The Difference Between Hispanic and Latino

What Each Means, How They Overlap, and What Sets Them Apart

Salma Hayek
Actress Salma Hayek, who identifies as Latina, attends the Sundance London filmmaker and press breakfast at Picturehouse Central on June 1, 2017 in London, England.

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Hispanic and Latino are often used interchangeably though they actually mean two different things. Hispanic refers to people who speak Spanish or are descended from Spanish-speaking populations, while Latino refers to people who are from or descended from people from Latin America.

In today's United States, these terms are often thought of as racial categories and are often used to describe race, in the way that we also use White, Black, and Asian. However, the populations they describe are actually composed of various racial groups, so using them as racial categories is inaccurate. They work more accurately as descriptors of ethnicity, but even that is a stretch given the diversity of peoples they represent.

That said, they are important as identities for many people and communities, and they are used by the government to study the population, by law enforcement to implement the law, and by researchers of many disciplines to study social, economic, and political trends, as well as social problems. For these reasons, it's important to understand what they mean literally, how they are used by the state in formal ways, and how those ways sometimes differ from how people use them socially.

What Hispanic Means and Where It Came From

In a literal sense, Hispanic refers to people who speak Spanish or who are descended from Spanish speaking lineage. This English word evolved from the Latin word Hispanicus, which is reported to have been used to refer to people living in Hispania—the Iberian Peninsula in today's Spain—during the Roman Empire.

Hispanic refers to people who speak Spanish, but Brazil (Latin America's largest country) speaks mostly Portuguese. Instead, the term centers white people from Spain who have more in common with other Europeans than Latinx people.

Since Hispanic refers to what language people speak or that their ancestors spoke, it refers to an element of culture. This means that, as an identity category, it is closest to the definition of ethnicity, which groups people based on a shared common culture. However, people of many different ethnicities can identify as Hispanic, so it's actually more broad than ethnicity. Consider that people who originate from Mexico, the Dominican Republic, and Puerto Rico will have come from very different cultural backgrounds, excepting their language and possibly their religion. Because of this, many people considered Hispanic today equate their ethnicity with their or their ancestors' country of origin, or with an ethnic group within this country.

The word, hispanic, is a misguided attempt by the US government to categorize people of Black, Indigenous, and European descent. "According to the Pew Research Centercensus records from 1930 show that in that year, the government counted Latinx people under the catchall category “Mexican.” The same reductive reasoning was used to create the blanket term, Hispanic, during the Nixon administration. It's a term created by white people, as such many Latinx folks do not identify as Hispanic.

Self-Reporting as Hispanic in the Census

In today's Census, people self-report their answers and have the option to choose whether or not they are of Hispanic descent. Because the Census Bureau incorrectly considers Hispanic a term that describes ethnicity and not race, people can self-report a variety of racial categories as well as Hispanic origin when they complete the form. However, Hispanic describes Spansh speakers in the same way that Anglophone or Francophone refer to English and French-speaking people.

This is a matter of identity, but also of the structure of the question about race included in the Census. Race options include White, Black, Asian, American Indian, Pacific Islander, or some other race. Some people who identify as Hispanic may also identify with one of these racial categories, but many do not, and as a result, choose to write in Hispanic as their race. Elaborating on this, Pew Research Center wrote in 2015:

"[Our] survey of multiracial Americans finds that, for two-thirds of Hispanics, their Hispanic background is a part of their racial background – not something separate. This suggests that Hispanics have a unique view of race that doesn’t necessarily fit within the official U.S. definitions."

So while Hispanic might refer to ethnicity in the dictionary and governmental definition of the term, in practice, it often refers to race.

What Latino Means and Where It Came From

Unlike Hispanic, which refers to language, Latino is a term that more so refers to geography. At its heart, it is used to signify that a person is from or descended from Latin America and has a mix of Black, Indigenous, and European ancestry. It is, in fact, a shortened form of the Spanish phrase latinoamericano—Latin American, in English.

Like Hispanic, Latino does not technically speaking refer to 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.

Latinos can also be Hispanic, but not necessarily. For example, people from Brazil are Latino, but they are not Hispanic, since Portuguese, and not Spanish, is their native language. Similarly, people may be Hispanic, but not Latino, like those from Spain who do not also live in or have lineage in Latin America.

Self-Reporting as Latino in the Census

It was not until the year 2000 that Latino first appeared on the U.S. Census as an option for ethnicity, combined with the response "Other Spanish/Hispanic/Latino." In the 2010 Census, it was included as "Another Hispanic/Latino/Spanish origin."

However, as with Hispanic, common usage and self-reporting on the Census indicates that many people identify their race as Latino. This is especially true in the western United States, where the term is more commonly used, in part because it offers a distinction from the identities of Mexican American and Chicano—terms that specifically refer to descendants of people from Mexico.

Pew Research Center found in 2015 that "69% of young Latino adults ages 18 to 29 say their Latino background is part of their racial background, as does a similar share of those in other age groups, including those 65 and older." Because Latino has come to be identified as a race in practice and associated with brown skin and origin in Latin America, Black Latinos often identify differently. While they are likely to be read simply as Black within U.S. society, due to their skin color, many identify as Afro-Caribbean or Afro-Latino—terms which serve to distinguish them both from brown-skinned Latinos and from descendants of the North American population of formerly enslaved Black people.

So, like with Hispanic, the standard meaning of Latino often differs in practice. Because practice differs from policy, the U.S. Census Bureau is poised to change how it asks about race and ethnicity in the coming 2020 Census. The possible new phrasing of these questions would allow for Hispanic and Latino to be recorded as the respondent's self-identified race.

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Cole, Nicki Lisa, Ph.D. "The Difference Between Hispanic and Latino." ThoughtCo, Oct. 3, 2022, Cole, Nicki Lisa, Ph.D. (2022, October 3). The Difference Between Hispanic and Latino. Retrieved from Cole, Nicki Lisa, Ph.D. "The Difference Between Hispanic and Latino." ThoughtCo. (accessed February 6, 2023).