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Where did ‘Hispanics’ come from?

Claude Fischer, professor of sociology | March 24, 2014

Oldsters may well wonder where the term “Hispanic,” and for that matter, “Latino,” came from. The press and pundits are all abuzz about the Hispanic vote, Hispanic organizations, and Hispanic cultural influences. Back in the mid-twentieth century, however, they wrote about Mexicans or Puerto Ricans or Guatemalans, not about Hispanics.


U.S. Army celebrates National Hispanic Heritage Month

Of course, people of Latin American origin have become far more numerous in the United States since then and the immigration itself brings more attention. Nonetheless, the labels have changed. Starting in the 1970s, the media rapidly adopted the “pan-ethnic” term Hispanic, and to a lesser degree, Latino, and slowed down their use of specific national labels.[1] So did organizations, agencies, businesses, and “Hispanics” themselves.

As recounted in her important new book, Making Hispanics, sociologist (and my colleague) G. Cristina Mora tells the story of how people as diverse as Cuban-born businessmen in Miami, undocumented Mexican farm workers in California, and third-generation part-Puerto Ricans in New York who do not even understand Spanish were brought together into one social category: Hispanic-Americans.

Politics, Business, and Government

Mora describes an alliance that emerged in the 1970s among grassroots activists, Spanish-language broadcasters, and federal officials to define and promote “Hispanic.”

Activists had previously stressed their national origins and operated regionally – notably, Mexicans in the southwest (where the term “Chicano” became popular for a while) and Puerto Ricans in the northeast. But the larger the numbers they could claim by joining together, the more political clout, the more governmental funds, and the more philanthropic support they could claim. Pumping up the numbers was particularly important given their latent competition with African-American activists over limited resources and limited media attention. Some pan-ethnic term promised to yield the biggest count.

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Spanish-language television broadcasters, notably Univision, looked to expand their appeal to advertisers by delivering them a national market. Although the broadcasters faced obstacles in appealing to Spanish-language viewers across the country differing significantly in programming tastes and dialects, they managed to amalgamate the audiences by replacing content imported from abroad with content developed in the United States. They could then sell not medium-to-small Mexican-, Cuban-, or Puerto Rican-American audiences to advertisers, but one huge Hispanic-American audience.

Making the term official as a census category helped both activists and entrepreneurs. Previously, the Bureau of the Census classified Latin Americans as whites with distinct national origins, usually poorly measured. The activists pressed the census bureau, as did some politicians, to provide as broad a label as possible and count everyone who might conceivably fit the category, including, for example, the African-origin Dominicans (although not the French-speaking Haitians nor the Portuguese-speaking Brazilians). This pressure led to the 1980 formulation, used ever since, in which the census asks Americans whether or not they are “Hispanic” separately from whether they are white, black, Asian, or Indian.

The three interest groups worked together to publicize and promote the idea and the statistical category of “Hispanic.” As Mora explains, leaving the label’s meaning somewhat ambiguous was useful in both expanding the numbers and in selling the category – as a large needy population to the government and as numerous, affluent consumers to advertisers. The three parties also campaigned to get other institutions, such as state vital statistics bureaus and big businesses to adopt Hispanic as an official category.

Many so-called Hispanics preferred and still prefer to call themselves by their national origins; Mora quotes a 1990s bumper sticker, “Don’t Call Me Hispanic, I’m Cuban!” But the term has taken over.

And, so Hispanic-Americans matter a lot now.


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Categories of people that we take to be fixed – for example, our assumptions that people are old or young, black or white, male or female – often turn out to be not fixed at all. Social scientists have documented the way the definition of Negro/African American/black has shifted over the generations. There was a time, for example, when the census bureau sought to distinguish octoroons and a time when it could not figure out how to classify people from the Indian subcontinent.

In Making Hispanics, Mora lets us see close up just how this new category, Hispanic, that we now take to be a person’s basic identity, was created, debated, and certified.

One lesson is that it could have been otherwise. If the pace and sources of migration had been different or if the politics of the 1970s had cut differently, maybe we would be talking about two separate identities, Chicano and “Other Spanish-speaking.” Or maybe we would be classifying the darker-skinned with “Blacks” and lighter-skinned with “Whites.” Or something else. Making Hispanics teaches us much about the social construction of identity.


[1] Based on my analysis of statistics on New York Times stories and the nGram data on words in American books. Use of “Chicano” surged in 1960s and 1970s, but then faded as “Latino” and, especially, “Hispanic” rose.

Cross-posted from Claude Fischer’s blog, Made in America: Notes on American life from American history.

Comments to “Where did ‘Hispanics’ come from?

  1. It boggles my mind why some people, particularly Hispanics, give the Spanish the Spanish language so much importance. It’s total nonsense. Okay, there are approx. 480 million Spanish speakers in the world, BUT…they are 99% concentrated in the west. Spanish has barely any presence at all in the rest of the world.

