From “Mexican” to “Hispanic”

©1980, 2014 By Bob Litton

NOTE TO READER: The following column was originally published in the Monahans News on August 21, 1980. I am republishing it here, as I have done with several other articles from that newspaper, because I believe it is still timely. I have made a few small changes to reflect knowledge gained from subsequent events and my own developing reflections on the topic.
– BL

One of our Anglo readers asked me the other day where the word “Hispanic” came from and what it had to do with Mexican-American culture.

It was one of those embarrassing moments for me because I knew I had used the term in a recent news story. I also knew I had picked it up along the way during my perception of the rapid flux of events called U.S. history. Somehow or other it had replaced a series of terms—namely, “Mexican”, “Mexican-American”, “Latin-American” and “Chicano”.

But as to its etymological derivation I wasn’t too sure. I had a vague notion of some place, probably an island, which was called “Hispaniola”, but I wasn’t even sure where it was located. I admitted my ignorance to her and promised I would research—and write a column on—the term.

Well, the first place to start, obviously, is the dictionary.  There I found under “hispanic”: “(L. Hispanicus, fr. Hispania, Spain, Iberian Peninsula – icus-ic): relating to or derived from the people, speech or culture of Spain or of Spain and Portugal.”

And under “hispanicize” we find: “to make Spanish; a: to cause to acquire a quality, qualities, or traits distinctive of Spanish culture or Spaniards (to hispanicize the conquered Indians): b: to modify (language or a particular word or expression) to conform to a language characteristics distinctive of Spanish (“beisbol” is hispanicized “baseball”); c: to bring under control of Spain or Spaniards.”

And finally, “Hispaniola”: “an island in the West Indies comprising the Republic of Haiti (west) and the Dominican Republic (east).”

Now, as to the business of measuring the value of “Hispanic” as an ethnic designation against the other terms, I can only gauge it in terms of cogency, as an Anglo journalist is bound to do. Frankly, I prefer it to all the other terms, partly because of its brevity and partly because it is cultural rather than national. How can you call anybody born in the United States a “Mexican”?—especially when they are of the third or fourth generation in this country.  For that matter, there is not a little irony in the fact that persons of Irish, Scotch and Welsh (i.e., Celts) descent are lumped together with sons of the English as “Anglos” (i.e., Angles, a Germanic group).

Similarly, “Latin-American” or “Mexican-American” really denotes only peoples below the Rio Grande. Both North America and South America are still America. For United States citizens to distinguish ourselves as “Americans” is slightly arrogant.

And Chicano?  Said to have been in use among Mexican-Americans from c.1911, “Chicano” was probably influenced by Spanish chico “boy,” also used as a nickname. The adjective in English has reportedly been in use in the U.S. since 1967. To me, “Chicano” bears too much the connotation of the street gang, of the Chicago thug.  Or perhaps of “chicanery”, which means subterfuge.  Good riddance to that term.

Yes, “Hispanic” strikes just the right note.  It encompasses all the peoples, whether of the Western or the Eastern hemispheres, North or South America, who share a common language and, at least to a degree, a distinctive culture derived either from Spain or from Portugal.

And also, bless it, it doesn’t require more than a column’s width to be type-set.
The Monahans News, August 21, 1980

UPDATE:  The following addendum, I concede, is impressionistic. That is, while its import is reflective of a fairly recent, personal perception, it might actually be more reflective of an older, more general usage. Anyway, the realization occurred to me while I was preparing the above essay for its reprinting that yet another term seems to have superceded — or is superceding — “Hispanic”: that term is “Latino/Latina”, a designation that has been around since at least 1946 (according to my dictionary).

I had thought that there was no definitional difference between the two words. However, there is a significant difference; but, since the difference did not proceed full-grown from my forehead but from Wikipedia, I will defer to that source’s distinction between the two:
Latino (/læˈtin/ or /ləˈtin/)[1] is a term used chiefly in the United States to refer to people of Latin Americanextraction or descent, though the term has also been incorrectly used as a synonym for HispanicHispanic is a narrower term which only refers to persons of Spanish-speaking origin or ancestry, while ‘Latino’ is more frequently used to refer more generally to anyone of Latin American origin/ancestry.”
– BL


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