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WUWM is honoring the lives of Latinos in Milwaukee and their contributions to the community during Hispanic Heritage Month.

Hispanic, Latino or Latinx. What do they mean? How did they come about? What's the 'correct' term?

Teran Powell

When hearing the terms Hispanic, Latino or Latinx you’ve probably thought to yourself: What is the difference?

Hispanic refers to people who speak Spanish and/or who are descended from a Spanish-speaking lineage. Latino refers to someone who is from or descended from people from Latin America.

And Latinx is a gender neutral or non-binary alternative to Latino or Latina.

More than 19% of people in the city of Milwaukee identify as Hispanic or Latino. And I was curious about their preferred terms.

Jacob Quiñones didn’t used to really care about using one term or the other. But something happened to change his mind. "I looked more and more into my own ancestry, and I do prefer Hispanic because I have an accent over one of the letters in my last name, making me Spanish origin."

Quiñones says he was able to trace his ancestry as far back as the 1400s in Spain. But Quiñones has two brothers. One prefers the term Latino, and the other Latinx.

Another Milwaukee resident, Emil Varona, prefers the term Latino but also identifies as Puerto Rican. "Or Borinqueño as we say in Spanish," Varona says.

The use of the terms Hispanic, Latino, or Latinx is nuanced and has evolved over time.

I spoke with Joseph Rodriguez, UW-Milwaukee professor of history and urban studies, about how they came about. Rodriguez says you can think of Hispanic, Latino and Latinx as pan-ethnic, or umbrella terms, that seek to create unity among a very diverse population.

Extended conversation with Joseph Rodriguez.

He says the US Census designated the term Hispanic, and it first appeared on the form in 1980. "Before 1980, the US Census had a hard time getting quote-on-quote Hispanics to fill out the census forms because the terms really didn't fit everybody. Sometimes the terms were Mexican or Spanish speakers or Latin American, and those terms didn't really appeal to a lot of people," Rodriguez says.

Rodriguez says Hispanic took off and was successful in generating identity and connection. But there was opposition as well.

He says some people felt like the term Hispanic was imposed on them. "It didn’t really kind of bubble up from the grassroots, it was sort of a made-up term. And there’s different theories about where the Hispanic word came from. Hispanic is not used in the Spanish language," Rodriguez says.

So, it inspired a movement from social activists in the community to use what they saw as more progressive terminology, Latino.

Rodriguez says it became popular in the 1990s and remains popular now. Reasons include because the language came from the community instead of the government, and it is a Spanish word.

But there is that gender issue: one would have to identify as Latino or Latina. Thus began the effort to be more inclusive."So Latinx then is sort of this newer, and it is the newest terminology that's used, and it is an even more sort of, I would say politically radical or progressive. A reaction on the part of primarily a younger generation."

Rodriguez adds that Latinx has been successful with students on university campuses.

But you guessed it, not everyone likes this term either, particularly older generations who say, "... You know when you use Latinx, you're kind of forgetting, you're overlooking the Chicano movement, you know. You're overlooking the Puertorriqueño movement. You're overlooking the Nuyoricans. You know, and so there is this kind of generational fight or struggle, or argument is taking place about these terms," Rodriguez says.

Research shows that only 4% of all Latinos prefer the term Latinx to describe the population. Twenty-nine percent prefer Latino, and 61% prefer Hispanic.

Five percent say they prefer something else. That something else might include Latine, another term that those who oppose Latinx say embodies the inclusivity Latinx is going for and honors the Spanish language.

Patrick Carter says he prefers Latine or Latino; he has Venezuelan ancestry. Carter says he's stuck with these two terms because they've allowed him to gain better access and understanding into his culture.

Isabella Gargiulo also prefers Latine. She says it's easier to read, it's phonetically more elegant, it's gender-neutral and it's in line with the Spanish language. Unlike Latinx, she says.

"As a Latin American immigrant, I felt like this term was sort of slapped on to me and my community by academics and non-profit people without much forethought or sensitivity to our mother languages and experiences," Gargiulo says. "And suddenly, we went from having terminology that represented us — that was phonetically in line with our languages of origin — to an Anglo term that's hard to read, it's hard to pronounce, it's impossible to pluralize, and basically descended upon us with no good explanation."

But whether it’s generational, professional, or personal preferences that influence people labeling their identity, the right answer is up to the individual.

Teran is WUWM's race & ethnicity reporter.
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