    Sure, there are secondary speakers of Spanish, but so what? We need to keep in mind that a language has power when it is spoken OFFICIALLY across the globe! Portuguese is such a language which is spoken officially in 10 countries on 4 continents. Spanish is spoken officially in a very tiny African nation called equatorial guinea by less 800,000, BUT, Spanish is not spoken officially nowhere in Asia. Sure, there are about 20 Spanish speaking countries, but the majority of them are banana republics and small in size.

    Brazil, Portuguese speaking, and the Portuguese speaking African countries of Angola and Mozambique, (there are 6 Portuguese speaking African nations in all) are all doing TONS of trade with China. Brazil is already the world’s 5th strongest economy. It is a actually a blessing that Brazil never split into many countries like the Spanish speaking ones. Instead, Brazil is a huge powerhouse comprising 50 % of South America.

    The world language is Portuguese, not Spanish. Portuguese is already the most spoken language of the southern hemisphere, and spoken by 260 million and quickly rising. Many countries are seeking membership into the CPLP (community of Portuguese speaking countries). Portuguese is even still spoken in Goa India, and Macau China.

  2. Conspiracy theory: term developed to simplify Spanish-speaking people into one entity to monitor as the fastest growing minority in the US, who existence threatens the established norms.

  3. And let’s not forget yet one other category: “Spanish surname.” I remember the moment as a highschool student in the 1960s, when I was faced with a series of choices on a form for admission to college; one choice was “Spanish surname.”

    My mother is Latin American, but her last name was of no interest to this form. Indeed, I bristled at the fact that the gender of one of my parents determined the category to which I belonged. Although both of my parents were immigrants — my father came from Ireland — it seemed that the only thing that mattered was my father’s last name.

    I don’t remember if the word “sexist” was part of my working vocabulary at that time, but I refused to check a box. Instead I wrote a comment on the form to the effect that my mother’s name mattered as much as my father’s.

  4. It was indeed a bureaucratic political decision which still haunt us, as someone who writes about politics and poverty in Latino communities I have learned to disaggregate data because otherwise it will not make sense. Some marketing folks are learning this… and the 2012 book Luis R Fraga ET AL “Latinos in the New Milenium” Cambridge Press is a great source of clarification. Here is the origin on the term….

    The Roots of ‘Hispanic’; 1975 Committee of Bureaucrats Produced Designation

    The Washington Post
    October 15, 2003 | Darryl Fears | Copyright
    • Permalink
    During Hispanic Heritage Month, Grace Flores-Hughes did not dance at any galas, sit on any panels or receive any awards. And when the annual celebration ends today, the 57-year-old Mexican American will look back on another year of being forgotten.

    Hardly anyone knows that 28 years ago, Flores-Hughes and a handful of other Spanish-speaking federal employees helped make the decision that changed how people with mixed Spanish heritage would be identified in this country.

    In 1975, when Flores-Hughes was a baby-faced bureaucrat working for the Department of Health, Education and Welfare, she sat on the highly contentious Ad Hoc Committee on Racial and Ethnic Definitions.
    “We chose the word ‘Hispanic,'” she said proudly in a recent interview.

  5. My understanding of the origins of “Hispanic” is different than that presented above. Rather than originating in communities, it seems that it was imposed from the top down, promulgated by the act of Congress that established the present system of orthogonal classification by race and ethnicity.

    For a good summary, see Hayes-Bautista, D., & Chapa, J. (2002). Latino Terminology: Conceptual Bases for Standardized Terminology. In T.A. LaVeist (Ed.), Race, Ethnicity, and Health. San Francisco CA: Jossey-Bass

  6. The word “Hispanic” suffers, not because we have social capital in the U.S., or because it does not effectively identify the heterogeneous group that we are, but because when WASPs see us, hear about us, or learn something essential of worth (or not worthy) about who we culturally are, we represent a threat to them. This is due to the fact that we are vertiginously expanding as a demographic sector.

    The only way of squeezing out of this imposed identity entrenchment is by engaging in an aggressive educational program, where we can develop a sophisticated methodology that can assist us in expressing our true heritage without having to bend so much forward in order to gain acceptance.

    Rafael Ortiz-Sanoguet

  7. There is no pure race; so, if we can be identified in a group that helps, it’s fine.
    Appreciate the info.

  8. I think you may wish to look deeper into the relationship the Cuban exile community had with the federal government at the time “Hispanic” was being considered for use. There were some private meetings where it was discovered that the Cubans — who represented, and still do, a very small percentage of all Latinos — saw creating a generic term as advantageous to their ability to seek and obtain federal monies. Other Latino groups objected but the Cubans had the advantage of being closer to the decision center.

  9. The U.S. Census Bureau divides population into 2 separate categories. One category is based on Race and second category based on Ethnicity. It’s in the second category of Ethnicity, the term Hispanic is included. The author has described in detail the origin of this heterogenous category over the years.

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