How to Decide Between Hispanic and Latino Terms

November-December 2020
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Besides being Hispanic myself, I have researched and worked with the culture since the beginning of my career. 

In San Antonio, Texas, where my firm is located, more than 64 percent of the local population is categorized as “Hispanic or Latino.” However, the business world often still regards these residents as a specialty market. Even in public relations, many practitioners separate general-market media outlets from Spanish-language media. 

For my first PR job, I worked at a Hispanic boutique agency, where we collaborated with larger, general-market agencies to manage Hispanic PR and marketing initiatives. We studied issues that Hispanics cared about, such as language preferences. We also tried to determine which product attributes to highlight, and to bridge cultural differences in audience perceptions.

People in the Hispanic market appreciate a hyper focus on showing respect and listening. Before working with any community, we first need to know how to address them and what they care about. 

Untangling terminologies 

The human brain is built to sort things. But the U.S. Census Bureau category of “Hispanic or Latino” is not necessarily how everyone in those groups describes themselves. As PR professionals, we care about building relationships, which begin by working to understand others. 

The term “Hispanic” originated in the 1970s, when the U.S. Census Bureau used it to categorize all people in the U.S. whose backgrounds were in Spain or Spanish-speaking countries in Latin America. The term was associated withlanguage rather than geography. 

In the 1990s, as more people resisted the term “Hispanic” because of its strong connection with Spain, the word “Latino” emerged. By 1997, government publications had begun using the term, whichreferred to people with cultural ties to Latin America who didn’t necessarily speak Spanish. “Latino” better accounted for mixed races as a category, and is more associated withgeography than with language. By this measure, Brazilians who speak Portuguese are considered Latino.

Historically, a person in the U.S. is considered Latino if they or their family have come from a Latin American country. People whose backgrounds are in Spanish-speaking countries, on the other hand, are considered Hispanic.

Exploring various terms

When I last reviewed Pew Research Center’s “Hispanic Trends” data in 2018, the term “Hispanic” was more widely accepted by U.S. Hispanics than “Latino.” Some people didn’t appreciate being labeled without their input and chose to evolve the terms further.

From “Hispanic” to “Latino” came the term “Latina,” which is used to denote women whose backgrounds are in Latin American countries. In the Spanish language, “Latino” is a masculine noun, although it’s meant to include both sexes. “Latina” became popular with women as an empowering reference. 

I often see it used to unite women of color from these national identities. For example, I am a graduate of the Latina Leadership Institute program, which is hosted by the San Antonio Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.

In the early 2000s, “Latinx” (pronounced “La-TEEN-ex”) made its way into the lexicon. It was thought to be more inclusive by being gender-neutral. However, “Latinx” has not been widely embraced. In fact, an August study by the Pew Research Center found that less than a quarter of U.S. Hispanics have heard of “Latinx,” and only 3 percent use it.

As a Pew study found, some see “Latinx” as a gender- and LGBTQ-inclusive term, reflecting a broader movement within the U.S. concerning gender identity. But some critics argue that the term originated among English-speaking people in the United States and ignores the gendered forms of the Spanish language. Hispanics who are younger, college-educated and female are the most likely to use “Latinx.” Today, “Hispanic” and “Latino” remain the most dominant labels.

Determining which term to use

To determine the right term to use, it helps to first research the part of the public you want to describe, including their ethnic origins, level of U.S. acculturation and use of language. Remember that being technically right and culturally accepted are two different things.

What term do they use in their own communications channels? What does a cultural adviser from that community have to say about that term?

Data show that when asked about their ethnicity, most Hispanics prefer to use their country of origin, such as “Mexican” or “Peruvian.” Honoring that country of origin — versus using a pan-ethnic terminology — might be a smart place to start.

Return to Current Issue ICON Recap | November-December 2020
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[thomas barwick]

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