Last updated: September 5, 2023
There is not a single rule when referring to people of Latin American heritage. The question of whether to use “Hispanic,” “Latino,” “Latinx,” or something else has been increasingly debated in our communities, and many express their own preferences.
Engage With Terms
Hispanic: “A person of Cuban, Mexican, Puerto Rican, South or Central American, or other Spanish culture or origin regardless of race” according to standards issued by the Office of Management and Budget (OMB). This means anyone who speaks Spanish or is descended from the countries listed. Currently interchangeable with Latino/a in government publications.
Hispanic is an ambiguous term that arose from the government, activists, and media. It is used generally to encompass a wide range of people. National institutions came to use Hispanic as a pan-ethnic term to pursue political, activist, and economic interests.
The first time the federal government used Hispanic was in the 1980 census. Different immigration experiences meant that Mexican, Puerto Rican, and Cuban American populations didn’t feel connected to one another. Instead of defining Hispanic, several activists, government officials, and media executives described broad cultural elements that could bring different groups together. This made demography, community organizing, and advertising easier.
In the 1960s, Mexican American and Puerto Rican activists brought attention to the needs and struggles of their communities. The Cabinet Committee on Opportunities for Spanish Speaking People formed and recommended a pan-ethnic agenda. Congress passed a law in 1976 that required more labor, health, education, and demographic research on “Americans of Spanish origin or decent.” They did this to be able to address and understand community issues at the federal level. Groups such as The National Council of La Raza, known today as UnidosUS, used Hispanic to advocate for community issues, like immigration, education, and citizenship. By bringing people together under Hispanic, they could get more resources and support for their activism. After the term was added to the census in 1970, media networks promoted Hispanic in their programming and used census data to grow their companies. Networks such as Univision played a major role in popularizing the term and connecting audiences across the country.
The history of Hispanic is about government, activists, and the media negotiating pan-ethnicity in a more interconnected America.
Latino/Latina: These terms refer to a person who is from, or a descendant of someone who is from a Latin American country, whether they speak Spanish or Portuguese. In Spanish grammar, Latino includes male and female.
Latino is a term used to focus on Latin America. It is a shortened way of saying Latinoamericano, the Spanish language term for Latin American people. It was first used in the 1800s as countries in Latin America became independent from Spain. As Hispanic refers to people with heritage from Spain, Latino acknowledges that not everyone in Latin America is descended from Spanish people or speaks Spanish. There are many African, Indigenous, and mixed communities and descendants in the areas we call Latin America. Latino is one way of recognizing the cultural differences between Latin America and Spain.
The US government first added Latino to the census in 2000 after the White House approved a change in classification in 1997. Census data is important because national organizations use that information to make decisions that affect communities. Both Hispanic and Latino are included in the ethnicity question on the census, which is separate from the question about race. This is difficult for some Latinos, who see their ethnicity and race as connected and complicated.
Latina is used to describe a woman or women from Latin America. Women have developed their own identities as Latinas, and some people use Latino/a or Latin@ to include both the gendered -o and -a endings in Spanish.
Latinx: Latinx (pronounced in English lah-TEEN-ex or LAH-tin-ex) is emerging as a gender-neutral term for Latino/Latina. It brings attention to factors such as gender, sexuality, race, and geography.
Latinx is used as a non-binary or gender-neutral word for people with heritage from Latin America. Although Latinx was first used by LGBTQ+ communities, it became more widespread in the 2010s as people were interested in its potential for inclusivity. It has been online at least since 2014 and increased significantly in use from 2016. Today, it is used by a variety of individuals, universities, and organizations. As Latinx spread in popularity through the internet, it is often discussed on social media and other online platforms.
Discussions about Latinx focus on the “x” and what it represents. For some people, Latinx is a term that includes trans, queer, and non-binary people. For others, Latinx is a term that emphasizes English pronunciation and the United States over Spanish-speakers in Latin America. Latinx helps some people feel like they can call attention to other parts of their identity, such as their race or their place in the history of the colonization of the Americas. Latinx also references the “x” which is used in words across the Americas, such as activists and artists who use “desaparecidxs” to talk about missing women and children.
Although Latinx is not formally used in government publications, it is a term used by or talked about throughout the internet and in schools, organizations, and communities across the country.
Latine: (pronounced lah·TEE·neh) is a gender-neutral form of the word Latino, created by LGBTQ, non-binary, and feminist communities in Latin America. It uses the gender-neutral Spanish suffix “-e.” This idea is native to the Spanish language and can be seen in many gender-neutral words like estudiante.
Latine is used in Spanish to refer to Latin American people beyond the gendered aspects of Latino and Latina. Though Latinx is a slightly older gender-neutral term, the “-x” ending is more difficult to pronounce in Spanish. Latine is useful because the “-e” word ending is a vowel sound that is standard in Spanish. Like Latinx, its use increased and spread on the Internet. Those who choose to use Latine often use it when speaking in Spanish to be inclusive of gender identities.
One of the newest terms for this community, Latine demonstrates how language is always changing. As our histories are shaped, we might continue to find and use words that feel best for us to talk about ourselves, connect with others, or advocate for equity. Latine is one of the many names for a diverse group of people with intertwined histories and experiences.
Masculine and feminine suffixes
Spanish is one of many gender-based languages that defaults to a generic masculine ending to refer to individuals or groups of individuals. Because this is common usage, we use the term Latino in most contexts throughout this site.
However, the language is evolving. Many people use workarounds to express inclusion, such as using gender-neutral options when possible. For example, using the gender-neutral estudiante is preferred to using alumno or alumna. If there is no gender-neutral option, some use both the masculine and feminine versions of the term if space allows. Some examples are los niños y las niñas, los hombres y las mujeres, los ciudadanos y las ciudadanas. We want to be respectful of all people and acknowledge that self-identification may be fluid.
More to Discover
There are many more terms that people with Latin American heritage identify with. Communities have used specific terms like Chicano, Tejano, and Nuyorican to come together in shared culture, activism, and experience. Reflect on the many terms outlined and on your own identity and how they may change, adapt, or stay the same over the years.
Explore the National Park Service resources featured below to learn more, reflect, and see how different terms can be used.
National Register of Historic Places - National Hispanic Heritage Month
Latinos in World War II: Fighting on Two Fronts
Hispanics and the Civil War
Visit Latino Archeology
HFC Editorial Style Guide - Harpers Ferry Center
American Latino Heritage Theme Study - Telling All Americans' Stories
Hispanic Reflections on the American Landscape: Identifying and Interpreting Hispanic Heritage