Latinos may speak Spanish, but they are not Spanish, in the same way that Americans are not English. So why do some people use the terms interchangeably? It’s complicated.
Mexican American writer and poet Sabine Ulibarrí said it best: “The language, the word, carries with it the history, the culture, the very life of a people, the flesh. Language is people. We cannot even conceive of a people without a language or of a language without a people. The two are one and the same. To know one is to know the other.”
Language plays a very significant role when it comes to culture and identity. Professor Lourdes. C. Rovira of Nova-Southeastern University refers to it as “the code we have to express the experiences of people.”
With that said, language is particularly important to people from Latino communities, in that we are constantly looking for words and terms that accurately describe us while taking into careful consideration the vast racial and cultural diversity that exists within our communities.
It’s a common occurrence to hear people use the words “Latino” and “Hispanic” interchangeably as if they mean the exact same thing. While Latinx still seems to be a term that many can’t embrace, (according to a Pew Research Center national survey of Latinos, only 3% of Latinos use the term) it’s simply a gender-nonconforming term that refers to people whose origin or ancestry is from Latin America. This is why Brazilians, who don’t speak Spanish, but instead speak Portuguese, are referred to as Latinx, Latino or Latina. The word Hispanic however, refers to people who are of Spanish-speaking descent, which excludes countries like Brazil and includes Spain.
While the term Hispanic is a term many younger generation Latino people have been identifying with less these days, because of its problematic history and how it leaves out the diverse and complex identities that exist within Latinidad, it also highlights an important point. Many believe that when it comes to the Latino community, Hispanic refers more to language while terms like Latinx/Latino/Latina refer more to culture. It’s an interesting thing to note especially when we consider the cultural landscape of New York City, for instance, where for decades Latino communities have been inaccurately referred to as “Spanish.”
Growing up in Queens, New York, and being constantly surrounded by diverse communities, meant often hearing terms like Latino, Hispanic, and Spanish interchangeably. For years, I believed they were one and the same. It wasn’t until high school that I began to understand that I was in fact not Spanish. I was Latina/Hispanic. Spanish referred to people from Spain, and yet even in college and years after working in Latino niche media, I would still hear others in my community—in my family, especially—refer to themselves that way. Why is that? It couldn’t be that this inaccuracy just started to exist out of nowhere.
“In the late 19th century, the number of Spanish immigrants in New York City grew alongside the growing community of migrants from Cuba and Puerto Rico, and to a lesser extent Mexico and other parts of Latin America. The Spanish were fleeing the fallout of the Spanish American War in Cuba, but Cubans, Puerto Ricans, and others were exiles of the struggles against Spanish colonial rule in the continent,” Johanna Fernández, associate professor in the Department of History at Baruch College (CUNY) and author of “The Young Lords, told The Americano.
“Ironically these populations—of colonizers and colonized—settled in the same neighborhoods in the Lower East Side, Washington Heights, the Upper West Side, Red Hook and El Barrio. The Spaniards owned businesses in these neighborhoods and had broader connections to power and money. This is the context of the conflation of all these different racial and ethnic groups as Spanish,” Fernández added.
Fernández explained that during the 20th century, migrants from places like Puerto Rico, Cuba, and the Dominican Republic started to become demographically, culturally, and politically hegemonic in all of these neighborhoods as a result of a shared language.
“The term Spanish is a remnant of this history but also a product of what “The Young Lords” called colonized mentality—an internalized sense of inadequacy among the colonized, produced by the process of colonization and its dehumanization of the colonized that leads folks to identify with the oppressor/and or deny or down play their actual culture, race, or ethnicity,” Fernández added.
Many Latinos have witnessed this colonized mentality in our own family members. Many of us in NYC—Dominicans, Puerto Ricans, and Cubans, especially—grew up hearing our relatives boast about having grandparents, great-grandparents or even great -great-grandparents from Spain, while ignoring or denying other aspects of their ancestry like African or Indigenous. We’ve heard folks say things like, “Our family is from Cuba, but we’re really from Spain. We’re Spanish,” which in many ways contributed to this misuse of the term Spanish by so many Latinos.
The problem is what might seem like a simple misuse of a word could actually be quite harmful to Latino communities.
