Jun 21 2012

Latino or Hispanic – What’s the Difference?

A recent story on our local NPR station about Latino and Hispanics included a short interview with me. You can find it here (the story is from the Fronteras Desk, which is a cooperative effort between several NPR stations in the Southwest to provide coverage of issues relevant to the Southwest and border states – their stories are heard on the NPR stations in San Diego, Phoenix, Las Vegas, Alburque, El Paso, and San Antonio).

As the story indicates, their impetus for doing the story was a letter that I wrote to my local NPR station, KJZZ. I wrote the letter in response to a story they did about whether people in the United States with origins in Latin America prefer the term “Hispanic” or “Latino.” You can read that story here. This is the letter I wrote to them:

First, I want to compliment you on the excellent and comprehensive reporting coming from your Fronteras stories. I take issue, however, with your recent story about preferences for the use of the terms “Hispanic” and “Latino” (“Study: ‘Latino’ and ‘Hispanic’ Not The Preferred Labels” by Nadine Arroyo Rodriguez, April 4, 2012).

It is unfortunate that in a story about the labels Latinos and Hispanics apply to themselves, you carelessly used as synonyms two labels that are not interchangeable. Ms. Rodriguez used the terms Hispanic and Latino as equivalent terms referring exclusively to persons of Spanish-speaking origin. While these terms have sometimes been erroneously conflated in US government census documents and by the Pew Hispanic Center, it is not proper general English usage to treat them as synonyms. Moreover, the lead to your story erroneously referred to “people of Latin American descent,” even though the survey at issue in the story ignored the one-third of Latin Americans who speak Portuguese.

Recognized authorities on the English language, such as the American Heritage Dictionary, point out that the terms Hispanic and Latino are not synonymous. The term “Hispanic” refers exclusively to those whose ethnic origins trace back to Spanish-speaking countries. The term “Latino,” however, is not limited only to Spanish speakers, but is also frequently used to refer to persons whose ethnic origins trace back to Latin America. Latin America includes Brazil, which as I’m sure you know, is a Portuguese-speaking country. Indeed, there are more Portuguese speakers in South America than Spanish speakers.

Brazilian-Americans commonly use the term “Latino” to identify themselves. The AP Stylebook makes a distinction between the terms Hispanic and Latino; it recognizes that Latino includes not just those of Spanish-speaking origin but also more generally includes those from Latin America (including Brazilians). There are nearly 400,000 Americans of Brazilian ancestry in the United States (including me) and 200 million people in Brazil. It appears careless to me to use terms that ignore Brazilians’ significant presence in our country and hemisphere.

I realize that your story was based on the results of the Pew survey and was perhaps mirroring Pew’s usage of the terms. But previous KJZZ stories have also made this same error. Additionally, even if Ms. Rodriguez was repeating the terminology used by the Pew Center, repeating such specialized non-standard usages without explanation is confusing to listeners. I suggest that in the future, your usually careful and insightful reporters more clearly delineate the difference between the terms Hispanic and Latino in their reporting. KJZZ would do well to follow the recommendations from the AP Stylebook and use more care and precision when choosing whether to use the term Hispanic or Latino.

James Rogers

I wrote the letter not expecting much of a response. To my surprise, I received a response indicating that my letter had ignited a debate in their newsroom and asking if they could interview me for a story about terminology and self-identity.

The interview was a new experience for me. We talked for about 15 minutes, but only 10 seconds of our interview ended up in the story. If you listen to the audio for the story, you’ll notice that it is slightly different than the written version. The main difference is that the written version says said I “fancy” myself a Latino – to me, that seemed to carry an mocking tone, as if I’m portraying myself as something I’m not. Well, I really am half-Brazilian. My mom grew up poor in a little town in the middle of nowhere in Brazil (she even lived in a house with dirt floors and no running water for a few years as a kid). Her parents were born and raised in Brazil. And so were her grandparents. And so were her great grandparents. As far as we can tell, all of my Brazilian ancestors go back into the mid- to early 1800s, and probably further back. I wonder if because my last name is Rogers and because I’m pale-faced and blue-eyed, they didn’t think I can really claim Latin American heritage.

I frequently encounter this kind of ignorance in Americans’ conceptions about Latin America. Latin America has significant populations of just about every racial background. Just in Brazil there are large populations of people tracing their ancestry to Europe (all parts – north and south, east and west), Africa, the Middle East (there is a large number – 7 to 10 million – of Brazilians descended from Lebanese Christians who came to Brazil in the first half of the 20th century; in fact, one of the biggest fast food chains in Brazil is a place that makes Middle Eastern fast food), and Asia (Brazil has the largest population of ethnic Japanese people outside of Japan). There is even a large community of descendants of Confederate Americans who went to Brazil following the south’s loss in the American Civil War. They are known as the “Confederados” and still have annual get-togethers where they dress up in Confederate uniforms and sing American folk songs (in badly-accented English).

Brazil especially is a real melting pot of racial and ethnic backgrounds. As I’ve mentioned before, my 23andMe results indicate that my direct maternal ancestor is of African origin, probably from Mozambique. The rudimentary analysis available on 23andme estimated that I have about 1 percent African ancestry and 3 percent indigenous ancestry. More detailed analysis indicates that I am about 1.7% African and about 4% Asian (which in my case would really be Amerindian, since Amerindians show up on genetic tests as Asian because their ancestors came to the New World across the Bering Strait from Asia). I show up as being about 10% Middle Eastern / North African (my guess is that this comes from the Moors who occupied the Iberian Peninsula), 29% Mediterranean, and 53% European (42% west and 11% East) (numbers don’t add up to 100% because of rounding).

The way they have it in the NPR story, they seem to imply that I am improperly putting myself out as being Latino. The reality is that I am uncomfortable with the whole concept of asking people to identify themselves by race or ethnicity. I am especially uncomfortable with the way that our society conflates the two distinct concepts of ethnicity (such as Jewish or Latino) with race (such as black or white). I do not really self-identity as Latino. I love Brazil, my Brazilian relatives, and my Brazilian heritage, but I identify as an American.

To prepare for the interview, I asked my Brazilian family and friends on Facebook about what they thought about the terms “Latino” and “Hispanic” and whether the terms apply to people of Brazilian ancestry. The pattern that I noticed in the responses (though admittedly from a small sample size) was that people born and raised in Brazil – whether they have immigrated to the United States or whether they still live in the United States – did not seem to identify with the term Latino at all. People of Brazilian ancestry who were born in the United States, or younger Brazilians who have spent time overseas seemed to be more comfortable with the term Latino but didn’t feel that it was a perfect descriptor.

What I told the reporter was that I almost always mark “other” on forms (my only exception is if it seems like an official government form that appears to require full disclosure, like a juror questionnaire). I really consciously started making a point of marking “other” on forms when I was filing out my law school applications. I wanted to know for myself that, at whatever law school I ended up, I got in there on merit and not because of affirmative action or any special advantage from my ancestral background. The reporter asked me directly, though, if I would qualify as a Latino. In response to that direct question I said that I believe I would qualify since my mother is Latin American. This is where the quote from the story came from.

My main point in writing the original letter to the radio station was because I get frustrated when people incorrectly assume that all Latin Americans are speak Spanish (I cannot count the number of times when I was growing up that people assumed that my mother speaks Spanish because she is from Brazil). If the journalists involved remember in their reporting that Latin America is not all Spanish-speaking and if the story educates a few more people, then I think my letter was worth it.