Hispanic Heritage Month: What’s in a Name?

September 11, 2023

Do you know why Hispanic Heritage Month starts in the middle of the month on Sept. 15?

It’s when Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua and Costa Rica celebrate their national independence days. The date is also close to independence anniversaries for Mexico, Chile and Belize.

The timing offers a hint as to why Hispanic Heritage Month’s name is controversial — the term “Hispanic” has a complicated history, and opinions vary about whether it is the best descriptor to capture the many cultural identities honored this month.

As your organization prepares to create content for Hispanic Heritage Month, we thought it might be helpful to review a history of terms like Hispanic, Latino and Latinx. Now is an excellent time to check on and update your firm’s style guide to ensure it reflects a culturally sensitive, yet flexible, approach to writing about people with a connection to Latin American culture.

The Hispanic/Latino/Latinx debate has ties to the U.S. Census. In the 1930s, Census Bureau counters used the term “Mexican” to identify Latinos living in the U.S., regardless of where they were born or their family roots.

Attempts to clarify census data by asking people to identify as Mexican, Puerto Rican, Cuban, Central or South American or “Other Spanish” led to more confusion. The federal government formed advisory boards and employee committees to help address the issue.

Yet all their suggested replacements — terms like “Brown,” “Latin American,” “Latino” or “Hispanic” — had detractors. “Latin American” was criticized for sounding “too foreign.” “Hispanic” wasn’t popular either. It’s the English translation of “Hispano” — a Spanish word for a person whose cultural traditions originate from Spain. In practice, it came to mean people who are from or whose ancestors are from a Spanish-speaking country. But many people from those places speak indigenous languages and/or have a complex relationship with Spanish colonial influence on those lands and cultures.

Despite a lack of consensus, the federal government added “Hispanic” to the 1980 census because it had the most support. Today, some people still feel the U.S. government forced the term on them.

In the past decade or two, “Latino” has been on the rise as a more inclusive term. The gender-inclusive “Latinx” (in which the “x” stands in for the “o” or “a” that denotes the gender of the person it describes) has become more widely adopted in recent years. Fans of the term say it is the best culturally sensitive term that is also gender inclusive. Some others, however, feel that Latinx originated in academic circles and not organically from within the communities it is intended to describe. Very recently, “Latine” has come to the fore. Like Latinx, it is gender inclusive, but it is also more tailored to Spanish pronunciation than Latinx. Like we said up front — it’s complicated!

This brings us back to the importance of style guides. There is no one right answer here. The divisiveness surrounding cultural terms makes it especially important for firms to take a thoughtful — and consistent! — approach in their writing. An inclusive style guide is one tool we recommend to address the rules of the road in writing about all aspects of people’s identity. This “living document” is never really complete. Instead, as the conversation around how we use language to affirm and respect all people continues to evolve, your guide will evolve with it.

Here is an excerpt from Page2’s style guide to get you started. We certainly don’t claim to be the definitive voice on the appropriate term, but we have given our position careful thought. We welcome you to borrow this language or adapt this model to work for your firm’s own style guide:

Hispanic refers to a person from, or whose ancestors were from, a Spanish-speaking land or culture. Some people reject this label because Spanish is not the only language spoken in these lands and because they may want freedom from the legacy of colonialism. Latino and Latina refer to people from Latin America, and some people prefer these terms. Latinx is the gender-neutral term, and people have strong feelings about it, so always ask for a person’s preference. Latino/a/x does not refer to race but to language and geography. Therefore, a person can be, for example, Latinx and Black. Always follow an individual’s preference, and consider using a more specific identification when possible, such as Cuban, Puerto Rican, Brazilian, or Mexican American.”

Finally, a reminder about writing and inclusivity: Always ask — rather than assume — how individuals identify. “Nothing about us without us” is a good rule of thumb.