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What is the definition of a Hispanic?

The discussion below started in Jan 1999 on the HEP e-mail mailing list.   It is a very interesting discussion so it is published here to share with everyone.

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Original Question

Silly question that came up at lunch the other day. "What is the
definition of a Hispanic". we discussed it for a while, but I decided to
look it up in the dictionary. I was surprised.

Webster's Definition:
Hispanic: Adj. [Lat. Hispanicus, after Hispania (Spain).] Of or
relating to the language, people, or culture of Spain, Portugal, or
Latin America. -n. An American of Spanish or Latin-American origin or descent.
So by that definition, people from Portugal are also Hispanic. Should they
be included in our count of Hispanics? What about Brazil?


Responses and ongoing discussion

To your question, I would say yes.
Julia Karns

Thanks for the info. According to OPM form 1468, a Hispanic is:
A person of Mexican, Puerto Rican, Cuban, Central or South American, or
other Spanish cultures or origins. Does not include persons of Portuguese
culture or origin.

Shirley Hill

Okay, here is my 2 cents worth. This is from my Spanish Civilization
classes and books from my university days. I also have written an article on
the distinctions.
Latin: Anyone from a country that speaks a Romance language -so that would
include countries in Europe as well as the Americas e.g.
France, Italy, Portugal, and Brazil)
Latin American: Anyone from a country in the Americas, whose language is a
Romance language. (includes all of the Americas, Caribbean - Haitians
(French), Brazilians (Portuguese )
        Hispanic: anyone from a country that speaks Spanish: Spain
and any
of the Spanish Speaking country in the Americas
        (Caribbean) Does NOT include Brazil.
        Hispanic American: Anyone from a Spanish Speaking country in
Americas: All Spanish speaking countries in the Americas
        (includes Caribbean - Cuba) - Does NOT include Spain -
        Hispanic American - As interpreted by the US gov't (only) An
American ("Estadunisiente" from the US) from a Spanish Speaking
country or descendant of a person from a Spanish Speaking country - INCLUDES
Spaniard or Spanish - A person from Spain. (In the US many people use
Spanish interchangeably with Hispanic- WRONG)--------Dictionaries reflect
the populous use of a word (after a certain period of time). That is why
you now find slang in dictionaries.
So I guess it really depends on who you are talking to and for what purpose.
I personally prefer the academician's definitions. However for the HEP I
use the US gov't definition.
Maria Castillo

I have been unable to find the documentation regarding the inclusion of
Portuguese and Spanish. I did find that one of the problems is that
different government agencies use different definitions.
From "A report by the US Merit Systems Protection Board, Achieving a
Representative Federal Workforce Addressing the Barriers to Hispanic
Participation" "........Definition of Hispanic. Another complication in
measuring Hispanics in the CLF (civilian labor force) against those in the
civil service is the different way in which these two databases define the
term "Hispanic"............."the civil service definitions are further
complicated by the fact the generally used categories described above are
applicable to the 49 states and the District of Columbia, while alternating
classifications are used for civil service positions in Hawaii and Perto
Rico. In Hawaii, Asians are categorized by their country of
origin...........In contrast, in Perto Rico, all employees are placed in one
of two categories: Hispanic and non-Hispanic...................."
Unfortunately, the above report did not include a date but I believe it came
out about three years ago. for a copy call 800-209-8960 email <> .
The closest I came to finding Spanish as included in the definition of
Hispanic, applied to the Census Bureau and not OPM. From a pamphlet put out
AMERICA,".....The 1990 census-defined Hispanic as a person whose origin
(ancestry) is Argentinian, Colombian (You Go DUBAN!), Costa Rican, Cuban,
Dominican, Ecuadorian, Guatemalan, Honduran, Mexican, Mexican-American,
Chicano, Nicaraguan, Peruvian, Puerto Rican, Salvadorean, other
Spanish-speaking countries of the Caribean or Central or South American OR
FROM SPAIN..........."
So Shirley looks like you have the latest definition. Duban, I'm not sure
if we addressed your original question, but I think we learned a lot.
Will Morales

I have found that there is no universally accepted definition of a
Hispanic. My dictionary says a person living in the US of Latin American
descent. Latin America being defined as that part of the Western Hemisphere
south of the US in Mexico, Central America the West Indies and South America
where Spanish, Portuguese and French are the official languages.
However, I know several Portuguese people who state that Portugues is NOT
Hispanic. I agree since Portugal and Spain are two different countries with
different cultures. The term Hispanic comes from the roots to Spain and no
other country. The federal government, for the purposes of inclusion, does
accept people from Spain and Portugal as "Hispanic".

At the last IMAGE conference, I attended a workshop by Santiago Rodriguez. 
He stated he was one of the people who originally sat on the committee that
recommended to the Federal government that the term "Hispanic" be used. In
his presentation, he went on about the different names that were used to
identify Hispanic people. The main problem is that as much as we have in
common, there are also many differences. The "outside" world sees us as one
but internally there are many differences. I was so impressed by his
presentation that I made up a POWERPOINT presentation of it
. I showed it to
him to make sure that it captured what he spoke about. I am attaching it to
this email. The disadvantage is that is in bullet format. You still have
to remember what he spoke about. Some of the slides do stand on their own
so you may find it helpful.

