For US Latinos, Identity Is Complex and Varied

There is no single, all-encompassing term that fully captures what it means to be Latino in the United States

The ways in which the nation’s sixty million Latinos (or Hispanics or Latinx) describe their identity varies widely across individuals, geographies, immigrant generations, ancestry, and much more. Yet the population is often referred to by a single, pan-ethnic term that implies it is a monolithic group. That masks much of the diversity that characterizes US Latinos.

What is a pan-ethnic term? Hispanic, Latino, and Latinx are currently the ones more commonly used by people living in the US who self-identify as part of this group. Each is intended to capture, under one umbrella, a diverse population. And each emerged at different times and with different purposes, reflecting then popular views of identity to describe Americans who trace their roots to Latin America or Spain. For example, Hispanic emerged as the most used term in the 1970s as civil rights leaders and government officials sought to count the population. Latino/Latina/Latina/o/Latin@ emerged in the 1990s as an alternative to Hispanic, notably as a term that did not come from the US government (even if Latino became an officially recognized term in the late 1990s). Both terms remain in wide use by researchers, journalists, government officials, and the public itself. More recently, a new pan-ethnic term has emerged: Latinx. It is a gender-neutral term and reflects the broader movement of inclusivity that has emerged in recent years in the US.

Despite ongoing debates about which term is better or even the right one to use, more than fifteen years of Pew Research Center Latino surveys show somewhat mixed preferences among the public when it comes to using or not using these pan-ethnic terms. For example, while most have used Hispanic or Latino at one point or another to describe themselves, half in 2018 told us they have no preference for either term. If one is preferred, it is Hispanic over Latino by a two-to-one margin, a pattern that has persisted for more than fifteen years of surveys of the US Hispanic adult population.

Instead, it is family country of origin that matters more than pan-ethnic terms. In 2015, we found that more than half said they most often described themselves by terms like Mexican or Cubana or Puerto Rican or Salvadoreño—i.e., the countries where their ancestors are from. This is more likely to be true among immigrant Hispanics (which makes sense given that is where they are from), but also is true among many US-born Hispanics. Even so, later US-born generations of Hispanics are more likely than immigrant Hispanics to say they most often call themselves American, highlighting changes underway within the Hispanic population as the US born drive the group’s population growth and make up a growing share of all Hispanics (just one-third are immigrants today).

There are many other dimensions to Latino identity. For example, in 2014, one-quarter of Latino adults told us they are Afro-Latino, with those of Dominican and Puerto Rican background making up a large part of the group. And one-quarter of Latino adults are of indigenous roots such as Native American, Mayan, Aymara, Quechua, or Taino. And at least 28 percent say they are mestizo, mestiza, mulatto, or mulatta.

Latinos look at their identity in other ways too. For example, what does it take to be considered Latino by others? In 2015, we asked whether one needs to speak Spanish to be considered Latino—three-quarters say no. What about having a Spanish surname? Eight-in-ten say no. Even among immigrants, majorities agree that one doesn’t need to speak Spanish or have a Spanish surname to be considered Latino in the US.

Looked at another way, do US Latinos see a common culture among themselves or a diverse one? In 2011, 70 percent said US Latinos have many different cultures while just a quarter said they share a common culture.

For some, identity is much more than just about their Hispanic background and that’s important to remember. Some may see themselves as Californians first or as part of Gen Z or as a Catholic first and foremost.

Looking ahead, big demographic trends are reshaping the nation’s Hispanic population. Immigration from Latin America, while up recently, is significantly below highs seen in the late 1990s and early 2000s. As a result, the foreign-born share among Hispanics is falling. At the same time, the group’s population growth rate is slowing as fertility rates fall. And finally, intermarriage rates remain higher for Hispanics than either whites or blacks (Asians intermarry at a higher rate, though)—since at least 1980, one-quarter of Hispanic newlyweds marry a non-Hispanic. In the US today, the single most common intermarried couples are ones where a Hispanic spouse is married to a white spouse accounting for 43 percent of the total.

All these changes may have implications for how the group sees its identity in the future, or if they even identify as Latino. And just as terms have evolved over the decades, it remains to be seen what terms future Latinos will use to describe themselves and their identity.

Mark Hugo Lopez
Photo by Kaveh Sardari



Mark Hugo Lopez is the director of global migration and demography research at the Pew Research Center.

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