Sandra Cisneros, a Mexican American novelist and poet, was hopping mad. She had walked into Valenzuela’s Latino Bookstore in Austin thinking she had found a treasure, but then a clerk made an offensive remark.
“She used the word Hispanic,” Cisneros said, her voice dripping with indignation. “I wanted to ask her, ‘Why are you using that word?’
“People who use that word don’t know why they’re using it,” said Cisneros, a Mexican American poet and novelist. “To me, it’s like a slave name. I’m a Latina.”
Just as Americans of African descent rejected “Negro” for “black” and “black” for “African American” and just as people with disabilities rejected “crippled” for “handicapped” and “handicapped” for “disabled,” many Americans of Iberian or Latin American descent are now rejecting “Hispanic” for “Latino.”
Although the terms Latino and Hispanic have been used interchangeably for decades, experts who have studied their meanings say the words trace the original bloodlines of Spanish speakers to different populations in opposite parts of the world.
Hispanics derive from the mostly white Iberian peninsula that includes Spain and Portugal, while Latinos are descended from the brown indigenous Indians of the Americas south of the United States and in the Caribbean, conquered by Spain centuries ago.
“Latino” is becoming the politically preferred term, but not all, well, Hispanics agree.
“I’ll tell you why I like the word Hispanic,” said the Panamanian president of the Hispanic National Bar Association. “If we use the word Latino, it excludes the Iberian peninsula and the Spaniards. The Iberian peninsula is where we came from. We all have that little thread that’s from Spain.”
It’s clear that this name change, like other similar ones, is motivated much more by politics than actual ethnicity.
A survey of the community conducted last year by the Pew Hispanic Center of Washington found that nearly all people from Spanish-speaking backgrounds identify themselves primarily by their place of national origin….
“It’s a great gift that the government of the United States gave us,” said Vincent Pinzon, the Colombian president and founder of the Americas Foundation. “If you want to acquire political muscle in this country, and you say you’re just Argentinian or Colombian, then you have none.”