“A Latinx? What’s that?”
If you’re using “Spanish,” “Mexican,” “Hispanic,” “Latino” or “Latinx” interchangeably, stop.
Today marks the first day of Hispanic Heritage Month. (Yes, we know we’re half way through September.) Which means countless numbers of people are asking themselves, “What does that mean?” and are likely incorrectly generalizing or referencing Hispanics, Latinos, Indigenous people, Spanish-speakers and their communities.
It also means ten-year old me is cringing as people continue to ask questions around racial identity. Growing up, I was asked some version of these three questions at the start of each school year:
1. “Where are you from?”
2. “Are you from (insert European country)?”
3. “How come you’re so … white?”
Students weren’t the only one questioning my ethnic background — I was too.
As a half Colombian, half Italian kid, I often found myself defaulting to sharing my nationality. I was confused by the differences between “Latina” and “Hispanic” and on which boxes to check when I had to select a “race.” More on this to come.
Later I learned, your nationality alone does not have to be your sole form of cultural identity, just part of it.
As you embark on your reading journey throughout Hispanic Heritage Month, (or throughout life) you’re bound to run into terms that are NOT synonymous with each other, but are used in such a matter.
This is for the Latinos, Hispanics, and biracial chicos who have struggled identifying with their heritage, race, or ethnicity, and for non-hispanics and latinos to better understand the differences between groups within these communities.
What is Hispanic Heritage Month?
Hispanic Heritage Month is recognized in the United States and celebrates the history, traditions and cultures of people whose ancestors have come from Spain, Mexico, the Caribbean, Central and South America, by acknowledging the contributions they have made to the U.S.
It originally began in 1968 as National Hispanic Heritage Week (I know, a week?) and then expanded to Hispanic Heritage Month two decades later, in 1988.
Why is it celebrated September 15th-October 15th?
The significance behind September 15th is rooted from the five Latin American countries that received their independence: Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua. Mexico and Chile’s anniversary of independence is celebrated on September 16th and 18th, respectively.
Identity: Terminology spans based on race, region, nation, or language
There are several terms that can be used to identify a person’s Latino or Hispanic heritage. You may have heard some people may reference one term, while others may use two or three.
Either way, to correctly refer to a person’s cultural identity, you must:
- First understand the differences between misused terms.
2. Ensure you are using the term THEY identify with, not the label you feel best represents them.
3. Realize they are not defined by their cultural or ethnic background, though it can play a larger role in their beliefs, values, and personal and professional experiences.
4. Understand that Spanish is not a gender neutral language. Generally, most nouns in Spanish are defined by masculine and feminine groups. David Bowles, a Mexican-American professor, author and translator from deep South Texas explains:
“The big defect in Spanish is that there is no gender-neutral way of referring to a group of mixed-gender people. The plural masculine is used.
la mexicana — the Mexican woman
el mexicano — the Mexican man
las mexicanas — the Mexican women
los mexicanos — the Mexican men OR the Mexican people”
Here’s a round up of ten commonly used terms and definitions that our Hispanic and Latino communities are using to identity with:
1. Latino / Latina
Refers to people based on geography — specifically Latin America, as explained by the Hispanic Network.
Latin America is made up of Mexico, Central and South America.
Following David Bowles’ definition of male and female Spanish pronouns, this would translate to:
Latino — the Latin American male
Latina — the Latin American female
I promise we’re not talking algebra here. The only variable we’re solving for here is gender.
For the aforementioned reason and to make plurals more gender-neutral, “x” is primarily used to be more inclusive of non-binary folks. By replacing the “o” and “a” in the umbrella term, “Latino,” we can move beyond confining our communities to using male and female pronouns.
Latinx — the Latin American person
David teaches more on the history behind how the term came to be, here.
3. Afro-latino / Afro-latina / Afro-latinx
“They are people of African descent in Mexico, Central and South America, and the Spanish-speaking Caribbean, and by extension those of African descent in the United States whose origins are in Latin America and the Caribbean,” as defined by the Afro-Latino Forum.
Refers to those of Spanish-speaking countries. Thanks, colonialism!
The word was adopted by the U.S. government in the 1970s to give people from Latin America a common identity, though it’s largely exclusionary as Lulu Garcia-Navarro, NPR’s The Weekend Edition podcast host, shares. There are a handful of countries in South America where the native language is not Spanish:
Brasil: Portugese; Guyana: English; French Guyana: French; Suriname: Dutch.
Adjective: Descendent of the country, Spain.
Spain colonized over 35 countries across the globe, including in Africa, the Americas, Asia and Europe.
Noun: Romance language used in most Latin American countries.
Not explicitly defined by The United Nations Forum for Indigenous Issues, they are categorized as communities that maintain pre-settler societies and traditions: “tribes, first peoples/nations, aboriginals, ethnic groups, adivasi, janajati” and by occupational and regional terms like “hunter-gatherers, nomads, peasants, hill people, etc.”
Verywell defines indigenous people as “Indigenous refers to groups native to the Americas who were here before the colonization by Europeans. This includes Native Americans, as well as Indigenous peoples from the Americas who have later immigrated to the U.S.”
Acronym for “Black, Indigenous and People of Color.”
Black: of African, African-American or Caribbean ancestry.
Indigenous: please refer to #6.
People of Color: An evolving term that has historically meant “non-white people” but is also argued to misrepresent groups, especially Black people, as described in this The New Yorker piece, “The Perils of People of Color.”
8. Chicano / Chicana / Chicanx
Margarita Berta-Avila, a professor at Sacramento State University, explains on an episode of NPR’s Code Switch, “You say Chicano, I say …”, that Chicano originally meant Mexican-American, but has expanded to specifically represent Mexican-Americans in support of the 1960s civil rights movement — when they began organizing for the liberation of their communities.
9. Colombia v. Columbia
Our country is spelled Colombia! Officially — la República de Colombia (the Republic of Colombia) is named after Christopher Columbus.
(Fun fact: the Colombian government started a social media campaign, “Colombia, not Columbia” a few years back to set the record straight.)
The “Columbia” spelling takes after Columbia University and British Columbia, Canada.
Boricuas are commonly referred to Puerto Ricans and Puerto Ricans living in the continental United States. However, Josean Vargas, explains the history behind the Boricua community, who Tainos are, and colonialism’s part in his op-ed, “Is Puerto Rican my Race?”
“Boriken” are the Indigenous people born to Puerto Rico. “Boricuas” are their children that came after.
We are a race that was born from a mix of native Indians from the island known as the “Tainos”, the conquerors from Spain, and the African slaves. Puerto Ricans are so special to be part of a culture that has a little bit of all these other cultures. We mainly speak Spanish but we have many words that come from the Taino language.
Unfortunately, Taino isn’t largely recognized as a race by many governments, including the United States — bringing me to my next point.
What race are Hispanics and Latinos?
“Hispanic” nor “Latino” are not recognized as a race, but rather an ethnicity. The Hispanic Network shares that hispanics and latinos can identify as part of any race.
“Anybody from Central or South America and the Caribbean can be described as Latino. Within that group, like within Hispanic, there are varieties of races. Latinos can be white, Black, indigenous American, Mestizo, mixed, and even of Asian descent.”
In this short clip published by NBC News - NUSA, young Latinos, Hispanics, and Caribbean-Americans share what they believe it means to be part of the Latino community, and how they project their cultural identity.
Run time: 3:48
The next time you think of generalizing Latinos, Hispanics, or any group of people — don’t. We come from similar, but different cultural and ethnic backgrounds and experiences.
If there’s a more popular term that I’m missing, send me a message or drop a comment.