Latino or Hispanic: Which Is the Politically Correct Term?

Young Latina woman laughing

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The United States Federal Government often groups people together for information gathering purposes and in many cases does not distinguish between the origins—despite the words having two separate identity meanings to individuals and unique dictionary definitions.

Regardless of any other personal preference—because the dictionary definitions alone are different—neither term should be universally used to the exclusion of the other. Adding to the debate as to which term is considered correct, is that it depends on who is asking, and you will likely get a different definition.

One reason for this lack of clarity is that any word used to identify a person as part of a large group can be subjective and a matter of choice.

Which term is considered correct in business (and private) dealings depends on who you are addressing as well as the individual preference of the person you're addressing.

Can You Ask Someone's Origin and Their Race?

When in doubt, it is better to ask someone which they prefer. One way to pose the question is to simply ask, "Are you of Hispanic or Latin American origin?"

Never ask, "what race are you?" That's because neither term describes a race, and in some situations, asking this question in the workplace may be illegal. It could even expose you to potential liability under anti-discrimination laws. It also shows a lack of cultural sensitivity to individuals.

Definition of Hispanic

It is important to understand that the definition of Hispanic (and Latino) varies widely depending upon the source you use. Some say that "Hispanic" refers to race, but this is not true. The U.S. government specifically distinguishes Hispanic and Latino as terms to define regions of origin, not their race.

The U.S. Census Bureau concurs that Hispanic refers to the region, not the race, and uses the term to describe any person, regardless of race, creed, or color, whose origins are of Mexico, Puerto Rico, Cuba, Central or South America—or of some other Hispanic origin. Areas conquered by the Spaniards were considered part of a region originally called Hispania, which is where the term Hispanic likely derived.

The Office of Management and Budget combines both origins into one group, but still defines Hispanic or Latino as "a Cuban, Mexican, Puerto Rican, South or Central American—or other Spanish culture or origin, regardless of race."

Terms and the Sexes

While the two different terms can be quite confusing, gender identity terms are not—and are as follows:

  • Latino. When referring to gender-neutral, identifying both men and women, use Latino.
  • Latina. When specifically referring to women, use Latina.

Is 'Chicano' Acceptable?

This is very tricky and depends largely on the individual. Almost universally, the word Chicano has been deemed unacceptable and may be considered derogatory by some individuals. The term, first intended to degrade, was not coined by Mexican people, but by whites and other races. It referred to people of Mexican heritage but was intended to be disrespectful, labeling Mexicans as an inferior class in society.

However, even this term has no hard and fast rules as many Mexican-Americans do proudly embrace this term. Case in point, actor Cheech Marin who is a Mexican-American who identifies publicly as being Chicano, as does former Texas state representative Paul Moreno.

Chicano Punk, a website created as a project for an American Cultures/Chicano Studies class, concedes that the origins of Chicano were intended to be derogatory, but also makes an important point—that it can also have a very positive and powerful meaning for others:

Socially, the Chicano Movement addressed what it perceived to be negative ethnic stereotypes of Mexicans in mass media and the American consciousness. The Chicano Movement is sometimes called La Causa (The Cause).

In other words, whether the term Chicano is a source of pride or a word to be avoided dependents somewhat on how a particular individual feels. The best recourse is to not use the word unless you know for sure how someone feels.

Important Points to Remember

Being culturally literate is not necessarily the same as being culturally sensitive. When in doubt, ask. People from all walks of life may identify in a way contrary to mainstream labels.