The changing definition and use of “Latino”

Here is a quick recap of how American society has defined and used the term Latino in recent decades:

If all ethnic identities are created, imagined or negotiated to some degree, American Hispanics provide an especially stark example. As part of an effort in the 1970s to better measure who was using what kind of social services, the federal government established the word “Hispanic” to denote anyone with ancestry traced to Spain or Latin America, and mandated the collection of data on this group. “The term is a U.S. invention,” explains Mark Hugo Lopez, associate director of the Pew Hispanic Center. “If you go to El Salvador or the Dominican Republic, you won’t necessarily hear people say they are ‘Latino’ or ‘Hispanic.’?”

You may not hear it much in the United States, either. According to a 2012 Pew survey, only about a quarter of Hispanic adults say they identify themselves most often as Hispanic or Latino. About half say they prefer to cite their family’s country of origin, while one-fifth say they use “American.” (Among third-generation Latinos, nearly half identify as American.)

The Office of Management and Budget defines a Hispanic as “a person of Cuban, Mexican, Puerto Rican, South or Central American, or other Spanish culture or origin regardless of race” — about as specific as calling someone European.

“There is no coherence to the term,” says Marta Tienda, a sociologist and director of Latino studies at Princeton University. For instance, even though it’s officially supposed to connote ethnicity and nationality rather than race — after all, Hispanics can be black, white or any other race — the term “has become a racialized category in the United States,” Tienda says. “Latinos have become a race by default, just by usage of the category.”

A good discussion throughout. And, the definition and usage of the term Latino or Hispanic is likely to change in decades to come. All together, it suggests racial and ethnic categories can be quite fluid based on a whole host of social factors.

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