Hispanic and Latino: What’s the difference?

You’ve heard the terms Latin American, Hispanic and Latino. Some might believe that they’re pretty much the same… they are NOT.  So what is Latin America? And where does the term Hispanic fit in?

Take a look at this…

A Haitian or person of Haitian descent can be called a Latin American. A Brazilian or person of Brazilian descent should not be considered Hispanic but they are Latino. A Mexican or person of Mexican descent may prefer to be called Hispanic or Chicano and not Latino. What???



Hopefully, by the end of this you’ll have a better idea of who and what is included within the definitions of Latin American and Hispanic.

As a very wide generalisation, Latino is used to denote people of geographic Latin American origin and Hispanic refers to the people of Spanish-speaking countries of that geographic area, but can also refer to people from Spain. Despite the different origins of the terms Hispanic and Latino, both terms are often used interchangeably, particularly in the United States, and that is the root of some confusion over the terms.


One of my university professors once explained to our class that Latin America is a geographic term and Hispanic is a cultural term. It’s a fairly straightforward explanation for a topic that has triggered many a debate.

In this segment I’ll try to clarify what is meant by the terms:

  • Culture
  • Latin American
  • Hispanic



Definition of Culture:

The ideas, customs, beliefs, arts and social behaviours of a particular racial, religious or social group or society. Culture is derived from the Latin words cultura (cultivation) and colere (to cultivate).


Definition of Latino and Latin America:

Latino is short for latinoamericano which means Latin American in English. The word Latino is often used to describe people of Latin American origin.  Latin America refers to political, geographic and linguistic markers.  Latin American countries carry at least two of these three markers.

  • Linguistic:

Latin America consists of countries, in the Western Hemisphere, where languages derived from Latin (the Romance languages) are predominantly spoken. The Romance languages include Spanish, French (spoken in Haiti), Portuguese (spoken in Brazil), Italian, Romanian and Catalan.

  • Political:

Latin America refers to those countries that won their independence from Spain or Portugal.

  • Geographic:

Latin America includes parts of two continents and two hemispheres (North and South). It stretches from Mexico in the north through Chile and Argentina in the south. The Caribbean is often considered part of Latin America as well.

Puerto Rico, which is still a US protectorate and not an independent nation, is part of the Caribbean and Spanish is the predominant language. Many Puerto Ricans will therefore identify as Latino and Hispanic.

*Note Central American nation Belize (former British Honduras), is a predominantly English speaking country which won independence from Great Britain and is NOT considered to be Hispanic or Latin American. Similarly South American Guyana and Suriname (former British and Dutch colonies respectively) are not considered Latino.


Definition of Hispanic:

Hispanic comes from the word Hispania which was the ancient Roman name of the Iberian Peninsula (current day Spain, Portugal, Gibraltar and Andorra. Hispanus was the Latin name given to a person from Hispania during Roman rule.

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In Portugal, Hispanic can refer to something related to ancient Hispania, Spain or the Spanish language and culture. In Spain, the word Hispanic has been used throughout history for many purposes, including drawing a contrast to the Moors and differentiating explorers and settlers. One of the first usages of Hispanic in the United States was in the 1970 government census to identify people living in the United States who are of Latin American descent.

Today Hispanic is widely accepted across the U.S. as a term to describe the culture and people from Spanish-speaking, Latin American countries. The Spanish speaking countries across the Americas are thus referred to as Hispanic America.

However, there has been criticism of the use of the word Hispanic to describe those of Latin American origin. As the word Hispanic relates to European Spain, it is seen to disavow the legacy of the indigenous peoples.

Perhaps far more contentious is the habit of some to interchangeably use the terms Hispanic culture and Spanish culture.  That’s a big No-No. Hispanic can be considered the culture consisting of the heritage and beliefs of the Spanish speaking people with Latin American roots. Spanish culture, on the other hand, describes the customs and traditions of those whose roots lie in European Spain. Flamenco is Spanish but the Tango is Hispanic.


So what is Hispanic Culture?

Hispanic or Latino culture encompasses the traditions, language, idioms, religious beliefs and practices, legends, arts, music, literature, cuisine, history, social and family values of the Hispanic people. As you can imagine, within that context, there is a tremendous amount of cultural diversity.


And there are two more terms you may have come across to describe this same group.



This is a term adopted by Mexican-Americans to identify themselves. It came into more popular and positive use during the Chicano Movement of the 1960s. Prior to this time, it was viewed as a negative and archaic term. Today, however, it is used to put an emphasis on the indigenous and mestizo character of the Mexican people. It is a symbol of pride to Mexican-Americans, whose culture is a syncretism of European and Indigenous cultures.

-Many Chicanos replace the ch with the letter x, forming Xicano, due to the original spelling of the Mexica Empire. In the United States, some Mexican-Americans choose the Xicano spelling to emphasize their indigenous ancestry (Revilla, Anita Tijerina).


At the end of it all we also have the newer word Latinx which is the gender-neutral option that removes the masculinization of the term Latino. Latinx therefore tries to represent a linguistic and geographic heritage while embracing a more egalitarian treatment of men and women.


To conclude, which term should you use? It depends on the context in which the word is used. Also, if you are speaking to a person who identifies as Hispanic/ Chicano/ Latino/ Latinx, just ask them which one they prefer! That could lead you into a very interesting discussion.


Perhaps you’d like some fun facts about Latin America? Check out the free download below!

33 Latin America Culture Facts

33 Latin American Culture Facts



Pin it!

Differences between the terms Hispanic and Latino



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  1. pick1solution August 22, 2018 at 2:10 pm

    This is extremely interesting. I need to reread to try to understand. Thank you for keeping me on my toes. Thank you. John

    1. K D August 22, 2018 at 11:03 pm

      Hi John, thanks for stopping by. It’s a topic I enjoy and there are various perspectives on each of these terms. I was quite amazed when I started digging through some more.

      1. pick1solution August 23, 2018 at 12:48 pm

        Waiting for more info.

  2. HistorianRuby August 22, 2018 at 6:41 pm

    Great post! Really interesting, I learnt something.

    1. K D August 22, 2018 at 11:04 pm

      Thank you Ruby!!! I’m glad you did. I always pick up some great new info through your posts as well.

  3. Diana Tyler (Eccentric Muse) August 22, 2018 at 11:24 pm

    This was an interesting and awesome read!

    1. K D August 23, 2018 at 1:46 pm

      Thanks Diana!

      1. Diana Tyler (Eccentric Muse) August 24, 2018 at 12:17 pm

        You’re welcome, Kim!

  4. Rachel Lishman August 26, 2018 at 8:37 am

    A really interesting read that summarises a complex issue really well, thank you!

    1. K D September 6, 2018 at 10:23 pm

      I’m glad you enjoyed! 😊

  5. marcuswright2001 September 30, 2018 at 5:24 pm

    I love the summarisation of such a broad topic, a very interesting read. As a Hispanic Latino myself, it is very interesting to learn where the terms come from. It’s very important to know where we come from.

    1. K D October 3, 2018 at 10:32 am

      I’m really glad you enjoyed it and found it useful. And yes it is such a broad topic… I tried to capture the most significant points but there is so much more to be read about them.

  6. Pingback: Hispanic and Latino: What’s the difference? — Over The Andes – IRONCLADENTGROUP.COM

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  8. Denise July 29, 2019 at 12:26 am

    “Hispanic” is a relatively new word to the English lexicon. It was popularized by President Nixon during the late sixties. He used the term “Hispanic” because it sounded “cleaner” to Nixon’s white voters. No Latinos/Latinx were using the term during the seventies because it was coined in order to obliterate “Latino” culturally. I find the word “Hispanic” to be pejorative and a way to not see brown Spanish (and Brazilin also think of Portugal and Spain as being part of Latino heritage due to their devastation of the peoples of Latin America and Mexico (and Africa). Proud people should not allow themselves to be called “Hispaic” because a white president didn’t want to offend his white electorate.

    1. K D July 31, 2019 at 11:31 am

      Thanks for your comment Denise. They are indeed terms that are quite arbitrary yet unique to the United States, especially as they try to attribute a ‘race’ to peoples of very varied races and ethnicities. Those same terms often have different meanings outside of the US. I read an interesting article recently that explores the idea that the Census Bureau essentially ‘invented’ the terms: https://mises.org/wire/how-census-bureau-invented-hispanics


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