When conversations at ad agencies, client boardroom or marketing forums turn to the topic of marketing to the multicultural audiences, the topic of Hispanic versus Latino is usually one of the first points of discussion. After all, it is difficult to speak to an audience when you don’t know how to refer to them.
So what is the correct term to use when referring to a Spanish-speaking person of various origins or backgrounds? Are they Hispanic? Latino? Or a compound descriptor such as Cuban-American? Most importantly, you may ask yourself, how do I acknowledge their background without offending them?
Well, borrowing from a Facebook relationship status... It’s Complicated!
The first thing that is important to understand is that Latino and Hispanic do not refer to a race or color. They are both terms describing ethnicity and not race. Many countries where the primary language is Spanish are a true melting pot of races, cultures and dialects. For example, you could be a Black Cuban Hispanic, a White Spanish Hispanic, or an Asian Peruvian Hispanic.
Secondly, not all Spanish-speaking persons are Hispanic or Latino. Neither are all Latin Americans Hispanic or Latinos! For example, if you are from Brazil your native language is Portuguese not Spanish so you are neither Hispanic nor Latino. You are Latin American.
Let’s break this down — Being a Latino is defined as "any person of Latin American descent residing in the United States," according to Associate Director of Latino Studies Mintzi Martinez-Rivera from Indiana University, Bloomington. Latinos can be, she says, of any "color, shape or background." This is not to be confused with Latin Americans, which refers to the people actually living in Latin America right now.
“The term Hispanic refers to people who share the common language that is Spanish. This was actually a word adopted by the U.S. government in the 1970s to give people from Latin America a common identity,” says Martinez-Rivera.
An easy way to remember this is Latino predominantly refers to geography, as in Latin America, (unless you’re from Brazil where you speak Portuguese yet you’re still considered Latino). Hispanic refers to language (unless you are from Spain where you speak Spanish but you’re never considered Hispanic). Got it? ¡Muy bien!
Recently a new phrase has been thrown in the mix — Latinx. Latinx is a gender-neutral alternative to Latino or Latina and referring to a person of Latin American descent. And, those this term has not been widely adopted — yet Hispanic Millennials are quickly gravitating to the use of Latinx versus Latinos or Hispanics.
So, what is correct? Personally, I refer to all Spanish-speakers residing in the U.S. as Hispanic. This is the most encompassing of all terminology and the least, in my opinion, likely to offend. However, we Hispanics, quickly weave into our conversations where we come from, or where our families come from, as this is a huge source of pride and the start to building a true connection. For example, I frequently surprise other Spanish speakers when I bust out into perfect Spanish because I do not “look” Hispanic and I speak in unaccented English. Therefore, I tend to hear, “Oh, you speak Spanish. You don’t look Hispanic” to which I reply, “Si, I am Hispanic. My parents are from Cuba and I was born here; grew up in Miami. And you?” And off we go telling our own stories brought together by our common language.
Cecilia Garcia Redmond is President of Como SAY Dice Marketing. She is a Miami born, Cuban-American Hispanic embracing life in the Midwest. She has over 20 years of building national brands and introducing corporate America to the buying power of the U.S. Hispanic market.