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Latino, Hispanic, Latinx, Chicano: The History Behind the Terms

September 14, 2020 in History

By Yara Simón

The effort to coin a term to describe a wildly diverse group of Americans has long stirred controversy.

The terms Latino, Hispanic and Latinx are often used interchangeably to describe a group that makes up about 18 percent of the U.S. population. While it’s now common to use umbrella terms to categorize those with ties to more than 20 Latin American countries, these words haven’t always fostered a sense of community among the people they’re supposed to describe.

Before activists, the media and government officials worked to group these identities into one, they were seen as separate. Puerto Ricans and Mexicans, for example, lived in different parts of the country and had their own distinct political and cultural identities.

Yet, as long as there have been people from Latin American countries living in the United States, there have been words to describe them. Some have fallen out of favor, while others have evolved. And many of them have a history as complicated as trying to unify multiple nationalities under one banner.

‘Hispanic’ Helps Unify Communities, Agenda

The first time the federal government used the word Hispanic in a census was 1980. The appearance of the term was borne from decades of lobbying. “It took the debates of the 1970s, the protests of the late 1960s to get us to 1980,” explains G. Cristina Mora, a sociology professor at UC Berkeley and author of Making Hispanics: How Activists, Bureaucrats, and Media Constructed a New American.

Before 1980, those of Latin American descent were considered Spanish-speaking, having Spanish origin or white on the census. The latter frustrated Mexican-American activists because they had no data to prove that their communities needed resources for programs, such as job training. The National Council of La Raza, known today as UnidosUS, led in lobbying the Census Bureau to change the way it categorized Latinos and uniting Puerto Ricans and Mexicans to “hammer out a Hispanic agenda.”

“In the late 1960s and early 1970s as people in the Census Bureau and bureaucrats in the Nixon administration were thinking about what this new group would be called, Hispanic became a term that people thought would probably be well-known because it was linked to hispano,” Mora says. “But Hispanic was helpful because it seemed more American.”

Grace Flores-Hughes, who claims to have come up with the term Hispanic for the Census, pictured at her Alexandria …read more


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