Finding a Name That Fits

By Hamilton, Kendra | Black Issues in Higher Education, September 27, 2001 | Go to article overview

Finding a Name That Fits


Hamilton, Kendra, Black Issues in Higher Education


`Hispanic' or `Latino' - usage engages social, political and historical dimensions

At a grocery store in San Antonio the "Mexican" food section has a new name. "They're calling it the `Hispanic' food section. But I don't see any `Hispanic' food -- no Bolivian food, no Cuban food," says Marcia Miller, a public affairs officer at the University of Texas-Austin -- "just the same old chilies and refried beans."

Major grocery chains aren't the only ones jumping on the "Hispanic" bandwagon. It has long been the term of choice for government and the media -- but its vagueness can offend.

"It's (Hispanic) not an identity, it's not a race, it's not an ethnicity," explains Dr. Maria DeGuzman, a Spanish-born conceptual artist and assistant professor of Latina/o Literature(s) and Culture(s) at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. "It's an umbrella term that's trying to unite people who share a history, with many fractures and divergences within that history."

And there are plenty for whom it's pretty close to being a fighting word. Writers such as Gloria Anzaldua, Sandra Cisneros and Denise Chavez are on record as being strongly and proudly "Latina"--not "Hispanic."

And so is Elizabeth Jones, a fourth-year student at the University of Virginia who runs the school's Hispanic-Latino Peer Mentoring program -- though neither her name nor her appearance label her as such.

Jones has an Anglo name, and she also happens to look Black. Although she currently lives in Arlington, Va., she was born in San Jose, Costa Rica--"in Limon, where most of the Blacks live." She's fully bilingual in English and Spanish and learning Portuguese as well.

"Dislike" might be too strong a word to describe Jones' reaction to the word "Hispanic"; however, she does take issue with the term. "Hispanic says you're a division of Spain, but I'm from Latin America, specifically Central America." Jones is from a section of Costa Rica whose ethnic mix includes Jamaicans who immigrated to work in the coffee industry and intermarried with Indians.

"`Hispanic' doesn't encompass anything about the Jamaican and Indian parts of my background," Jones says. "For me, Latina tells you more about my heritage and culture."

REGIONAL AND CULTURAL DIFFERENCES

There are areas of the United States in which "Hispanic" is considered a highly descriptive term.

"I take a census informally among my students every year. They seem to like Hispanic," says Dr. Rolando Hinojosa-Smith, the Ellen Garwood professor of English at UT-Austin and something of an institution among Southwestern writers. "But then we Texans are ornery. `Chicano' never caught hold here when that term was popular back in the '70s. And as far as I know, neither has `Latino.'"

This is somewhat confusing for cultural outsiders -- so much so that it may be tempting to see the debate as a sort of "you say to-may-to, I say to-mah-to." But the social, historical and political dimensions of the debate are quite complex, and with the Hispanic, Latino and Latin American populations less than a percentage point away from being the largest U.S. minority -- 12 percent of the U.S. population, compared with 12.9 percent for African Americans -- calling the whole thing off is not an option.

So what precisely is the difference between Hispanic and Latino?

Dr. Alicia Borinsky, an Argentina-born writer and literary scholar who writes in Spanish and English and is a professor of Latin American and Comparative Literature at Boston University, says there is a generation gap in usage. "Latin Americans of an older generation dislike both terms and prefer to be recognized by their countries of origin -- Venezuela, Mexico, etc.," she says.

Region has a part to play as well, says Dr. Pablo Davis, an Argentian-American born in New York who is an assistant dean of students at the University of Virginia. …

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