Hispanic or Latino, what’s in a name?

By Helena Rodriguez

When my daughter Laura and I walked into Dillard’s last weekend, it was not only looking a lot like Christmas, it was more like a Hispanic Christmas.
This department store is one of a handful of upscale retailers accused a few years ago of a string of racist practices said to have deterred minority shoppers. If anything, Dillard’s is going all out this season to appeal to the growing Hispanic market. Its new line of Christmas decor has a distinct Latino flavor with tree ornaments bearing the images of La Virgen de Guadalupe and “Feliz Navidad” inscriptions. Other decorations include mission style Catholic church relics and ballet folklorico dolls. My favorite, of course, are the Pancho Claus dolls.
Pancho Clause is a Hispanic version of Santa Claus. The Dillard’s version, which was interestingly made in Germany, wears mariachi style pants, a pancho and sombrero.
This is not a free advertisement for Dillard’s. It’s one example of how American retailers are marketing to the Hispanic/Latino population, which is now the largest U.S. minority, according to the latest Census figures. In fact, it was the Census Bureau that began using the phrase “Hispanic” to refer to all Spanish descent or Spanish-speaking people in the U.S.
This brings me to a question: “What’s the difference between the terms ‘Hispanic’ and ‘Latino?’” Does it matter what we people of Latin descent call ourselves?
Last week I read that the 33-year-old Chicano studies program at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque is being renamed the Southwest Hispanic Studies program. This was not without controversy. Some people prefer the term “Chicano,” which many regard as an outdated political term associated with the civil-rights movement.
The term “Hispanic” was approved for the UNM program and it seems to be the preferred term in mainstream America, too. Of course some people prefer “Latino.” TV personality and comedian George Lopez jokingly says in his standup comedy acts, “Why would anybody want to call themselves anything with the word ‘panic’ in it?”
Good point George, but that still doesn’t answer my question of “Hispanic” verses “Latino.” In search of a more reliable source, I went to my Spanish professor, Vitelio Contreras at Eastern New Mexico University, who gave me a crash course in history. Hope I didn’t flunk. I’ll try to explain it as simply as possible without confusing you. I’m still confused.
The term “Hispanic” dates back to the label “Hispania” that the Romans gave to the land, which is now Spain, that was established in 1492. Spain has been known as part of the Iberian Peninsula. Literally speaking, Hispanic is anyone with Spanish language or Spanish descent influences. But, ah, one must also not forget the Arabic influences in the Spanish culture.
Although people who have assimilated into American culture today seem to prefer Hispanic, it is not as inclusive as the term “Latino.” Latino can include French (and Haitians), Portuguese, Spanish or Italian. According to Contreras, most people who prefer “Latino” are usually new immigrants. Hispanic is a more Americanized term.
Personally, I like the term “Latina,” the feminine form of “Latino.” However, Hispanic will work for me, too. People have called me worse things.
If I wanted to get picky, Latina would probably be more accurate.
My dad’s family is from Texas. My great-great grandma Chrisanta Zapata was from Mexico and linked to the Mexican revolutionist Emiliano Zapata, I’m told.
Mom says we have Spanish roots on her side. That would make me Hispanic. Mom believes her dad’s family, the Salazars, came by way of a ship from Spain.
As for my dad’s side, I once had a computerized genealogy search done using my dad and grandfather’s names, Julio and Santos Rodriguez. This took us to some Portuguese roots and, might I add, potential royal Portuguese ties. By the way, Rodriguez means sons of Rodrigo, or sons of a rich man.
Of course, I’m not rich and my dad has no sons. I like the idea, however, of royal Portuguese ties. I just may be in line to a throne in Portugal. Yeah, right!

Helena Rodriguez is a columnist for Freedom Newspapers of New Mexico. She can be reached at: