“Latino” is Not Synonymous With “Hispanic”
The terms, while often treated as synonyms, refer to distinct concepts.
In the endless debate about the best way to make “Latino” gender-neutral — I prefer “Latine” instead of the who-knows-how-to-pronounce-it “Latinx” — one fairly popular Twitter post suggests that we just rely on the term “Hispanic” instead. This idea, while certainly intending to be helpful in good faith, engages in a popular misconception that improperly conflates two only superficially similar concepts.
Both of them have their roots in the genocidal colonial imposition of European culture on the rest of the world and the legacy it has left. A large portion of the Americas — the United States and Canada notably excluded — can be described as both Latine and Hispanic, which leads to a conflation in the English-speaking media.
But the “Latin” is not meant to specifically refer to solely Spanish but rather all Romance languages — that is, any language derived predominantly from Latin, which includes not just Spanish but French and Portuguese. Though Latin is a major influence on English, it is instead considered a Germanic language.
The concept of “Latino” is also tied specifically to the idea of “Latin America” rather than the world at large. Therefore, countries like the Philippines, which was colonized by Spain — its name literally a reference to King Philip II — are explicitly excluded from the formal definition.
Hispanic, however, as the name suggests, does specifically refers to places with a significant Spanish influence — anywhere. This includes Spain itself as well as the Philippines, obviously neither of which is part of the foundational Latine concept of “Latin America.” — but it does include parts of that like Mexico. This excludes countries like Brazil where Portugal was the dominant colonial force and French Guiana, which never even got its independence from France. Given the American Southwest’s history first as New Spain and then part of Mexico, even parts of the United States can be described as Hispanic.
Conflating these two concepts is a common mistake, especially for those of us in the English-speaking world, so the fact such a suggestion would take off on social media is not at all surprising. It is also worth recognizing that language, as much as we want to pretend otherwise, is largely a descriptive, not prescriptive, process, with words taking on informal definitions as people use them in ways convenient for day-to-day communication.
However, as we attempt to solve global problems and right historic wrongs, it is important to have clarity of communication about whom we are speaking. The Philippines are Hispanic but not Latine, Brazil is Latine but not Hispanic, and we need to have deeper discussions about the colonial horrors behind these ideas as well as how to protect and restore the cultures that genocidal process snuffed out.