Defining 'Hispanic' and 'Latino'

Centuries ago, the Irish were considered by the English to be a separate race. But as the Irish arrived in the United States, into a social context that included immigrants from all over the world, the Irish came to be thought of as just another ethnic group, the same way Italians, French, and Germans are now identified.

Hispanics are now undergoing the same North American identity construction. The 2000 US Census shows that about 13 percent of the population, or 35.3 million persons, identified themselves as Hispanics or Latinos.

South of the US border, the terms Hispanic and Latino are not used. Immigrants may never have heard the words before arriving in the US, where "Hispanic" was employed by the US government in the 1970s.

Census materials define a Hispanic or Latino as "a person of Cuban, Mexican, Puerto Rican, South or Central American, or other Spanish culture or origin regardless of race." The US government considers race and ethnicity to be separate concepts, and acknowledges that race is a social, not a biological, construct. In 1930, "Mexican" was listed on the census as a racial category. Now, Census 2000 treats Hispanic as an ethnicity, and asks a separate question about race. Thus, 48 percent of ethnic Hispanics identified themselves as racially white.

The thread binding the Hispanic nations is colonization by Spain from 1492 to the 1800s. Ten years ago, surveys showed that Spanish-speaking immigrants to the US preferred to identify themselves by national identities, such as Nicaraguan, Mexican, or Cuban. But like earlier immigrant groups, subunit identities are yielding to terms that evoke a common unity, says Lisa Navarrete of the National Council of La Raza.

Hispanic and Latino are often used interchangeably, but the labels have regional popularity. Hispanic is preferred in Texas and Florida, while Latino is most popular in California. "Chicano" was popular in the 1970s and is still used to refer to those of Mexican heritage born in the US. In New Mexico, "Hispano" is favored to emphasize unity with Spain rather than Mexico. And a small group in southern California prefers "Mexica," to stress indigenous, Indian roots, resisting the influence of the governments of Spain or the US. The variety of labels shows how ethnic identities evolve from dynamic social relations rather than objective material facts, says Dr. Federico Subervi of the University of Texas, Austin.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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