Identity Crisis: Hispanic, Latino/a, or Chicano/a?

There is a big debate going on amongst Spanish-speaking Americans in the United States of America regarding how or what to call somebody who speaks Spanish.

a year ago

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There is a big debate going on amongst Spanish-speaking Americans in the United States of America regarding how or what to call somebody who speaks Spanish. Some Spanish speaking Americans do not mind the label of Hispanic, while other Spanish speaking Americans prefer to be called Latino or called by the origin of their original country, such as a person from Mexico would prefer to be called Mexican rather than Latino or Hispanic. Spanish speaking Americans were labeled as Hispanic in 1970 by the Nixon Administration in order to umbrella all Spanish speaking Americans during the Census survey (Fears, 2003). This would include blacks from the Dominican Republic. In order to understand what a Latino or a Hispanic is, we must know the definition of both.

Latino, according to American Heritage Dictionary means a person of Hispanic, especially of Latin-American descent, especially one living in the United States. However, Hispanic, according to American Heritage Dictionary is defined as a person of Spanish speaking origin. One would ask, “What is the difference and why is there such debate over what to be called?” From what I have found through research, most people do not like being called Hispanic due to the fact the word is so vague in just referring to Spanish speaking people, rather than  labeling a person from their original country. However, one thing about Spanish speaking people are starting to understand is that the word Latino is used to describe a person who has origins of a Latin American country. Also second or third generation Latinos who were born here do not like to be associated with the word Hispanic due to the fact they could be confused of being an illegal immigrant, especially now that there is a big debate on Immigration Reform.  The laws in some states are so strict that for one could be deported merely for not having ID. This is one of the reasons Latino or Chicano is more of a popular term in California and Texas in order not to be confused as an illegal immigrant. In addition, several of the old terms like Chicano which means Mexican American are also being used less due to not being confused with the status of an illegal immigrant.

Definition of Hispanic

To understand why there is growing animosity towards the word Hispanic for Spanish-speaking Americans in the United States, we must first understand what the definition is and why the word is used. The word Hispanic as defined by American Heritage Dictionary (2003) is “A Spanish- speaking person.” American Heritage Dictionary also states that Hispanic and Latino are often used interchangeably; however Hispanic and Latino are not identical terms.  In addition, the reason Hispanic is a way to identify Spanish-speaking Americans comes from the office of 37th President of the United States. In 1970, the Nixon Administration added the term “Hispanic” to the census questionnaire. Then by 1980, Hispanic became the official government term for Americans of Spanish speaking descent.  With that being said, one example of the hostility some Spanish-speaking Americans show towards the word Hispanic was when Mexican-American poet Sandra Cisneros was asked why she does not like the word Hispanic. She says, “To me, it’s like a slave name, and as a Poet I am especially sensitive to the power a word has” (Fears, 2013). The term Hispanic can identify a Spanish speaker from several different countries; Hispanic is an umbrella term that is very broad and can be used to identify a plethora of races who speak Spanish. One example is David Ortiz, who is black but from the Dominican Republic, but can be identified as a Hispanic because his country’s national language is Spanish. Nonetheless, several Spanish-speaking Americans agree to the term Hispanic to identify themselves.

The word Hispanic was never supposed to be used to define race being that it can be used to describe white, black and Asian all of whom speak Spanish. The Spanish colonized most of Latin America and brought with them the Spanish language, which is spoken by people who we label as Hispanics (Harens, 2011, P 24-25).

Hispanic Pride

However, there are several Spanish speaking Americans who would prefer to be called Latino instead of Hispanic. The term Latino is gradually becoming what Spanish-speaking Americans prefer to be called. Mexican-American Comedian George Lopez prefers Latino and uses the term to describe Spanish-speaking people in his comedy routine nearly every time he mentions people of Spanish-speaking origin. Also poet, fiction writer and: Journalist Ed Morales quotes as saying “Latinos give the chance for America to move beyond identity politics,” “The Latino cultural `style’ has the potential to free everyone from the guilt of having to reconcile with a strict definition of identity. Being Latino is being everyone, embracing the entire spectrum of human behaviors and tendencies without fear” (Ribadeneira, D. 2002, Mar 24).  Moreover, while most people of Spanish-speaking origin or heritage or culture of a country that speaks Spanish are starting to agree. There are still several older Spanish-speaking people who prefer to be called Hispanic.

