When I say the word “Latino,” the first thing to pop into your head is probably, well, people from Latin America.
Places like Mexico, Colombia, Venezuela, and so on, right?
But where exactly did the history of that word come from, and has it always meant Central and South America and the Caribbean?
Today, we’re getting into just that.
It’s an adventure that will take us to some pretty unexpected places, and just might leave you with a deeper understanding of the word “Latino,” and how a word so firmly tied to geography and identity today started out pretty vague.
The first stop in our journey to the root of the word “Latino” takes us to Italy of all places.
Or, at least, you and I would call it Italy today.
Back then, from around 500 BCE, it was Latium, and the people from there spoke Latin.
With me so far?
Let’s book a trip to some neighboring territories now.
The term “Romance languages” refers to languages like Spanish, Portuguese, French, Italian, and Romanian.
And that’s because they all hail back to ancient Rome, the heart of Latium.
The Roman empire, through conquest, spread Latin to these lands, where they eventually grew into the languages we recognize today.
For our purposes, we’re going to focus on the former Roman province Hispania, or modern day Spain, where they speak, well, Spanish.
It’s that one little connection, Latium to Latin to Spanish, that ended up playing a key role in shaping how we understand the word “Latino” today.
See, the definition “Latino” as “a person either living in Latin America or a person of Latin American descent” is very recent.
Because of Spanish and Portuguese colonization, most people south of the United States border ended up speaking one of those two romance languages, but classifying them all together under a cohesive identity wasn’t a thought that occurred to most people.
That is, until bureaucracy got involved.
Up until the 1970s, Mexican Americans, Cubans, and Puerto Ricans in the United States were counted in the same category as Irish and Italian Americans in the Census.
It was activists who noticed the disparity in poverty rates among the former groups compared to the latter, and lobbied to be separated from them in the Census to help collect data and address the unique needs of those communities.
But we’re still not quite to “Latino” yet because the word they chose was “Hispanic.” “Hispanic” relies on linguistic heritage to group people together, and it’s still used today.
But there are problems inherent to the term that, given the history we’ve covered so far, you might be able to guess.
“Hispanic” includes Spain, but excludes Brazil, where the predominant language is Portuguese.
It was the French economist Michel Chevalier who first used the term “Latin America” in the 1850s while traveling the Americas as a way to distinguish what he felt were “Latin” peoples from the “Anglo-Saxon” peoples.
This idea helped legitimize French colonial activities in Latin America.
As historian Dr. Juan Francisco Martinez wrote, "France began talking about Amerique Latine […] as a way of distinguishing between those areas of the Americas originally colonized by Europeans of Latin descent and those colonized by peoples from northern Europe."
But it wasn’t just Europeans who found use for the idea of a “Latin America.” Chilean poet and sociologist Francisco Bilbao co-opted the term in the mid-1800s as a way to form a cohesive identity in resistance against what he saw as North American aggression.
The idea of “Manifest Destiny” was in full swing then, and the U.S. was expanding further southward, annexing the northern half of Mexico following the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo.
Bilbao saw “Latin America” as an anti-imperialist idea.
But Latin America is way more complicated than just lumping everyone together.
What we now know as Latin America was and still is home to hundreds and hundreds of indigenous cultures who saw themselves as independent from one another.
And later, when African populations were introduced, most often without their consent, most of these groups were excluded from the nascent notions of a “Latin America.” But nonetheless, the concept survived, and today we are left with the word “Latino,” an imperfect word that encompasses a wide swath of experiences, races, cultures, religions, and languages.
If it doesn’t sound terribly stable, well, that’s because it isn’t, and the debate roars on over what term, if any, best encapsulates such a broad collection of disparate groups.
It was here that an alternative presented itself: “Latino.” It became an alluring option for people who weren’t too comfortable with the word “Hispanic” for its intimate connection with colonial Spain.
In the year 2000, the Census added “Latino” as an option for the first time, though not without controversy.
Indeed, arguments over “Hispanic” and “Latino” stretch back quite a ways.
For example, in 1918 Aurelio Espinosa, the editor of Hispania, an academic journal that still lives on today, argued that using the term “Latin America” over “Spanish America” was ridiculous.
“As editor of Hispania, I most earnestly beg of all contributors and advertisers to use always the old, traditional and correct terms, Spanish America, Spanish American.
What objections could anyone have against this procedure?” It might pain Espinosa if he were to learn that “Spanish America” and “Spanish American” have largely died out and seem outdated to us today.
But the same might be true of the words we use in the present.
We have words like “Chicano” that mean people of Mexican descent living in the United States, and “Afro-Latino” to describe people of African descent living in or with a connection to Latin America.
We even have words left over from European colonial caste systems, like “Mestizo” to describe someone of mixed indigenous and European descent.
And not to mention all of the indigenous cultures that continue to survive and thrive in Latin America today, who might define themselves differently, and indeed, in entirely different languages, than Europeans or Latin Americans would.
So in these cases they might prefer to not be called Latino.
It’s no easy task to cover all these people, and in fact it might be impossible.
And if that’s the case, well… what do we do?
It’s important to remember that language is a living, breathing thing, and the word “Latino” isn’t done evolving.
Just look at the word “Latinx,” for example: the X in place of an O is meant to encompass non-binary people as well as challenge the default masculinity of the term.
Spanish is a gendered language, after all.
The term was coined in the early aughts but came into wider use after 2016.
Despite being hotly debated and even despised by some, the word was inducted into the Merriam-Webster dictionary in 2018, and has grown more popular, especially among activist groups.
It just goes to show us that for as long as there have been people and spoken languages, there has also been debate over what words should mean, who they should include, and who they might exclude.
Identity is a complicated thing, but as we’ve seen in this journey from ancient Rome to Latin America, it’s usually, at the end of the day, all interconnected.