Multi-American | How immigrants are redefining 'American' in Southern California

What's in a label? Hispanic, Latino, or...

A restaurant in New York's Washington Heights, whose owners apparently prefer
A restaurant in New York's Washington Heights, whose owners apparently prefer "Latino," December 2008
Photo by Steve and Sara/Flickr (Creative Commons)

What do the people referred to on census forms as "Hispanic, Latino or of Spanish Origin," and as alternately "Hispanic" or "Latino" by media and the political establishment, choose to call themselves? What's in an ethnic label, and how much does the label matter?

We tackled this today in a very popular segment on KPCC's Patt Morrison Show, during which Patt and I were joined by Mark Hugo Lopez of the Pew Hispanic Center, the author of a recently released report on Hispanic/Latino identity, and the OC Weekly's Gustavo Arellano.

The nuts and bolts of the Pew report was this: Although it's been forty years since the U.S. Census Bureau introduced "Hispanic" as an ethnic category, since modified, a majority of the people it intended to describe still prefer to identify themselves according to where their family originated, not by the pan-ethnic label. As for those who identify using one of the two labels, it varies depending on the region. In the West, where the term "Latino" first gained popularity, there's less use of "Hispanic" as in the East or parts of the Southwest, like New Mexico.

But regardless of what the label is, is a single term enough to describe a multiracial population with a shared colonial, language and to some degree religious history, but vast cultural and even political differences? We talk about the "Latino vote" and the "Latino market" in general terms, but defining - and reaching - such heterogenous population is tricky.

Of the more than 70 comments on the segment page so far, here are a few readers' opinions:

Apaque wrote:

My parents came to America from Mexico and El Salvador so I prefer to call myself Mexicana y Salvadoreña. However, as for Hispanic or Latina I use both but understand why people like myself prefer Latino/Latina. Hispanic in my mind usually identifies individuals from Spain.

Sandy wrote:

I personally like Latino over Hispanic or any regional label.  My preference relates to the segregation, separation, and animosity that occur within Latin Americans that share a common language (with some variations).  I believe a unifying term, may have a unifying impact, which can be utilized to focus messages and objectives with political leaders.

Otherwise, I call myself an American of Mexican ancestry.

Tomcend wrote:

The other aspect of this discussion is that people reveal class issues when using the terms. As one of your callers indicated, some people are obsessed with being called "Hispanic" because they wouldn't 'dare' associate themselves with the 'lower-class' Mexicans. There is a good deal of prejudice within the Latino community, and unfortunately, some still feel being associated with Europe and Spain makes them preferred.

Thom from Glendale wrote:

While I am a quarter Spanish [Jimenez] my identity is Irish American as that is not only my dominant make up but also my cultural heritage.  At least 5% of Irish Americans identify ourselves on documents as other and write in Irish American.  White in this country means WASP and there is not a single molecule of Anglo Saxon Protestant in me. Food for thought.


I think people should be a little more flexible with the terms out there. I don't get offended by any of them, however if given a choice. I am Mexican-American or Chicano. My family is from Mexico but I grew up in Los Angeles. I like Chicano because it conveys pride in both plus political awareness.

Jack in Ventura wrote:

I remember having this discussion with the father of a (now ex-) girlfriend - and asking him whether he preferred "hispanic" or "latino"..... and him giving the probably the most sensible answer to a pointless, divisive, and genuinely stupid question that didn't need to be asked - his answer?


On that note, Get over it wrote:

Italians are the original "Latinos"...  but again, so what?  And again, the speaker conveniently sidestepped the caller's question about intermarriage...  Now we're going to say Hispanic-Asian-American...?  Where does it stop?  English-German-Swedish-Norwegian-American?  And then marry a Japanese and then we're at, to be "correct", for the children: English-German-Swedish-Norwegian-Japanese-American...?  Or do we start the hyphenation with the Japanese- ...? Seriously.  Stop all the division.

Can't you just "identify" as an American?  I ask again, why the obsession?

To which A Cruz replied:
The division and question is asked by white Americans not people of color. As a young adult I was frequently asked the question by white Americans in the north, south, east, west and in between "What are you?” My response was always a New Yorker but 99% of those who ask would not accept this as an answer. Instead they were annoyed and repeated the question by re-phrasing it “where are your parents from”, which I responded - New York. 90% continued to push.

I have no accent; I am well educated and speak 3 languages fluently. I have traveled throughout the US, Canada & parts of Europe. I found I am only considered an American outside of my country but a foreigner within it.

There is a misconception that racism & prejudice do not exist within the US so there is no reason to discuss the issue but that view is incorrect.  Sticking ones head in the sand and pretending does not work.  There needs to be an open and honest dialogue to achieve change. I applaud and thank KPCC for giving the Hispanic/Latino/Caribbean community a voice.

Thoughts, anyone? Post them below. Here's the audio.