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Hispanic or Latino: What is correct?

The terms "Hispanic" and "Latino" are often used interchangeably, but should they be? Although there are some general guidelines for the terminology, in many cases it's up to personal preference.

According to U.S. Census results, the Hispanic/Latino population in the United States increased by 58 percent, from 22.4 million in 1990 to 35 million in 2000, and only continues to grow. More than 900,000 Spanish-speaking people live in Canada as well. Now more than ever it may be responsible for the public to determine the right terms to define this growing demographic.

Although Hispanic and Latino are both acceptable, there are some people who strongly prefer one or the other. A person should be consulted as to what he or she prefers before a classification is used. Furthermore, instead of a broad term like Hispanic, specific references like Columbian American or Mexican descent may be better. It is also unnecessary to refer to a person by his or her ethnicity unless it is pertinent or required for clarity.

"Hispanic" is a term coined by the U.S. government after Hispanics lobbied successfully to have the government acknowledge that they were a group impacted by prejudice laws and social systems. The use of "Hispanic" also enabled the government to keep track of Spanish-speaking demographics. Therefore, individuals are more likely to hear "Hispanic" used in an "official" setting, such as in census reports, statistics or government speeches. "Hispanic" is often viewed as a direct relation to people who are of Spanish descent, meaning from Spain. Since some people view Spain as the "Mother country," they embrace the term. Others view Spain as a colonial master and reject the term.

"Latino" was essentially developed within Spanish-speaking communities. It is less formal and more social than "Hispanic." Oftentimes "Latino" and "Latina" are used in grassroots efforts and to inspire community spirit. "Latino" is viewed as being a broad reference to Latin languages or people and not necessarily exclusive to those of Spanish decent. It also may encompass Portuguese and Brazilians, which, technically are not grouped into the "Hispanic" moniker.

Some Italians find fault with the usage of "Latino," saying that Italy is the closest country to the Latin culture and origin. In essence, Latino can be used for any of the Latin-based languages. However, French and Italian people rarely view themselves as Latino.

Again, it is largely up to personal preference. A 2006 survey by the Pew Hispanic Center found that 48 percent of Spanish-speaking adults generally describe themselves by their country of origin first; 26 percent generally use the terms Latino or Hispanic first; and 24 percent generally call themselves American on first reference. As for a preference between "Hispanic" and "Latino," a 2008 Center survey found that 36 percent of respondents prefer the term "Hispanic," 21 percent prefer the term "Latino" and the rest have no particular preference.