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Hispanic Vs. Latino: 
A new poll finds that the term 'Hispanic' is preferred
By Christine Granados
[This article first appeared in Hispanic Magazine, December 2000 Issue]
 

Are you a Hispanic or a Latino? We have been asking ourselves this question since the seventies when the government adopted the term "Hispanic" to keep population statistics and monitor compliance to Affirmative Action laws. And the answer isn't as clear-cut as one might expect. Choosing one term over the other means taking a political, social, and even a generational stand.  Stereotypically, those who call themselves Hispanic are more assimilated, conservative, and young, while those who choose the term Latino tend to be liberal, older, and sometimes radical. A recent presidential tracking poll by Hispanic Trends, Inc., a polling firm associated with this magazine, wanted to put the identity issue to rest once and for all by asking registered voters which term they preferred-Hispanic or Latino. The result was something of a surprise: A majority prefer the term Hispanic.

Sergio Bendixen, president of Hispanic Trends, says his company decided to put the question in its poll for obvious reasons. "It's something Hispanics and Latinos have been debating for years, and no one seems to have asked the question. So we decided to ask it," he says.
           Of the 1,200 Latino registered voters polled, 65 percent preferred the term Hispanic, and 30 percent chose to identify themselves as Latino. Regionally, the results were similar. This random sample showed that 67 percent of Mexican Americans in Texas preferred the term Hispanic, as did 52 percent of Latinos in California and New York. Bendixen, who has been conducting polls for 25 years, says the results surprised him. "I thought the term Latino would be the overwhelming winner, because I've worked in California for Univisión and Telemundo, and I was not allowed to say Hispanic on the air. When I did, we got a lot of complaints."  But 24-year-old Daniel Villaruel, a student at California State University Northridge, was not surprised by the poll results. "That makes sense," says the fourth-generation Spanish American.
             "Because registered voters tend to be second- and third-generation Hispanics and they tend to be more assimilated." Bendixen explains it this way, "I think that the people who don't like the term Hispanic are very vocal." Like author and poet Sandra Cisneros, who has identified herself as Latina, Chicana, Tejana, and Mexican American, but never Hispanic. Cisneros is so offended by the term that she has refused to be pictured on the cover of this magazine. [HISPANIC Magazine uses the terms interchangeably.] "The term Hispanic makes my skin crawl," Cisneros, 45, says. "It's a very colonistic term, a disrespectful term, a term imposed on us without asking what we wanted to call ourselves."
             What she finds most objectionable about the word Hispanic is that the younger generation is accepting the term without questioning where it came from, and who gave the term to them. She blames the Reagan Administration for applying the unwanted label back in the eighties (although the term itself is much older). "How would Reagan feel if we said, 'We're going to call your people "los gueros"? We're just going to group you all together-the Irish, Polish, Lithuanian, English-and we're going to call you 'pinkies' without asking."
              Cisneros believes that the "dominant culture" imposed this label on Latinos as a way of erasing their identity and their past. And she finds this carefree labeling the most insidious destruction of all. "I'm a poet, so words have their resonance. People don't think about how language can be creative and destructive," Cisneros says.  Celestino Fernández, a professor of sociology at the University of Arizona in Tucson, objects to the term Hispanic for the same reasons Cisneros gives. "It's like the difference between African American, Colored, or Negro," the 51-year-old doctor of sociology says. "That's the issue: Who is naming you? The dominant structure came up with the generic Hispanic term."
               He says that the term Hispanic has been used for many years now, beginning at least two censuses ago, and it's fairly ingrained in the daily language. "I have found that the older generation prefers the term Latino and the younger population prefers Hispanic," he says. "I've seen some change over time. Many more people are confused about the term Latino. They don't know where the term comes from, especially the native-born Hispanics."  The word Hispanic is derived from the word España, the country that led the conquest of the New World and whose language and culture has dominated Latin America. The word Latino traces its roots back to ancient Rome and some say it's more inclusive, encompassing Latin American countries such as Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Mexico, and others, according to Himilce Novas' book, Everything You Need to Know About Latino History.

Zachary González, a 27-year-old human resources specialist, attending Roosevelt University in Chicago, is more comfortable with the word Hispanic. "It's a more politically correct word that people outside the race can understand," he says. However, if he had his druthers, "I'm American first, Hispanic if pressed," says the Mexican American raised in Texas.

Villaruel, the 24-year-old studying for a bachelor's degree in business at Northridge, says he also prefers the term Hispanic because his parents are of Spanish Portuguese descent. But he prefers to refer to himself as Spanish American.

Which leads to another point: "If people were given the choice among several terms they would not pick either Latino or Hispanic, but a term closer to how they think of themselves," says Fernández. "Most people think of themselves as Mexican Americans, Chicanos, Puerto Ricans, Cuban Americans."

María E. Martín, executive director of Latino USA, a radio journal of news and culture that is heard on National Public Radio, isn't exactly comfortable with the term Hispanic, but her views regarding the term have shifted somewhat. "My reaction to the term back then [in the seventies] was that it was the dominant culture's attempt to homogenize Latinos," Martin, who is in her forties, says.
            But, "[Hispanic] has become much more a part of our reality, and it doesn't feel so much as something that was imposed on us." In fact, the radio journal uses the terms Hispanic and Latino interchangeably depending on the person being interviewed. They are sensitive to what each interviewee prefers to be called.

As does Latina magazine. The fashion, beauty and health magazine for Hispanic women chose its name based on focus groups. Women responded to the term Latina more positively than other terms, says editor-and-chief Sylvia Martínez. The bilingual publication is sensitive to a person's preference. She, like Martin, is finding that more and more people are accepting the term Hispanic.
            "It's been a debate that's been going on forever," the 39-year-old Mexican American says. "I'm not hung up on what someone calls me, but I'm also mindful of what term I use whenever I'm speaking. Rick Dovalina, the national president for League of United Latin American Citizens, thinks the debate is ridiculous. "I really don't have any comments on this topic because I think it's silly. I don't like to get into that here because there are more important issues for us to discuss out there," the 52-year-old Chicano says.

"The most important thing is whatever you decide to call yourself you need to be in tune with each group. Latinos in South Florida need to be in tune with Hispanics in South Texas and Arizona."

Perhaps the 37-year-old Puerto Rican, Colombian writer and actor John Leguizamo summed up the younger generation's sentiment about identity best. He said he used to call himself Spanish, but now prefers the term Latino. But he doesn't have a problem with Hispanic. "Now 'wetback, greasy spic,' that's offensive," he told Novas.

Perhaps finding a term that all Hispanics can agree on is an elusive goal. "We'll never have agreement on what to call such a diverse group of people," says Latina's Martínez. "One thing I know for sure is that we're not going to solve the Latino/Hispanic debate in my lifetime."

What the Hispanic Trends poll did definitively prove was that the debate over the terms Hispanic and Latino will continue to rage.
 




Christine Granados is the author of Brides and Sinners in El Chuco (University of Arizona Press, 2006).  Her website is www.christinegranados.com and she can be reached at Christine@rockdalereporter.com.