Ask a Scholar: What is the True Definition of Latino?

Dario Fernandez-Morera

Dear Ask a Scholar,

What is the True Definition of Latino? Many say its just Latin American people, others say and I believe as well that "Latino" means anyone whose language derived from Latin; Hispanics, Portuguese speaking people, French and Italian. I need someone to clarify the actual meaning and history of the word.

-Jorge Martinez, University of South Florida

Answered by Dario Fernandez-Morera, Associate Professor of Spanish & Portuguese at Northwestern University. Dr. Fernandez-Morera received his Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from Harvard University. He has published books and articles in English and Spanish in the United States, England, and Spain on cultural issues and theory, Cervantes, sixteenth and seventeenth-century Spanish prose and fiction, modern Spanish poetry, the encounter between Europeans and Amerindians, Modernism, and contemporary political events in Latin America. Fernández-Morera has served in the National Council on the Humanities and as a consultant and reader for the National Endowment for the Humanities.

The word latino is a Spanish word that has entered the English language. In Spanish, it means someone belonging to the people of ancient Latium, in Italy, whose language was Latin; so the Romans of course were latinos. Another and related meaning of latino in Spanish refers to someone who belongs to the cultures of the Romance Languages, that is, those peoples whose language, and to a varying extent, whose culture, too, derive from the language and civilization of Rome, which was latin. Among these Romance languages are Italian, French, Spanish, Portuguese, and Rumanian. Therefore, all Italians, Frenchmen, Spaniards, Rumanians, and Portuguese, as well as all those Latin Americans whose language is Spanish or Portuguese (an English-speaking person from Jamaica would not qualify) are latinos. This last meaning can be found in the English language as well, in the English word “Latin,” when used in some contexts; thus famous “Latin” performers have been Rodolfo Valentino and Carmen Miranda. In this context, the English word “Latin” has carried a certain aura of joix de vivre, or of sexuality, sometimes to the point of caricature and satire.

However, the Spanish word latino has narrowed its meaning when used in English untranslated as “Latin.” This narrowing was clinched when the United States government adopted the term latino officially in 1997 to complement the English word “Hispanic,” which until then had been used to classify, or rather, attempt to classify, people living in the United States who were Spanish speakers, or belonged to a household where Spanish was spoken, or who were somehow of Spanish heritage, or who self-identified with Spanish ancestry or descent. Now, with the use of the word “Latino,” with a capital, this bureaucratic category has been enlarged to include people of non-Spanish descent if they so wish to be categorized. Basically, anyone who can somehow justify the claim, can now claim to be a “latino” for bureaucratic purposes, and many do so in order to reap various forms of government benefits reserved for particular collectives, or “identity groups.”

In addition, the word Latino now serves to categorize those people who come from Latin America, or descend from people from Latin America, where the spoken language is Spanish, but who are not happy with a noun such as “Hispanic,” which is too redolent of Spain, a country to which many of those formerly categorized as “Hispanics” do not want to be connected. This is the case, for example, of some residents of Mexican descent in the United States, who do not want to be called “Hispanics,” but “Latinos.” One reason given is to have their own collective identity separate from that of other collective identities somehow associated with Spain and its heritage. Another possible reason is a desire to be associated with the Mexica (“Aztec”) culture, which was defeated by the Spaniards, and which is frequently and justifiably extolled for its numerous accomplishments and virtues. Given this desire, it is irrelevant that the Aztec culture was one among many indigenous cultures of ancient Mexico; or that the Aztecs subjugated and ruthlessly exploited many of these cultures, and that this was the reason so many indigenous nations in ancient Mexico readily allied themselves with the Spanish conquerors to get rid of Aztec rule; or that most Mexicans today probably have no genetic connection to the Aztec; or that many Mexicans today have as many European genes as they have Amerindian genes.

In the American universities, the term “Latino” has served a different, though perhaps related purpose: to designate programs of study developed by analogy with such programs as “African-American Studies,” and “Women’s Studies” (now more commonly and wisely re-designated as “Gender Studies,” a term that allows the incorporation of more customers to the program while also widening the field covered by the term in order to study other areas, usually from the point of view of non-heterosexuality). The predecessor of "Latino Studies" was "Chicano Studies," created by university administrators in California under pressure from activist university students; and for the same reason "Women's Studies" morphed into "Gender Studies," so "Chicano Studies" morphed into "Latino Studies," helped again by university administrators' response to activist university students, principally of Mexican and Puerto Rican descent or origin. These “Latino Studies” programs have carved for their practitioners a niche in the competition for scarce university resources, students, tenure-line positions, and office space. The texts read in their courses are written mostly in English, and involve the lives and customs of people living in the United States, although their vocabulary may include here and there words in Spanish. Nevertheless, the faculty teaching these texts written mostly in English frequently end up as part of established departments of Spanish or of “Hispanic Studies,” since English departments often show themselves reluctant to host, even in part, the faculty of “Latino Studies.”

Image: Public Domain

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