Finding a Name that Fits
‘Hispanic’ or ‘Latino’ — usage engages social, political and historical dimensions
At a grocery store in San Antonio the “Mexican” food section has a new name. “They’re calling it the ‘Hispanic’ food section. But I don’t see any ‘Hispanic’ food — no Bolivian food, no Cuban food,” says Marcia Miller, a public affairs officer at the University of Texas-Austin — “just the same old chilies and refried beans.”
Major grocery chains aren’t the only ones jumping on the “Hispanic” bandwagon. It has long been the term of choice for government and the media — but its vagueness can offend.
“It’s (Hispanic) not an identity, it’s not a race, it’s not an ethnicity,” explains Dr. María DeGuzmán, a Spanish-born conceptual artist and assistant professor of Latina/o Literature(s) and Culture(s) at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. “It’s an umbrella term that’s trying to unite people who share a history, with many fractures and divergences within that history.”
And there are plenty for whom it’s pretty close to being a fighting word. Writers such as Gloria Anzaldua, Sandra Cisneros and Denise Chavez are on record as being strongly and proudly “Latina”— not “Hispanic.”
And so is Elizabeth Jones, a fourth-year student at the University of Virginia who runs the school’s Hispanic-Latino Peer Mentoring program — though neither her name nor her appearance label her as such.
Jones has an Anglo name, and she also happens to look Black. Although she currently lives in Arlington, Va., she was born in San Jose, Costa Rica — “in Limon, where most of the Blacks live.” She’s fully bilingual in English and Spanish and learning Portuguese as well.
“Dislike” might be too strong a word to describe Jones’ reaction to the word “Hispanic”; however, she does take issue with the term. “Hispanic says you’re a division of Spain, but I’m from Latin America, specifically Central America.” Jones is from a section of Costa Rica whose ethnic mix includes Jamaicans who immigrated to work in the coffee industry and intermarried with Indians.
” ‘Hispanic’ doesn’t encompass anything about the Jamaican and Indian parts of my background,” Jones says. “For me, Latina tells you more about my heritage and culture.”
Regional and Cultural Differences
There are areas of the United States in which “Hispanic” is considered a highly descriptive term.
“I take a census informally among my students every year. They seem to like Hispanic,” says Dr. Rolando Hinojosa-Smith, the Ellen Garwood professor of English at UT-Austin and something of an institution among Southwestern writers. “But then we Texans are ornery. ‘Chicano’ never caught hold here when that term was popular back in the ’70s. And as far as I know, neither has ‘Latino.’ “
This is somewhat confusing for cultural outsiders — so much so that it may be tempting to see the debate as a sort of “you say to-may-to, I say to-mah-to.” But the social, historical and political dimensions of the debate are quite complex, and with the Hispanic, Latino and Latin American populations less than a percentage point away from being the largest U.S. minority — 12 percent of the U.S. population, compared with 12.9 percent for African Americans — calling the whole thing off is not an option.
So what precisely is the difference between Hispanic and Latino?
Dr. Alicia Borinsky, an Argentina-born writer and literary scholar who writes in Spanish and English and is a professor of Latin American and Comparative Literature at Boston University, says there is a generation gap in usage. “Latin Americans of an older generation dislike both terms and prefer to be recognized by their countries of origin — Venezuela, Mexico, etc.,” she says.
Region has a part to play as well, says Dr. Pablo Davis, an Argentian-American born in New York who is an assistant dean of students at the University of Virginia. “Hispanic is preferred in the West” — Texas and the desert Southwest — “and Latino is preferred in the East, particularly in the Caribbean and among Puerto Ricans and Dominicans.”
But the crucial difference is less one of age or of regional taste than one of race and politics.
“Sometimes, and this is particularly true of the West, ‘Hispanic’ is used by people who want to emphasize the European part of their heritage. This is absolutely true in New Mexico — people say Hispanic there with a fairly clear intention to indicate, ‘We’re not Indian, and we’re not mestizo. We’re from the old Spanish families,’ ” Davis explains.
DeGuzmán agrees. “In one sense, ‘Hispanic’ has its uses because it reminds people that ‘we’ have been here a long time. People tend to forget that the first printing press was in Mexico City, that the first U.S. city was St. Augustine. “But,” she adds, “there’s also that class/caste prejudice of associating ‘Latino’ with immigration, of seeing ‘Latino’ as downwardly mobile, of wanting to claim emblanquecimiento”— (pronounced em-BLAHN-kay-see-me-ento) — or literally ‘en-Whitening.’ “
“It’s absolutely a matter of positionality in the political space,” argues Dr. Silvio Torres-Saillant, associate professor of English and director of the Latino-Latin American Studies program at Syracuse University. “People who call themselves ‘Latino’ are firmer about staking their claim as a community fighting for inclusion and empowerment.”
Some say “Hispanic” and some say “Latino.” Which should the general public use? Or is choosing necessary, or even desirable?
DeGuzmán, who personally prefers “Latina,” offers a conditional yes. “To the extent that it allows you to form (academic) disciplines, bring people together, protect their rights, fight for their visibility, I would say, yes, it’s absolutely justified,” she says.
But Torres-Saillant is a bit more cautious. Offering the rise of “Hispanic” as an example, he points out that the pan-hemispheric connotations of that term — while not actively destructive — have actually served the interests of corporate America over and above those of the Latino community.
“If you can have people in Buenos Aires being moved by the same images as people in San Antonio, (as a corporation) you’ve got it made,” he says.
And given Latin America’s troubled history of Negrophobia, anti-Indian prejudice and White supremacy, even celebrations of racial mixing with the current vogue for all things “mestizo” “become suspect when in saying the word, one then chooses the image of a European to represent it,” Torres- Saillant adds.
“This is a strategy that quells the yearning for justice and inclusion. It tells us that we are all one, that we are all mixed, that racial boundaries are not discernible,” says Torres-Saillant. “But let’s imagine a scenario in which there’s no way to tell the difference, shall we say, between the ruling class in Nigeria and underserved and disempowered communities in places like Harlem and the Bronx. You would be worried, wouldn’t you? Because how can one fight for the empowerment of the disinherited if you do not have to have the capacity to tell who they are?”
But there’s still a practical question lingering in the background for cultural outsiders. Davis, who oversees UVA’s Hispanic-Latino Peer Mentoring Program as part of his duties, says, “I tend to sacrifice elegance for completeness and inclusion. When people ask, I say that I work with Hispanic, Latino and Latin American students.”
But if that sounds like too much of a mouthful, one could always plunge ahead with one of the three — keeping in mind the generational, regional and sociopolitical contexts, as well as Borinsky’s rule of thumb.
“I do not mind whatever term is used, as long as it is mentioned in a spirit of generosity,” she says.
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