Hispanic Heritage Month: Discussing Hispanic vs. Latino vs. Latinx
Published: October 14, 2022
Written by: Alejandra Gonzalez
As we continue to celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month (HHM) through October 15, it is worth taking some time to discuss the language and demographic categories public health professionals use in their research. In this case, these terms include Hispanic, Latino, Latina, Latine, and Latinx.
These terms are often used interchangeably, but they are all different in the context of who is using them and whom they are describing. For some, the differences may feel so subtle as to seem insubstantial, but for many others, the weight each word carries is significant enough to merit a deeper discussion. Hispanic refers to people who identify as being of Spanish-speaking background and trace their origin or descent from Mexico, Puerto Rico, Cuba, Central and South America, and other Spanish-speaking countries, while Latino describes someone from Latin America, including non-Spanish speaking communities such as Brazil and the French-speaking Caribbean nations. Spanish is a gender-based language that uses the male form as the default or dominant form when describing a group that includes both males and females. The move to a new gender-neutral society can introduce some confusion and controversy in Spanish or similar gendered languages. As a result, the terms Latinx and Latine were introduced to allow for gender inclusivity.
Director of Chapman University’s Latinx and Latin American Studies program in the Wilkinson College of Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences, Ruben Espinoza, Ph.D., says each term has its own history, its own problems, and its own benefits. “Each one of these terms is trying to capture with one label a community that is so diverse, racially and ethnically, that it is impossible to come up with a singular term that everyone is going to agree with.”
Before studying individuals of Hispanic or Latin American descent, researchers should be sensitive to and understanding of how people choose to self-identify and should integrate cultural values into the research process. How can we do that in our work?
Dr. Luisa Borrell, Distinguished Professor of Epidemiology and Biostatistics at the Graduate School of Public Health and Health Policy, City University of New York, and Dr. Sandra Echeverria, Associate Professor of Epidemiology at The University of North Carolina at Greensboro, have been examining the use of Hispanic, Latino, and Latinx in public health research. Two recent surveys they cite show that when it comes to the self-identification of the Hispanic or Latino population, 61% (survey 1) and 68% (survey 2) prefer the term “Hispanic” to describe themselves and their Latin American peers, whereas 29% (survey 1) and 21% (survey 2) prefer Latino. In a separate 2019 national survey, 23% of Hispanics reported having heard the term Latinx, and – of these – only 3% use the term to self-identify. This same article found that the use of the term “Latinx” in research has increased since the term was first introduced. However, despite the term’s original intent of inclusivity, Latinx is often used to refer to the Hispanic or Latino population as a whole, without regard to gender inclusivity and neutrality. In other words, when used as a generic term to include everyone, it may come across as being exclusive to the marginalized group it was meant to include. Confused yet? That’s understandable, considering that discussions on language and labels can be challenging and elicit a variety of emotions. ( For a more animated discussion on the differences between Hispanic, Latino, Latinx, etc., check out the video in this article, both produced by the University of California.)
Regardless of how people choose to self-identify, this is a community that is very diverse both racially and ethnically. In the “The Latino Assumption: A Research Note,” Dr. Ariel Rodriguez writes that inappropriately studying Latinos and Hispanics as a homogeneous group, referred to as the Latino Assumption, can lead to threats to internal validity, statistical conclusion, and external validity. In regard to external validity, findings using a sample from one subpopulation, for example, Mexicans, may not be able to be applied to another, such as Puerto Ricans.
Conducting research with Latino and Hispanic communities is crucial and can be done in a culturally competent manner. The article “Culturally Competent Qualitative Research with Latino Immigrants” provides recommendations when studying Latino immigrants, including relying on gatekeepers, having knowledge of the Spanish language, and understanding cultural nuances. Most importantly, however, is the development of a culturally competent research team who are not only bilingual but also bicultural and come from diverse cultural backgrounds. These skills are essential when designing protocols, collecting data, and analyzing and interpreting data. Our own faculty and staff are cognizant of and sensitive to the terminology and incorporate it into their research within Central Texas communities. With some 11.4 million Hispanics in Texas – a 21% increase since 2010 – our researchers are well positioned to promote health equity and access among Hispanic and Latino communities while keeping the needs and aims of the community members as a priority.