Hispanic Heritage Month – Hispanic or Latino…Which Do You Prefer?

This post was inspired by a blogging challenge to commemorate Hispanic Heritage Month by writing on various topics for 30 days and elaborating on what it means to be Hispanic or Latino.

For those who don’t know, Hispanic Heritage Month is celebrated from September 15th – October 15th every year and is meant to celebrate the contributions Latinos/Hispanics have made to the USA. What I didn’t know, until reading Eduardo Diaz’s Huffington Post article a few days ago, is the reason <em>why</em> we celebrate over this particular span of 30 days. The independence day anniversaries of 6 different Latin American countries fall during this stretch of time: Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Honduras!

For more of Diaz’s thoughts on Hispanic Heritage Month, see his HuffPo article here.

 

I think I considered the terms “Hispanic” and “Latino” interchangeable for a long, long time. I didn’t realize that there was a difference (at least for some of us,) and that difference mattered, until I took a class during the Fall 2011 semester with the amazing Dr. Arlene Torres. We started the semester off by reading Arlene Davila’s “Barrio Dreams: Puerto Ricans, Latinos, and the Neoliberal City”. Davila’s text covers the changing landscape of East Harlem, known as El Barrio and Spanish Harlem to its (primarily) Latino residents. Over the last 15 years or so, the area has seen its fair share of change as rents throughout the city have skyrocketed, sending those who hope to remain within Manhattan fleeing towards the ethnic enclaves at its edges. This is known as gentrification, and it’s pushing the older (and usually POC) residents out more and more each year. The area is the original <em>colonia</em>, the site where many Puerto Ricans settled when they first migrated to the United States. Yet Puerto Ricans are not the only residents of the area. African Americans, Mexicans, and other Latin American immigrants have called the area home for a long time as well.

Reading Davila’s text, and taking Torres’ class, changed the way I viewed my own Hispanic identity. Understanding the way Puerto Ricans and Mexicans carved out spaces for themselves, but still managed (sometimes very well, sometimes not so well) to create something of a community was fascinating to me. This idea of a pan-Hispanic community, or way of relating to one another and the overlapping histories we have, is called Latinidad. As someone who identifies primarily as Puerto Rican, but is mixed, I found it a comforting way to both conceptualize my own identity and relate to others from a social justice point of view. We may have vastly different backgrounds and speak many different versions of Spanish (along with those of us who are able to speak our indigenous languages), but we are linked to one another through so many cultural similarities and histories of struggle(s) here in the USA.

To get back to my point: I prefer the term Latino because it places me in a context with other Latinos. I prefer the term Latino because it pays homage to the African and Indigenous influences on Puerto Rican culture and language. I prefer the term Latino because it encapsulates that sense of bicultural identity that being a Latino/Hispanic within the USA has given me. The term Hispanic, to me, is very Eurocentric. It favors European/Spanish culture, implicitly holds whiteness as a central “value”, and ignores Indigenous and African languages and influences.

An example: A friend of mine, Edgar, identifies as Nahua (a group of indigenous peoples of Mexico). When he has related to me, he has called out to my own Indigenous culture and roots, even though I’m Puerto Rican and many, many aspects of the indigenous culture has been lost to us. This is how he chooses to embrace Latinidad or a version of it when trying to relate to me. Spanish language and culture has nothing to do with it. Though Spanish is a way of connecting with Latinidad, it’s not the primary way of doing so. I’m grateful for what the term Latin@ (a shortened way of saying Latino/a) has come to mean to me and how it has helped me contextualize Puerto Rican history in a Latin American historical framework.

On the other hand: I have another friend, Shannon, who is Black and Puerto Rican. She identifies as Puerto Rican, proudly so. For her, the term Latino simplifies and effaces her cultural experience as a Puerto Rican woman. Though I would never assume to speak for Shannon, given the particular history of Puerto Ricans with, and within, the United States, I can understand why she might feel that way.

In short: I prefer the term Latino if I’m using a “pan-ethnic” label. Hispanic is not “incorrect” but it makes me very uncomfortable. I prefer the term because of what it comprises for me, personally, and the way I’m able to connect to other Latinos.

If you have thoughts on this or would like to respond, please feel free to comment! And, for my Latino/Hispanic readers…take the poll!

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