One person in particular who prefers the term Hispanic for all people of Spanish speaking origin is Duard Bradshaw: “I’ll tell you why I like the word Hispanic; if we use the word Latino it excludes the lberian peninsula and the Spaniard. The lberian peninsula is where we came from. We all have a little thread that is from Spain” (Fears, 2003 para. 16).  In addition, a survey conducted by the Pew Hispanic research center of Washington found in 2002 that nearly all people from Spanish speaking backgrounds identify themselves primarily by the place of national origin (Fears, 2003, para. 17). It seems though now in the year of 2013 the term to identify so called Hispanics is changing.

I remember when I was in Junior High, a rapper name Kid Frost (a person of Spanish-speaking origin) released an amazing single “La Raza.” I was proud that there was a Hispanic rapper whose album was named “Hispanic Causing Panic.” Today that same rapper is in a group called Latino Velvet and was one of the founders of the rap band ten years ago. His first album “Hispanic Causing Panic” was made in 1990, and Latino Velvet was formed in 1997 as a West Coast “super group” of what is now considered Latino Rappers.  So how, in seven years, can a person in the Chicano (Mexican-American) rap scene all of a sudden change their identity from Hispanic to Latino?

Hispanic vs. Latino debate

I can remember when I was a junior in High School in Vancouver, WA, The Hispanic Youth Leadership Conference started and I was one of the few Latinos in the Vancouver/ Portland metro area who after an application process was chosen to go to this conference for three days. The first day was fantastic; it was a social event with plenty of meaning and made me feel proud that Latinos were able to get together and not be stereotyped as a young Latino male as a “Cholo” gang member, but as a person who has leadership qualities, has a chance to go to college, and make something with himself instead of being another statistic.  As with most conferences of this kind, there were Spanish-speaking people from all countries attending. On day two, however, they separated us into groups, and it was then that I heard the first grievances towards the use of the word Hispanic.

I remember several of my peers (who by coincidence were originally from California) claimed they disliked the term Hispanic because it was given to us by the government. They felt as if it was not a choice, such as the blacks had when they were referred to as negroes in the 50’s and 60’s before the term black became the norm for African-Americans. Most of my peers were from families who are second to third generation Mexican-Americans, but families came from other countries that speak Spanish. When I was attending this conference for the first time, I never knew there was any kind of animosity towards the word Hispanic. I only remember throughout my years going to school that when taking the CST or SAT test, if we were of Spanish-speaking descent, we were required to check the Hispanic box. So when I heard the grievances about being called Hispanic by my peers in High School, I began to wonder where am I am from and with whom I should identify myself.

Several years after I first attended the Hispanic Leadership Conference, I started asking my family questions about where our family was from. The responses I got were simply northern New Mexico, and that came from both my mother’s side and father’s side. So I started to dig a bit deeper into my family’s history and discovered that both sides of my family have been in New Mexico since the arrival of the conquistadors when the southwest was still part of Mexico.  So then I started to question whether my family is technically from Spain. Over the years, did they mix with Native Americans, and some of the Irish population during the 19th century? Who should I identify myself with.

As far as I know, my last name is from Spain and my ancestors came here with the Spanish conquistador Coronado in the 15th century, according to my grandmother. So I questioned whether I was Mexican or Spanish. These questions have been in my head for several years, and I came to the conclusion that I was born in the United States of America and have no relatives in Mexico or Spain that I know of. So this made me conclude that I was an “American.” Because of this, I have come under scrutiny about why I do not affiliate myself with any particular country.

