The term “Latino” is a versatile one that includes people from both these shores and abroad. It is used with relative acceptance and pervasiveness in Philadelphia, along the East Coast, and among scholars, and has political implications as a label of self-determination. However, the term is not without its critics or problems.
In the United States, people of Latin American backgrounds describe themselves in many ways. These identity categories each have their own origin and differing political, cultural, linguistic, and racial connotations. “Latino” is only one of many equally ambiguous terms used to refer to people of Spanish-speaking and Latin American heritage. Latino, Latino/a, Hispanic, hispano, Latin American, latinoamericano, “Spanish,” “Latin,” and la Raza are among the labels used to identify or self-identify people who share recent or historical origins in the Spanish-speaking, Latin American world.
But even this range of terms does not capture the complexity of the terminology, its usage, or the diversity among the U.S. population that is commonly and most broadly labeled Latino or Hispanic. Nor does it address the ways these labels are imposed upon new arrivals who are themselves only just learning the significance of racial and ethnic terms in the United States. As one immigrant commented, “Hispanic is a new word for me, you know? It doesn’t exist in Mexico or in Chile.” According to researchers Marcelo M. Suárez-Orozco and Marciela M. Páez, “The very term Latino has meaning only in reference to the U.S. experience. Outside of the United States, we don’t speak of Latinos; we speak of Mexicans, Cubans, Puerto Ricans, and so forth. Latinos are made in the USA.”
These terms often lump people together based on factors such as language, race, or geographical origin, creating the assumption that they all see and experience the world in the same way. But they may not: “Everybody has a different identity. The fact that we are from Latin countries doesn’t mean that we are not different.” People falling under these broad categories may be born in the United States; may be immigrants; may speak Spanish, English or both; may be fair-skinned or dark-skinned; may be professionals or day laborers; may be Catholic, Pentecostal, Mormon, Jewish, or agnostic. They may share characteristics such as religion or class with non-Latinos and be strongly connected with non-Latinos by shared concerns and experiences. For example, suburban Latinos may have more in common with their neighbors than with Latinos who live in an urban environment.
Identity labels are not fixed designations, but are fluid, shifting, and context dependent. This fluidity is what makes “Latino,” “Hispanic,” and other labels confusing and often frustrating for those wanting to use the appropriate term to describe friends, address strangers, or refer to communities and populations. The way individuals and groups use such labels to describe themselves and others varies from one person to another depending on circumstances and situations. For instance, a Philadelphian of Venezuelan descent may consider himself to be “Venezuelan” among his family and during Venezuelan celebrations. On official paperwork, he may check the “Hispanic” box but refer to himself as “Latino” when interacting with a wider population of both Latinos and non-Latinos. When visiting Venezuela, however, he may refer to himself as “Venezuelan American” or just as an “American.”
Even within communities, these terms are not used with absolute consistency and certainty. Oftentimes people have their own preferences based on political perspectives or personal experience. Some people may self-identify very strongly with a particular label. For example, there are Puerto Ricans who identify themselves as “Boricua,” a term taken from “Borinquen,” the indigenous Taino name of the island. “Boricua” alludes to preconquest, precolonial conditions and, by extension, may also symbolize the hope for an independent Puerto Rico. Other Puerto Ricans may prefer to identify as “Puerto Rican” or “Latino.” Others may be ambivalent about the whole thing. People who have recently arrived from Latin America may not be familiar with the identity politics of the United States and may find it arbitrary or difficult to chose a label other than their national or regional identity that suits them. So someone from Colombia may chose to identify as “Colombian” or “South American” rather than “Latino.”
“Latino” and “Hispanic” are the most widely used categorical terms for labeling people of Latin American descent, and both carry the baggage of varied meanings for different people. “Latino” has certain political connotations. Academics, activists, artists, and community workers often prefer this term because it originated within Latin American communities in the United States and refers to the diverse racial and ethnic heritages of Latin America. “Latino” is widely used by individuals in Philadelphia to describe identity, “art and culture,” food, and other aspects related to Puerto Rican and Latin American peoples. Some individuals within and outside of the community do not like the term because they feel it sounds too “ethnic” or because of its association through the media with stereotypes of violence, poverty, crime, drugs, gangs and so forth. Others feel it most accurately represents their identity: “Latino doesn’t deny the Spanish descent, but it includes being indigenous and African.”“Hispanic” is used by some within the community and is roughly analogous to “Latino.” Its widespread acceptance by many U.S. government agencies in the 1970s and 1980s and connotation of Spanish heritage makes it preferred by some and rejected by others. One community member comments, “I’d rather hear Latino or Latina than Hispanic.” Both “Latino” and “Hispanic” carry political and ethnic suggestions that are appealing for different reasons. Though identity terms such as these may refer to the same population, their usage may reflect the philosophical attitudes of the speaker. In short, these terms can all be appropriate depending on the context and the position of the speaker.
Even though people do not agree on how to identify the at-large Latino community, Latinos often do communicate a strong sense of cultural unity. In Philadelphia, there seems to be broad-based solidarity among Latinos when talking about themselves as a population within the city. Some people cite cultural attachments, others political attachments, and others linguistic attachments. When reflecting on Latino unity, many people often comment, “Creo que somos eguales,” or “I think we are the same.” Though these individuals are aware of different cultural backgrounds, they perceive some sameness in conditions, history, culture, and language. These commonalities profoundly bind Latinos, particularly in the setting of distinct urban and suburban landscapes. People espousing this sense of solidarity use the terms Latino, hispano, Hispanic, latinoamericano, and “Spanish” to unite a larger group of people living in this city.
These broad and ambiguous pan-ethnic terms can mask distinctions that people are proud of and that play a role in their ethnic or national identity -- just as “European” does not identify one as Italian, Irish, German, Russian, or Greek. As one community member observes, “Latino is too general a concept because everybody’s a Latino. I don’t know exactly how or why they use that terminology because coming from Latin American countries, you are either Venezolano, Mexicano, Argentino, Cubano. I don’t like the expression as much.” But this generalization can have a useful aspect, allowing room for diverse personal histories and experiences and enabling larger advocacy efforts. Others use these terms more loosely or strategically, acknowledging their multiple Latino heritages: “I’m Venezuelan, but I’m half Dominican, and I love Puerto Rico. I’m Latina.” Others acknowledge the hybrid nature of Latino culture historically: “Being Latino means that you recognize all the cultures that live in you.”