As you probably know, nowadays there is a big controversy about the term
Hispanic. "Latino" seems to be more acceptable because it is a name "we
gave ourselves". Some people prefer to be called by their country of origin
and nothing else. The federal government still uses the term Hispanic as the official term.

The next question is about race. As far as I know, there are only three
races. Caucasian, Negroid, Asian Pacific/Islander (used to be Mongoloid)
and I believe American Indian/Eskimo has been added by the government as a
fourth "race". Sometimes on forms and applications, they ask you to check
your race and they list Hispanic as one of the choices. Hispanic is your
ETHNIC background. For example, an Italian person is Caucasian (race) but
Italian (Ethnic background). Likewise a person from Central America, for
example, is Caucasian(race) but Hispanic(ethnic background)? I am not an
Anthropologist, I am only an engineer, but I have heard these definitions
before and just now I looked up the word "race" in the dictionary and it
stated something similar to what I am saying.

Sometimes I get asked these types of questions too as the HEPM for my
Command. I would like to know what information others have.

Will Morales

Will: This is a highly controversial and sensitive issue.
I did a research paper last year (for a sensitivity training seminar I gave
to young aspiring Latinas) that yielded the following article published in
Unity First News.

"Hispano"? "Latino"? What is it in a Name?

Rita González for Unity First News, September 1998

There has been great controversy over the "correct" terminology to refer to the ethnic group comprised of mainly Spanish speaking individuals, thus we tend to generalize under one particular nomenclature. While proper for the purpose of achieving effective communication, appropriately generalizing is a major challenge. Many resent the act of generalization, but oftentimes it is a necessary evil. Generalizing serves both a practical purpose and a conceptual purpose. The first enables us to communicate more clearly; the later enables us to make comparisons and contrasts in order to gain insight. Now, For the practical purpose of communication, how do we appropriately generalize, while maintaining a "politically correct" posture? What is it in a name anyway? Why the "big deal"?

First of all, we must recognize that when we refer to individuals of Spanish speaking background, either born in such a country or descendants of, we are not speaking necessarily of one unified people:

1. There is not one but many such countries and cultures in the United States, unique in their own right.

2. There are many of such individuals residing in the United States, either recently arrived or whose ancestry in the continent pre-dates British influence and/or U.S. citizenry. (In the 1300's the Aztecs had been trading fur and other items with "Native Americans"; Juan Ponce de Leon arrived in Florida in 1513; the city of St. Augustine, oldest permanent settlement in the U.S. was founded in 1565 by Pedro Méndez Avilés (fifty-five years before the pilgrims set out from England in the Mayflower! ).

3. Although "unified" by language and historic roots, regional differences abound in the Spanish language, influenced by pre-Columbus natives: Maya, Aztec, Inca, Arawac, Carib, Ciboney, other.

4. Non-Spaniard immigrants greatly influenced regional cultural evolution, traditions, and language (hence the Italian influence in Argentina, French, British, Dutch and African influence in the Caribbean, Asian in Central America, etc.).

Because of their very distinct histories and ancestries, many individuals feel uncomfortable being referred to by a generic term - "Latino" or "Hispanic". "Hispanic" is the term of choice of the United States Government, a choice of the term originated by Census Bureau. "Hispanic" defines the population in terms of its Iberian ancestry. The term "Latino" is the term of choice by the actual population, as it refers to the root of the language - Latin. It can also have broad applicability, inclusive of Brazilian, Portuguese and (sometimes) Italian descent.

Now what? We have established that generalization is important for communication. As an enabler, "Latino" has broader applicability and is better suited for use in non-government . "Hispanic" is the preferred term of "Government Language": "Hispanic Heritage Month", "Hispanic Employment Program". Neither term is intended to be pejorative; they are simply mechanisms for enabling communication. However, if you are dealing with individuals of such ethnic background (employees, employers, customers or neighbors), as a rule of thumb:

1. Listen to how people refer to themselves.

2. Individuals will normally refer to themselves in accordance with their country of origin: "Mexicano (a - denotes gender, female)", "Cubano(a,)", "Puertorriqueño (a)", "Dominicano (a)".

3. When in doubt, ask.

4. If you need to generalize, keep the conversation in context and be sensitive to innuendoes or associating negative connotations to a specific group (stereotyping).

How you generalize or how you refer to someone is more than semantics or political correctness. And it is certainly more than just a name. When you address someone using the appropriate name or title, you are acknowledging their culture, identity, and personal accomplishments. You achieve respect for individuality, a trait that should not be overlooked in achieving effective communication. As food for thought, hold the same amount of consideration for others as you would have afforded to yourself, should you be traveling abroad…


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