Hispanic, Latino, And Other Words You've Been Using Wrong Your Whole Life

June 21, 2018

|Abril Romero
hispano or latino

For instance, why do some people insist on calling everyone who comes from Latin America "Mexican"?

“Concerning the pochos, the chicanos suspected that they considered themselves too good for the barrio but were not, for some reason, good enough for the Americans. [...] Turning pocho was half-step toward turning American.”
Ernesto Galarza, Barrio Boy-

“Chicano,” “Pocho,” “Latino,” “Hispanic,” are words that are usually used interchangeably to refer to people who were born in Latin America or are of Latin American descent. However, keeping Ernesto Galarza's text in mind, there are semantic differences between these terms. Knowing the history behind them is a good starting point to understand the cultural mosaic that is Latin America, and the complex identity-building process of those who left their countries to live in the United States.


America is a continent, not a country. This is an obvious yet necessary clarification to make at a historical moment when the adjective “American” is still used to refer only to people born in the US, which is only one of the 35 countries that make up the continent. Having said that, Latin America is a big region within this vast continent, which means that not all Latin Americans are Mexicans, and that not every single person in the territory speaks Spanish.

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The American countries that were colonized by Spain are referred to as "Hispanic." These include Mexico, Central America, and most of South America, except for the French Guiana, which was colonized by France, and Brazil, colonized by Portugal.

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In the 1970s, the US government tried to count all the people who came from Mexico, Cuba, Central and South America. However, they didn’t have an institution that could take care of it, so a new committee was created, but they chose not to use the word “Latino.” Why? Because they thought that the word's etymology was ambiguous.


If you look it up in a dictionary, you’ll find that the word “Latino” refers to anything belonging or related to countries that speak languages derived from Latin, like Spanish, French, Italian, or Portuguese. However, in the last few decades, this term has been used to refer to the people born in the Latin part of America.

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Officially, the term “Latino” started being used in the 2000 census to include mixed-race people from Mexico, Central America, and South America. This was a measure that didn’t only attempted to include more people at the table but also to avoid using words that could have a negative historical implication such as “mestizo” and “mulatto”. -


Spanish is definitely the main language in Latin America, but that doesn’t mean that all Latinos speak Spanish, or that all those who speak the language are Latinos. The best example of this is the Spanish, the people born in Spain, which isn't Latin American because it's not even in this continent.

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Mexican is anyone born in Mexico or a naturalized Mexican citizen, that’s it. Anyone from Peru, the Dominican Republic, or Chile (to name a few) is Peruvian, Dominican, and Chilean respectively. Mexico is only one country in Latin America, but it’s not all Latin America.

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The word emerged in Texas in the early 20th century. It's a classist and discriminatory term used to refer to unskilled workers who had just arrived at the US. According to a text written by Mexican writer, José Emilio Pacheco, one of the possible reasons for this word's emergence was ambiguity in the way the letter x was pronounced (in some words, it sounds like an "h," while in others, it sounds like "ch"). So, anyone who's not familiarized with these variants could easily mistake "Mexicano" for "Mechicano."

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In the sixties, “Chicano” turned into an ideological term that sought to encompass everyone of Mexican descent born in the US. However, even within the Mexican immigrant community, there was a class structure, and Chicanos were not at the top.


Pochos are Mexican-Americans who were born and raised in the US, speak English, and have adopted aspects of American culture. Their identity is closer to that of the average US citizen than to Mexicans. This is the difference Ernesto Galarza was pointing out in the opening quote. From this divisive logic, as he claims, “turning pocho was a half-step toward turning American.”

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According to Horacio Sobarzo’s anthology of Mexican expressions, “Pocho” comes from “potzico,” an Opata word (Opatas are an ethnic group in Northern Mexico) which means “pluck the grass.” Potzico then refers to those who were "plucked" from their homeland and culture.


Originally, mestizo was just one of the many castes in which the Spaniards classified the different ethnic mixes. Mestizo, specifically, was used to refer to those born of an indigenous mother and Spanish father. Nowadays, we can say that most Latin Americans are of mestizo descent.

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The etymology of the term derives from the Spanish-Portuguese word “mulato,” which comes from “mula” (mule), the offspring of a mare and a donkey, so you can imagine why the term has such negative connotations when used for people. In this caste system used in the New Spain, mulattos were those born from an African mother and a European father.

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Both mestizo and mulatto, beyond indicating a particular ethnicity, were words with huge political and economic connotations. Considering the obvious derogatory origins of the words, many people have decided not to use them anymore. Instead, it’s suggested to use the terms “biracial” or “multiracial,” and only if it’s absolutely necessary.

Theoretically speaking, the caste system no longer exists. However, inequality is still present in many Latin American countries and the US. According to the United States Census Bureau, 17.8% of the population is of Latin American descent. Of these, 19.4% lived below the poverty line, and 16% don’t even have access to healthcare. In contrast, they now represent 9.2% of the voters in the country, which means that every day more and more Latinos will have the possibility to decide in the politics of the country they chose to live their lives.

Abril Romero

Abril Romero