Néstor Medina contrasts the long history of others naming people of Latin American heritage — to today, when we choose to name ourselves.

A brilliantly coloured, abstract tile mosaic, with vague images of a sun, a man, walking, and the map of Latin America.
Credit: Bestdesigns, iStock Photos
Published On: October 18, 2021

For Latin American Heritage Month (marked in October in Canada) the United Church is celebrating its connection to Latina/o/x communities of faith.

There is much confusion and debate concerning the labels that are often used to define/speak about the peoples and cultural heritage of the regions of the American continent from Mexico through to Central and South America and the Spanish-speaking Caribbean. In Spanish, the most popular labels are indoaméricanos, iberoaméricanos, hispanoaméricanos, and latinoaméricanos. The debate shifts in the context of the United States and Canada between the use of the labels “Latinos/as/xs” or “Hispanics,” as well as the unique issues related to the use of the labels Mexican-American and Chicana/o/x.

The labels Mexican-Americans and Chicanos/as/xs refer to the communities constituted by the Mexican masses who were engulfed by the U.S. social, cultural, political, and military power after the Mexico-U.S. war that came to an end with the signing of the Guadalupe-Hidalgo Treaty on February 2, 1848. Usually, the term Chicano/a/x refers to people who share the ideas of or are historically connected with the Chicano/a civil rights movement in the Southwest U.S. during the 1960s. This group of people reclaim their ancestral connections and trace their identity to Mexico prior to the U.S.-Mexico war of 1848.

Meanwhile, the label “Hispanics” relates to the historical connection these peoples have with Spain as a result of the Spanish invasion and conquest. In the United States the label “Hispanics” has an added historical component as a strategic social organizational tool. Prior to the 1970s, Cuban, Puerto Ricans, and Mexican immigrants were classified as White. In the search for a category that included these and other groups with Latin American ancestry connected to Spain, the label “Hispanics” was proposed. It was first used in the U.S. Census in 1970, during the presidency of Richard Nixon. Outside of the U.S., Hispanics is also often used to refer to the people groups who speak Spanish with ancestry from Latin America and the Spanish-speaking Caribbean, and to highlight the common history they share. Within this framework, Portugal is also often included.

The label “Latinos” is no less politically charged. Originally used by the French Michel Chevalier beginning in 1854 in order to promote the interests of France in Latin America, and to prevent the development of a U.S.-led Panamericanism, “Latinos” is also a term used to speak of the different groups whose languages are derived from the ancient Latin language. Spanish, French, Portuguese, Italian, Romanian, and other Romance languages were often included in that original understanding. More recently, the term Latinos has been used to account for all those communities that can trace their ancestral connections to Latin America (from Mexico through to Central and South America) and the Spanish-speaking Caribbean, but who live outside—in the USA, Canada, and other countries.

The label Latinas was later included to bring a balance given the patriarchal orientation of the language, thus often resulting in the use of Latinas/Latinos or Latinos/Latinas. In an attempt to counter the heteronormative orientation of the Latinas/Latinos label, many have also adopted Latinx, to include members of the LGBTQAI+ communities. Because of the diverse nature and sociopolitical stances within these communities, such label has been quickly nuanced so that the label Latina/o/x and Latinas/os/xs or Latinas/Latinos/Latinxs emerged to be more representative of the multiple populations that make up these communities.

None of these labels is without serious difficulties and limitations. They are highly contested. The fundamental problem with the early labels Hispanics and Latinos is that they conveyed the wrong idea that these groups were culturally homogeneous. In contrast, the use of Latina/o/x and its permutations are the result of a recognition of the internal diversity among these communities. Unlike the other labels, Latina/o/x is also the result of the exercise of collective agency in their self-naming.

— Néstor Medina is a Guatemalan-Canadian Scholar and Assistant Professor of Religious Ethics and Culture at Emmanuel College of the University of Toronto. He engages the field of ethics from contextual, liberationist, intercultural, and Post- and Decolonial perspectives.