“Referring to Latinx people as Spanish is harmful because it denies the descendants of people from Latin America the answer to the existential question, “Who am I?” It also distorts their history,” Fernández said. “People from Latin America are not from Spain, which is what the term Spanish refers to. Rather, they are people with their own histories, languages, and cultures, who were colonized, warred upon, enslaved, and violently displaced from their lands by people from Spain and the Spanish empire.”
A few months ago, Jennifer Mota, a Dominican-American journalist from Philadelphia, posted her thoughts on Latinos being referred to as Spanish on her Instagram page. She wrote, “Spanish is both a language and a nationality. When you label someone Spanish, and they are not, you are erasing their specific culture, nationality, and experience.”
Mota, who did not grow up in NYC, but instead grew up in Philly, where Latinos are rarely referred to as Spanish, only grew up hearing the words used in derogatory ways. She only started hearing Latinos refer to themselves as Spanish, whenever she would visit her family in Washington Heights.
“I think that growing up in a space like Philly, that’s already very aggressive, people were just very aggressive about not using the word Spanish to refer to Latinos. And at least for me and my experience with the word Spanish came mostly from white people who didn’t care to understand my culture,” Mota told The Americano. “It was just like ‘Oh, the Spanish kid.’ And it was always associated with something negative. It was never a positive experience.”
The inspiration behind Mota’s post came from her own frustrations with being referred to as Spanish, and the harm she noticed it was causing other people in Latino communities.
“It also brings up the conversation around ethnicity and nationality. We’re not from Spain… the Spanish language was forced on us. The religion was forced on us. In referring to us as Spanish, you’re also erasing our culture and our racial makeup,” Mota said. “It erases the experiences of Black Latinos and Indigenous Latinos. When you consider an Indigenous person from Latin America as Spanish, you are erasing the experience that they had as an Indigenous person living or coming from a Spanish-speaking country. It also erases the fact that colonization even existed.”
So if the term ‘Spanish’ is so harmful and inaccurate, why is it that so many people in our communities—in NYC specifically—still refer to themselves as Spanish even in 2020? This is where the importance of understanding culture—and subcultures—especially comes into play.
Writer and producer Katherine G. Mendoza recently addressed this in an episode of her podcast “Mess in Progress” with comedian Gina Brillon. In the episode titled “Why do people call Latinos Spanish?” Mendoza explains the cultural nuances behind the misuse of the word specifically in NYC.
“People should be aware of when they are using a word incorrectly, but at the same time I think that the people who are bringing up the inaccuracies should also understand nuance, and that’s why I brought it up on the podcast,” Mendoza told The Americano. “Latinos being referred to as Spanish didn’t just come from thin air. It does come from lack of accessibility to higher education or knowledge.”
Mendoza, who grew up in NYC, believes Latinos using the term comes from a shared culture and a new building of culture in the city.
“What many of us who grew up in NYC hoods shared was struggle—financial struggle mostly, and with that there was camaraderie in understanding how we spoke,” Mendoza added. “The same way hip hop comes from Black and Puerto Rican communities, there was a point in NYC, especially in the 70s, 80s, and 90s where this shared experience really did create this subculture in that there weren’t just Puerto Ricans. There were Dominicans and Cubans, Mexicans, and later central and South Americans,” Mendoza said.
And while there’s no denying the word was misused, Mendoza thinks it’s important to understand the history and origins behind subcultural nuances and why we call people by certain names or identify with certain names, before proceeding to have these dialogues within our own communities.
“Collegiate-level intellectual conversations are necessary and important. But they are only as necessary and important as what you do with them,” Mendoza added. “So if what you’re going to do with them is just continue to have them but not help others who don’t have access, won’t have access, will never have access, than you’re literally just educating yourself just so you can continue to have conversations with people at your level and that’s not a community mentality.”
Language really does hold a lot of power and weight for many communities. It is tied to our identities, which is why it’s so important to understand the origins, the history, and the nuances behind the words we use and recognize, whether or not these words are even accurate or appropriate to use—especially when referring to others.
No one wants to be labeled what they are not, and for many of us in the Latino community who spent so much of our lives just trying to explain to others who we are in the context of being Latin American descendants living in the States, the last thing we need is to continue to be labeled as our colonizers. Like Mota said, “Americans don’t call themselves ‘English.’”