In California and Texas, the word Hispanic and Latino are viewed completely different. In Texas, Hispanic is preferred by forty-eighty percent of the population and Latino is only preferred by eight percent. In California, the word Latino is preferred over Hispanic thirty percent prefer to use Hispanic and seventeen percent prefer to use Latino. The Pew Research Center (2013) completed a survey regarding what people of Spanish speaking origin would like to called, and the results are intriguing:

ccording to the survey, it seems no preference is the common answer with Hispanics and being called Hispanic is a short distance behind them. What was most intriguing about this survey to me was how recent the survey was taken. The survey also made me realize that being a Hispanic is still very strong amongst Latin Americans (Pew Research Center 2013). However, when you ask any Latin American youth in the United States, including most women, they prefer the term Hispanic. The ratio to be called Hispanic rather than Latino in the United States is two to one everywhere with the exception of Texas where the ratio is six to one towards somebody who wants to be called Hispanic. In addition, Spanish-speaking Americans in the Northwest in Oregon and Washington State prefer to be called Latino too. The preference of the word Latino seems to be on the west coast rather than the eastern part of the Southwest. By viewing the graph, the true question is do people who are called Hispanic or Latino even care what they are labeled as? And by the results of the survey over fifty percent of all Latin Americans or Hispanics do not care what they are called. They would also rather be called by their country of origin.

So why is the word Latino being used?

Some people believe that Latino is a broader designation than Hispanic and should not be used (Hispanic vs Latino n.d.). The word Latino captures several more people and cultures in the hemisphere than Hispanic (para 12). One argument that comes about for the word Latino is that it identifies gender as well as national origin, which would be considered politically correct. The word Hispanic and Latino have been used interchangeably and the government still uses Hispanic the most (para 16). I have been hearing the word Latino so much that I believe it is not being used the way the word was intended to be used.  Latino should be used to describe anyone from a Latin American country, such as Guatemala—a country that speaks several different dialects other than Spanish—and Brazil and Portugal (where Portuguese is the official language). When one refers to these people as Latin Americans, the term Latino is used in the correct context it was originally meant.


Self-definition is what seems to be the best way to describe a person. While continuing to research the debate on Hispanic vs. Latino, I began to look at the picture as a whole and come to realize one thing. That neither, Hispanic or Latino should be used to define race. Both terms were developed to become a broad name to describe Americans from a country in Latin America, or somebody who comes from a family that original language is Spanish. This puts a label on somebody and a very large part of the population of the United States of America. Whenever a group seems to be called something to generalize their origin. Resistance is always going to be there whether the debate is among the population that is being labeled. The government and sociologists taking surveys to see what the people want to be called.

Therefore, the beginning of my journey to find out what to identify myself has always been a curiosity to me. In retrospect, calling anybody who was born in the United States of America anything else but an American, could be deemed as unpatriotic. The fact of the matter is, I was born in the United States of America and I have no family in any other country. All of my ancestors come from New Mexico, which brings me to realize that maybe the labels the government uses for government surveys or public school testing seems to be rhetorical because, why must we know what race, origin, or gender why not just accept everybody as Americans.

Once I was working as a restaurant manager in Santa Fe, NM, and I referred to myself as a Mexican. The staff of all who were from Mexico politely asked me if I was born in Mexico and I knew of any family there. I had to sit back and think about that question. I believe that is how the seed of this paper was planted in my head, and I answered them “No, actually I do not have any ties to Mexico, nor do I have any relatives from there”. After that day, I never referred to myself as a Mexican, and after going to the Hispanic Leadership Conference in Vancouver, WA, I could never call myself a Hispanic. This is why I believe many Americans of Spanish-speaking origin are in an “Identity Crisis.”


Fears, D. (2003). Debate over Hispanic vs. Latino heats up. Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Retrieved from

Haerens, M. (2011). The U.S. Latino Community. Farmington Hills Michigan: Green Haven Pres.

Hispanic. (2003) The American Heritage, Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition. (2003). Retrieved October 23 2013 from

Latino. (2003) The American Heritage, Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition. Retrieved October 23 2013 from

Preference for the term “Hispanic” and “Latino” buy Hispanic origin group (2013). The Pew Research Center. Retrieved from

Ribadeneira, D. (2002, Mar 24). `LIVING’ LA VIDA AMERICANA | ed morales goes in search of latino identity and finds the coming hybrid society. The San Diego Union – Tribune. Retrieved from

Wolfe, Lahle (n.d.). Retrieved from

Joe A. Mondragon originally wrote this essay for Palabras's Website back in April 2014.


Published a year ago


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