Is it Latino or Hispanic? Prof. Ernesto Sagas Shares his Thoughts

Tuesday, February 28, 2006
SNHU Communications Office

Is it Latino or Hispanic?

Union Leader Staff

Cuban native Anna Tomeu Lopez has cousins who are blue-eyed and blonde.

So it bothered her when census forms and other official documents gave her one option to describe herself: Hispanic.

"What really ticked me off is they say they consider Hispanic a race and it is not," Lopez, 46, said.

"There are many Hispanics who are white, like I'm white," said Lopez, a member of the New Hampshire Immigrant Rights Task Force and Latinos Unidos de New Hampshire.

"I would rather be called Latina," she added.

So would Taina C. Cruzado, 31, who grew up in Hartford, Conn., and is of Puerto Rican descent.

"I feel more Latino. Latino to me is how I feel about my ethnicity," she said.

"Hispanic is not a name we grew up with. Latino is. Hispanic is a name given to us by the United States government as a way to identify us as a people who speak Spanish," said Cruzado, editor-in-chief of NosotrosUs magazine.

Fernando Hilarion says this is all "nonsense."

"I don't pay much attention to it," said Hilarion, who came here from Colombia 30 years ago.

"I'm not going to die over something . . . like that. Who cares where I came from? I think it's more important who you are," said Hilarion, who owns Two Guys Food Market with his wife, Alba.

Ask someone to explain the difference between Latino and Hispanic and the answers often vary widely.

Political scientist and Latin American expert Ernesto Sagas has researched the subject and teaches it as part of his "Latinos in the United States" course at Southern New Hampshire University.

Hispanic was introduced as a new category in the 1980 federal census to identify Latinos who trace their origins to countries that speak Spanish, said Sagas, an assistant professor of political science.

But Latinos come from countries with a racial system that doesn't fit the American model, he said.

"You have people from all races, all colors and shapes, from 20-plus nations in Latin America," Sagas said.

The term hispano in Latin America refers to white, upper-class members of the elite, land-owning families who trace their lineage to the conquistadors, Sagas said.

Many Latinos resented the label because it is "too much from Spain and not enough from Latin America," he explained

"A lot of Latinos cannot or do not want to trace their ancestry to Spain. They could trace it to native Americans or to Africans or to many other parts of the world," Sagas continued.

Latino is more of a "grassroots creation" that rejects the stamp of Spanish colonization for one that not only includes Latinos of all races and nationalities, but also is gender specific.

"So you have Latina and Latino. You don't have that with Hispanic," Sagas said.

The most "radical" use of the word today is Latin@ — which stands for either Latina or Latino.

"There are no rules for this," Sagas said.

Changes in the 2000 census allowed people to indicate if they are "Spanish/Hispanic/Latino," then identify their nationality and race.

"The Census Bureau was more inclined to define people the way they defined themselves rather than impose a label," Sagas said.

Sagas — who was born in New York to Cuban exiles, lived in Puerto Rico as a child, and returned to the United States when he was 22 — said he finds it hard to identify with one country of origin. But he increasingly considers himself Latino.

"Before I came to the United States, I never thought of myself as Latino. Back in Latin America, you are Peruvian or Ecuadorian or Bolivian."

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