters speaking the Argentine dialect in the English version. Because of that, Garber got heat from at least one Argentine reviewer for inaccurate representation

Publishing can be somewhat risk-averse, so any increase in speculative fiction titles by Latinx authors can be helpful because it gives them a point of comparison. These previously-published “comp titles” are used by authors, agents and editors to get buy-in for a book. Editors like Aguirre can point to their success to build stronger cases for new titles.

An editor can say, “‘Look, this book did super well, somebody took a chance on this book, and this book is similar to that.’ So it obviously makes the decision easier even from a financial point of view,” Aguirre said.

But it is hard to find comp titles when stories like yours aren’t given a chance. When Córdova was trying to sell her book “Labyrinth Lost,” which came out in 2014, publishers had never seen anything like it before. “Because there was nothing to comp it to,” she said.

Despite that hesitation, she found a publisher. But Córdova had to change the name of her manuscript; it was originally titled “Bruja.”

“They needed to change the title because they said that the readership would not understand what the word bruja meant,” she said. “To me the understanding was like, obviously English-speaking White people, their demographic.”

But just over a year later, Córdova’s publisher proposed the title “Bruja Born” for the second book in the trilogy. “I don’t know what happened in those 18 months, but they sort of did a 180 in like, oh, diversity is good. Now Spanish is OK,” she said.

A book’s perceived value translates into how much authors are paid for their work. Publishing houses give authors a monetary advance based in part on how well they think the book will sell. Agents can negotiate better terms for the writers they represent when there are multiple interested parties. In other words, publishers need to follow through on commitments to diverse acquisitions.

“As an agent, it’s harder for me to push for significantly better terms if there’s only one person interested. So if you only have one editor who’s really into a story of a three generations of Mexican-American women, then the price is not going to go super up,” Lyra said. “But if you have five editors interested then you’ll get those numbers.”

But competition can be difficult when it feels like there are only so many opportunities to go around. Publishing can foster a sense of scarcity and stoke fears that a manuscript will get rejected because there is already another book by a Latinx author recently acquired, said an author who spoke to The 19th on condition of anonymity because she was concerned sharing her experiences would negatively impact her career and livelihood.

“People like to recycle platitudes like ‘a rising tide lifts all boats’ or ‘there’s room for all of us to succeed,’ but I think it’s a little more complicated than that for marginalized authors. We’re more likely to be on the receiving end of a rejection saying, ‘We already have one of these,’” the author said.

This tokenization is part of what made Rafael Nicolás turn away from traditional publishing. After he self-published his novel “Angels Before Man,” a queer retelling of the fall of Satan, he got an agent and received interest from editors about republishing the book and its sequels

Nicolás revised “Angels Before Man” to submit to editors at publishing houses, and he wanted to increase the number of “Latin Americanisms” in the story. He asked his agent whether that would result in pushback from editors, but they told him the opposite: It might make the book more marketable.

That gave Nicolás pause. He has observed a flattening of Latin American identity — the pan-continental term is rooted in colonialism, he pointed out — and a desire for aesthetics over authentic individual history.

“It’s just like checking off a representation list,” Nicolás said. “The entire way publishing thinks about diversity just kind of makes me uncomfortable.”

“Ultimately, at the end of the day, they care about selling whatever you’re writing to a White audience,” Nicolás continued. “And I don’t think that’s going to change at all.”

That, combined with insinuations that his books might need to be heavily changed due to the amount of queer sex and violence in them, made him change his mind. He stopped submitting to publishers and self-published the revised version of his book this September. He foresees self-publication for all of his future titles.

Going forward, authors want to see more complex depictions of the Latinx experience and richer displays of the diversity of the diaspora, including stories by Indigenous and Afro-Latinx authors.

The publishing landscape can look bleak for speculative Latinx authors, but attitudes are changing. And Latinx editors and agents are excited to usher through stories that represent them.

“We’re out here, people who want to acquire Latino voices, people who want to champion them, they’re in publishing,” Aguirre said. Change is happening, and organizations such as Latinx In Publishing and Las Musas provide mentorship, opportunities and much-needed camaraderie.

Garber feels the power of community through Las Musas, and sees how things have changed. When Garber thinks about how her manuscript was rejected 15 years ago, she can’t imagine it happening now. “And if it did, I would feel more empowered to go take it to my people,” she said. “I feel like we’re less silent, I feel less powerless. We’re nowhere near done, but I think we’re moving in the right direction.”