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Which is Politically Correct: Latino or Hispanic?

What is the difference between Hispanic and Latino?

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The U.S. Government often groups people of Hispanic and Latino origins together despite the words having two separate identity meanings to individuals and unique dictionary definitions. For this reason, neither term should be universally used to the exclusion of the other. Adding to the debate on which term is considered politically correct is that depending upon who you ask, you will likely get a different definition. One of the reasons for this lack of clarity is because any word used to identify a person as part of a large group can be both subjective and a matter of choice -- even when there is an actual concrete definition.

Which term is considered politically correct in business (and private) dealings? That depends on who you are addressing and individual preference of the person you are addressing.

Polls and studies conducted on the subject of Latino vs. Hispanic, conflict so substantially that it is hard to really know the personal preferences of individuals on anything other than a very broad and unreliable scale. For this reason, care should be taken to be sensitive in the business environment when referring to anyone who speaks Spanish by either term.

It Is Generally Okay To Ask A Person's Origin, But Not Their Race

When in doubt, it is better to ask someone how they would like to be referred to than assume. One way to pose the question is to simply, "Are you of Hispanic or Latin American origin?" Never ask "what race are you?" because neither term describes a race, and in some situations, asking this question in the work place may even be illegal and can expose you to potential liability under anti-discrimination laws.

The 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 and not a person's race.

The U.S. Census Bureau also concurs that Hispanic refers to region, not race, and uses the term to describe any person, regardless of race, creed, or color, whose origins are of Mexican, Puerto Rican, Cuban, Central or South American, 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" may be derived from.

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

Since it can be quite difficult to know which term to use, a greater emphasis should be on what terms not to use; that is, those terms that are always considered politically incorrect.

What Terms Are Not Acceptable?

Almost universally, the word "Chicano" is considered unacceptable today, and may be deemed derogatory. 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.

The terms "Mexicanos, Xicans preceded the label Chicano but all have the same intended meaning. And, while some Mexican-Americans are comfortable with being identified as Chicano, most are not. Unless you are Mexican-American yourself, do not use Chicano.

Important Points to Remember

The difference between Latino and Hispanic:

  • Latino generally refers to countries (or cultures) that were once under Roman rule. This includes Italy, France, Spain, etc. Brazilians are considered to be Latino, but are not considered to be Hispanic.
  • Hispanic describes cultures or countries that were once under Spanish rule (Mexico, Central America, and most South America where Spanish is the primary language).

In American-English, Latino has come to be equated with Hispanic and are often used interchangeably without offense despite identifying two different origins, but neither term should be used to describe a race. Additionally:

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