Since You Asked, Latino or Hispanic?

Have you ever noticed when filling out a form for any government thing, like a driver’s license or a passport, that the form will ask you to check a box regarding your race?  If you haven’t read all the choices, please do so next time. There is a box for Hispanic and another box for non-white Hispanic.

A friend of mine, whose parents met and married in Puerto Rico, set me straight one day. I had referred to her as a Latina, and she didn’t like it. She explained that she was Hispanic but not Latina.

But her parents were from Puerto Rico! She educated me that her white mother and her white father were descendants of white Spaniards who came to Puerto Rico. She considered herself white, not Latina.

So here’s the difference. If a Spanish-speaking person is of mixed race or of an indigenous race, they are Latina, and also Hispanic. But if a person is from Spain (and sometimes Cuba, Puerto Rico, Argentina, or anywhere), they are automatically considered to be Hispanic but are only Latino/a/x if they are not white.

By now you are probably asking yourself, who cares, anyway? The Hispanic person you are speaking with cares a great deal.  I have a Mexican-born friend who calls herself Azteca.

Here’s a mini-history quiz. What country conquered the indigenous people of what is now Mexico? That would be Spain. Conquistador (conqueror) Hernán Cortez arrived in what is now Mexico City, saw the Aztecs’ pile of gold and quickly killed King Montezuma and took the gold back to Spain.

Now you know why uncontrollable diarrhea while traveling in Mexico is called Montezuma’s Revenge. And while we’re at it, you should know that Spanish conquistadores (from Spain) conquered much of Central and South America, so that is why it is called Latin America (Spanish is a derivative of Latin, as is French and Italian).  But not Brazil — the Portuguese conquerors got there first.

That is why there are twenty-odd countries plus Puerto Rico that speak Spanish. That is why we have so many Spanish speaking people in this country (the U.S. is close to Latin America).

Imagine my surprise when, as a teenager, I visited Mexico and saw brown-eyed, brown-skinned curly haired people, and then went to Venezuela to student-teach at age 21 and saw every shade of skin-tone imaginable, and then studied in northern Spain and saw blue-eyed blond Spaniards! I finally realized that a whole bunch of different-looking people have Spanish as their native language.

Spanish has somehow been equated with illegal immigrants, but I am here to tell you that only a fraction of Spanish-speaking people are illegal.

And here’s the real kicker, Californians. This region before statehood used to belong to Mexico. Look at the Spanish names of towns, cities, rivers, and lakes. Now you know why. They were named long before the U.S. took over here and quickly made California a state after gold was discovered in 1848.

Before you correct me that the Gold Rush was in 1849, please know that it took a year for everyone back East to get here to California to mine for gold. Word traveled by horses and wagons back in those days.

A Latino/a/x is always Hispanic, but a Hispanic person is not always Latino/a/x.

My Cuban friend in senior aerobics yesterday gave me the idea to write this when she said, “I know I don’t look Cuban, but I am.”

She looks white. I explained to her what I knew from my Puerto Rican friend.

Thank you, Grace, for the blog post idea.

Thank you, Marisa, for explaining this all to me many years ago. May you rest in peace.


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