Words matter here at What’s the Difference HQ, and regardless of the tenor and tone of our current administration, it’s important to understand the meanings of the words and labels that we use every day. Case in point: Hispanic vs. Latino (or “Latina” for a woman, or “Latinx” as the gender-neutral or non-binary alternative). Though the words are often used interchangeably, they are, in fact, two markedly different terms: Hispanic denotes language, while Latino denotes geography.
Let’s start with Latino (/a/x). “Latino” is shorthand for the Spanish word latinoamericano, and it refers to anyone born in or with ancestors from Latin America. (Latin America includes South America as well as Mexico, Central America, and the islands of the Caribbean where a Romance language is spoken.) There are a few exceptions to this: people from English-speaking Belize and Dutch-speaking Suriname aren’t always recognized or don’t always identify as Latino.
“Hispanic” is an English term that is used to describe people born in or with ancestors from Spanish-speaking Latin America, as well as Spain itself. With this definition, someone from Brazil could be Latino (/a/x), but not Hispanic; someone from Spain could be Hispanic, but not Latino (/a/x); and someone from, say, Ecuador could be both.
These are very top-level definitions, and there are a few things worth noting. 1) There are many indigenous people from Spanish-speaking countries who may not identify as Hispanic. 2) In any and all cases, “Latino” and “Hispanic” refer only to someone’s origin and/or ancestry, NOT their race. 3) Labels are lame!!!! Things often get problematic when we try to group people into categories. So even if you’re using the terminology correctly, remember to be thoughtful about it—and always defer to a person’s chosen way of referring to oneself.