Pocket worthyStories to fuel your mind

The Problematic History of the Word “Hispanic”

In this op-ed, writer Araceli Cruz explains the problematic history of the word “Hispanic.”

Teen Vogue

Read when you’ve got time to spare.

Census form

Ramin Talaie

“Hispanic” is a misguided blanket term when you consider the complex identities within the Latinx community.

The Oxford Dictionary defines the term as “relating to Spain or to Spanish-speaking countries, especially those of Central and South America” and as “relating to Spanish-speaking people or their culture, especially in the U.S.” In Spanish, “Hispanic” translates to Hispano: “a person descended from Spanish settlers in the Southwest before it was annexed to the U.S.”

Given definitions like these, it might not be surprising that the United States government has unequivocally lumped all Latinx people under the Hispanic umbrella whether it applies to us or not. Which is why celebrating Hispanic Heritage Month can sometimes leave us indifferent: While it’s supposed to celebrate our culture, it’s also excluding so many others. Its meaning is simply spread too thin.

“Hispanic” isn’t being used as much as it once was, at least not by a new generation of Latinx people, despite the continuing effort by the government to force the term down our throat. Many Latinx people can picture the tiny box on any federal or state form; our only option to categorize ourselves, to embrace our identity, is to check off “Hispanic.” The same goes for college forms, job applications, and much more. National Hispanic Heritage Month, which was signed into law by President Ronald Reagan in 1988, isn’t helping matters, either.

Who popularized the term “Hispanic”?

“The history of ‘Hispanic’ is intimately tied to the U.S. government and the way that the government attempted to identify different groups of people, particularly in relationship to the U.S. Census,” Joseph M. Pierce, an assistant professor in the department of Hispanic languages and literature at Stony Brook University, tells Teen Vogue.

According to the Pew Research Center, census records from 1930 show that in that year, the government counted Latinx people under the catchall category “Mexican.” The idea that all people of Latin descent were labeled as Mexican is appalling considering that the U.S. took control of Puerto Rico as a territory in 1898.

According to Pew, it wasn’t until 1970 that the Census Bureau asked people living in the U.S. if they were either “Mexican, Puerto Rican, Cuban, Central or South American, Other Spanish” or “No, none of these.”

But the results of that question, according to Pew, gave way to a bigger problem that is laughable and ironic: People in the U.S. were reporting themselves as being from Central America and South America because they thought the answers meant the south or central regions of the U.S. — not South America and Central America. The government desperately needed a new term to categorize this population that wouldn’t leave any doubt about their background.

In 1975, Grace Flores-Hughes was a 26-year-old Latina working for the Department of Health, Education and Welfare in D.C. The Washington Post reported that she and a diverse group of federal employees came together to convene as part of the Ad Hoc Committee on Racial and Ethnic Definitions. Aside from figuring out what to call the Latinx community, they also touched on other offensive terms the U.S. had used, including “colored” and “Oriental.”

“‘Hispanic’ was better than anything I had been called as a kid,” Flores-Huges — a Republican who sat on the National Hispanic Advisory Council for Trump — told The Washington Post in 2003; as a kid, she said, she was often called a “wetback” and a “dirty Mexkin.” But several Latinx membrers of the committee did not agree with using the word “Hispanic” and wanted to go with “Latino” instead.

“There was never any consensus in that group to the very end,” Abdin Noboa-Rios, who was also on the committee, told the Post in 2003. “We came up with an agreement, but…there were some bad feelings. I know two people who didn’t speak for up to a year after it was over.”

In 1980, the government first used “Hispanic” on census forms with further options for Mexicans, Mexican-Americans, Chicanos, Puerto Ricans, Cubans, and “other,” still not fully identifying the various countries whose residents constituted the Latin American diaspora. Central America and South America were no longer listed in the census after the earlier confusion those categories had created.

But to this day, Pew Research shows that “11 percent of American adults with Hispanic ancestry do not identify as Hispanic.”

The census has made some minor progress. In 2010, it allowed people to be more specific about their background, asking if the person is “of Hispanic, Latino, or Spanish origin,” which can be confusing because Hispanic and Spanish are basically the same thing. However, the census allows for further explanation, including examples such as “Argentinean, Colombian, Dominican, Nicaraguan, Salvadoran, Spaniard and so on.”

Why don’t people like the term “Hispanic”?

The word “Hispanic” has baggage, given its history. But what makes being labeled Hispanic worse is the negative connotations and racist undertones. Growing up, I despised being labeled Hispanic. It made me feel as if my Mexican and indigenous side was being wiped out.

“‘Hispanic’ has function and the power to whiten people even though in practice, in their daily life, people might not be read as white or be identifying themselves as white in that particular way,” Pierce says, explaining how the term can miss the nuance of an identity like Afro-Latinx by grouping it in with white Latinx people. “So it erases people’s mixed heritages, their families, their stories by making people identify with the whiteness of Spain and the virtues of that particular term.”

The term has always held a heaviness for me. Whenever it was used in my presence, it felt like an indication that the person using it carried an intolerance for my culture. Back when I was in high school, a Latinx friend of mine said to me that the term “Hispanic” was actually code for “the white man’s panic.” “Get it?” he said. “His panic.” That always stuck with me, and I’m not alone.

“[‘Hispanic’] is very Eurocentric and it denies our indigenous heritage,” Matthew R. Fraijo wrote in his 2004 coming-of-age book, The Transcendent Journey. “The Aztecs had a society far more advanced than anything in Europe at the time. Look, the word has the root ‘panic’ in it. But whose panic? His panic. The white man’s panic.”

Sandra Cisneros, a notable author who identified with the term Chicana (a Mexican living in the U.S.), was quoted in a 1992 New York Times piece about why she never uses the word “Hispanic”: “To say Latino is to say you come to my culture in a manner of respect. To say Hispanic means you’re so colonized you don’t even know for yourself or someone who named you never bothered to ask what you call yourself.”

Another key problem with the term is one of geography: “Hispanic” refers to Spanish-speaking people, which excludes Portuguese-speaking Brazil, South America’s largest country, but includes people from Spainwho I contend are actually European. “Latino” and “Latina” work around this by including people from all Latin countries, though with a gendered subtext. That is why “Latinx” is a more favorable and inclusive term.

But alas, a lot of people — even public figures — still can’t figure out what to call us. During a presidential debate in 2016 with Hillary Clinton, then candidate Donald Trump kept listing the two terms side by side, saying “Latinos, Hispanics” multiple times.

His use of the word “Hispanic” really triggered all those negative feelings I had about being categorized as such in the first place.

Will people use “Hispanic” in the future?

“Hispanic” appears to be receding from usage. According to Google Books data, the usage in print rose throughout the 20th century and peaked in the 1990s before a steady drop-off began.

People have started to use more specific ways to identify themselves, including Chicanx for Mexican-Americans, Boricua for Puerto-Rican-Americans, or using a hyphen to attribute their family’s country of origin. “Hispanic,” it should be known, isn’t really used outside of the United States, or may have a different meaning in other places. People from Colombia or El Salvador or Peru or any other Latin country don’t really refer to themselves as Hispanic. So it’s important to question the structures in which the government uses “Hispanic,” not only in official forms but during Hispanic Heritage Month, too.

“It drives me crazy when I see a poster for Hispanic Heritage Month and I see a flamenco dancer,” Pierce says; he refers to this monthlong celebration as a “Band-Aid.” “What type of heritage are you privileging? Without having these nuanced and difficult conversations, we’re gonna keep marginalizing people. Hispanic Heritage Month has the potential of being something really good and positive, but it also has the same potential of marginalizing and repeating the same stereotypes it was meant to point out.”

While it took me a while to warm up to “Latinx” as an identifier, it feels more authentic because it’s a word we came up with — and its use is clearly growing.

Mark Hugo Lopez, director of Hispanic research at the Pew, told NBC News in 2017 that “Latinx” is “a very unique American take on identity.” He adds that there’s talk of incorporating the word into their surveys, but they haven’t as of yet.

“‘Latinx’ fits within our broader history in the U.S. of using various terms to describe our identity,” Lopez said. “It is pan-ethnic, like ‘Hispanic,’ and political in a sense, like ‘Chicano.’”

As a Mexican-American who’s been wrongfully pigeonholed my entire life, I am amazed and proud to be part of a Latinx community that’s reclaiming its heritage.

How was it? Save stories you love and never lose them.

Logo for Teen Vogue

This post originally appeared on Teen Vogue and was published October 9, 2018. This article is republished here with permission.

Sign up to have the Teen Vogue newsletter of your choice delivered to your inbox.

Sign Up