One of the most surprising things I learned when I first moved to Italy was how Italians would say “Eh, alla fine sono latino” which translates to “After all, I am Latino.” Having been born and raised in the Americas, what I knew and understood about the concept of “Latinidad” was very limited. It wasn’t until I was living in Italy that it dawned on me: the “Latino” label comes from the language, Latin, from the Romans themselves. I learned that Italians, thanks to their Roman roots, are the original “Latinos.” Their language and culture spread throughout Europe as their empire grew. The more time I spent living in Italy and traveling in Western Europe, meeting people from various European Latin countries, it amazed me to learn how much people from Latin America have in common with them — the food, the family values, the approach to life, the language, and more. Now that I have worked in anti-racism for several years I understand these similarities come from violence and colonization.
This article seeks to give textbook definitions of the words to non Latinx/e, mestizo or Pan American people but doesn’t seek to infringe on people’s right or desire to identify differently. I wrote this in 2015 and now I no longer identify as Latinx/a myself. – Mavi
Latin America and Latin Europe:
Italy, France, Moldova, Portugal, Romania, Spain, Monaco, San Marino, Andorra, and the Vatican City are the countries in Europe that were originally considered ‘Latino”. They share the Romance language root of Latin and they also share similar cultural values. Because of this, these countries are also sometimes called Romance-Speaking Europe. In short, if your culture is heavily influenced by Roman culture, you are Latinx even if you are in Europe.
What my American readers may already know is that the former colonies of these countries in America are now considered “Latin America” and their people are called “Latin@s.” This includes countries where Spanish or Portuguese is spoken and many cultural traits are shared by both Latin America and Latin Europe.
Don’t forget one other country that has a large Spanish influence and as such is also quite Latin: the Philippines. The country was colonized and occupied by Spain for over 300 years and its cultural influence is palpable. They however, don’t widely identify as Latinx/e.
The reach extends to many countries in Africa as well where French and other Romance languages are spoken as a result of centuries of imperialism and colonialism. As you see, the word Latin is quite broad in scope, so make sure you use it wisely.
It is important to note, however, that the word “Latino” in the social context we use today was coined by two Latino businessmen seeking a way to homogenize the people of Latin America for the sake of marketing. The literal meaning of the term isn’t the way people use the word. It is usually only meant to refer to the people of Latin America including non-Spanish-speaking countries like Brazil.
Below is a map of all the countries that speak a Romance language, many of which once comprised the now-defunct Latin Union, an organization started in Spain with the purpose of preserving the values and languages associated with Latin culture. Due to financial difficulties, the organization shut its doors in 2012. By the definition of membership, even Miami, Florida in the United States would be considered a part of the union.
Then what is “Hispanic”?
Hispanics are a more narrow segment of the broad Latino/e/x population. They are the Latines who speak Spanish or Castillian. Many call this group of people Hispanic-speaking as it refers directly to their language and not every other aspect of Latin influence.
All Hispanics are Latinx but not all Latinx are Hispanic.
Although Hispanics are by definition Latinx, not all Latinx are Hispanic. Latinx are much more diverse and spread throughout most continents whereas Hispanics are concentrated in Latin America and Spain. It’s this simple: if their mother tongue is Spanish they are Hispanic. If their mother tongue is Spanish or any other Romance language and they share some basic influences from Roman culture, they too are Latinx.
What is most important to know about the term is that it wasn’t a term this group of people chose for themselves but it was given to them specifically in the United States under the Nixon administration. It appeared in the census as a way to racialize Spanish-speaking immigrants. Many Spanish-speaking Latines identify ONLY as Hispanic often related to the time period they migrated to the United States.
What it means for organizations:
Languages and Cultures
I have lived in the South Florida region, in Miami to be specific, off and on over the years so most of my clients are in that part of the world. It is important to understand the distinction of Latinx vs. Hispanic to better speak to either segment. When speaking to Hispanics you must obviously ensure Spanish is used but when your marketing is best targeted for the wider Latinx audience, remember you may have to include French, Portuguese, and with it the many cultural nuances that come with each country of origin.
When I worked at UPS, our region handled Canada and Latin America. We did press releases in Spanish, Portuguese, and Canadian French to cater to these regions. Although the message was often the same, the languages had to be perfect in their translation and the cultural nuances had to be considered when releasing them as well.
The main thing to remember is that many people who are either or both don’t even realize there is a difference. Many use the terms interchangeably and that isn’t always correct. I certainly didn’t know any better, even after working for years in pan-regional marketing targeting Latam. It may seem that it’s common knowledge but it isn’t! Therefore, make sure you approach each label with care and ensure you honor the mother tongue appropriately in each scenario by avoiding translation software as much as possible.
Most importantly people are moving away from BOTH labels because of their ties and roots in the violence of colonialism. Many people from the region are seeking to identify by their individual country, region, or the original people of their region from whom they descend. They believe both terms to be tools of white supremacy and an attempt at erasure of the parts of the culture that are Black or Indigenous. Others think one term to try to homogenize the unique and rich experience of each country’s culture is inherently microaggressive. Lastly, some folks feel like Latinidad is a unique experience to people from Latin America and the Caribbean and any European using the term is engaging in cultural appropriation of the experience Latines have. As you can see social constructs are complex because they are created by humans and the human experience of culture and identity is everchanging.
The Race Issue:
That’s the richest and complex part of this story. Latinx/e/os come in ALL races and a variety of ethnicities. We are white, Black, Native, and Asian as well as every combination therein. Whether race defines us or not is up to each individual. This is why making vast generalizations about Latinx/e or Hispanic people can land you in some interesting situations. I’ve seen marketing from people saying “Latina women have dark hair” or “Hispanic men are short.” Our physical appearance is the most diverse of any other racial and ethnic classification on the planet so oversimplification of what we look like, eat, or how we behave can be offensive. In short, keep it light and get to know your target market really well. Define it with meticulous attention to detail to ensure you really understand your audience. Never forget that no group is a monolith and people in this group are extremely diverse and their cutural and racial identity is always evolving.
So… Now what?
It turns out that Latinx existed long before the Caribbean islands were invaded by Columbus, an cruel, violent, Italian man with a Spanish agenda. It was he who started the flood of European influence to the Americas. In reality Latinx means from Italy and Hispanic means from Spain! Many of the people we now most commonly call Latinx were (or are) Natives (incorrectly called Indios) with their own wide array of languages, religions, and cultures… but that’s a lesson for another time.