What does it mean to be “hispanic”?

If you follow the news you have already heard that Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor was approved by the Senate 68-31 on Thursday. Sotomayor will succeed retiring Justice David Souter.

As the link from Yahoo! News informs us, Sotomayor will be the first hispanic to be seated on the Supreme Court. Leaving aside for the moment the question of whether such a “first” is noteworthy at all, we should think about what the word “hispanic” really means.

Wikipedia has a good article on the history of the word “hispanic.” It quotes the U.S. Office of Management and Budget, which defines a hispanic as:

“A person of Mexican, Puerto Rican, Cuban, South or Central American, or other Spanish culture or origin, regardless of race”.

This seems simple enough but leaves a few questions unanswered:

1) Is a person automatically counted as hispanic if they were born in a predominantly Spanish speaking country?

The answer is not obvious from the definition. If the answer is yes, it would mean that the Mayas of México, the Quechuas of Perú, and the Basques of Spain would all be counted as hispanic, even though they may not speak any Spanish or have anything to do with Castilian culture. Are these people meant to be included as well?

2) Can it include people who have learnt Spanish on their own but who have no blood line to Spain?

This is the case for more than a million people who immigrated to Argentina in the late 1800s and early 1900s from countries other than Spain such as Italy, Germany, Poland and Russia.

Are such people counted as hispanics if and when they learn Spanish? If not, can their children be counted as hispanics if they learn Spanish? What if they subsequently move to New York City and raise a family there, as was the case with Sotomayor who is of Puerto Rican descent but was born in the Bronx?

If you think the definition is of no consequence, think again. For a business owner, being a “hispanic” can increase the chances of receiving a government contract because the government gives special breaks to minority-owned businesses. See this article from the New York Times, “What is a Minority-Owned Business?


6 Responses to “What does it mean to be “hispanic”?”

  1. Angela Says:

    I have a huge problem with the word “hispanic” for it over generalizes people of a tremendously large geographic location and various different cultures. Before anything else I should perhaps say that I agree that the term “Latino” is a lot more appropiate in describing us the Latinos. I agree that we all latinos but not that we are all Spanish, Hispanic etc. To me Brazilians do not deserve this title for to me “hispanic” implies being from countries that speaks Spanish or have been discovered and colonized by spaniardians. Brazil was first inhabitated by many different indiginous tribes and then ‘discovered” by Portuguese and colonized by Portuguese. Later colonization by many other ethinic group. I grew up in Brazil and never heard spoken Spanish in the radio, television or in any other place. It was an obscure language I never knew it existed till a few years ago despite the fact that many of our neighboors speak it. I am 48 years old and I have heard that finally sometimes in the North of Brazil people have now the chance to hear some songs in Spanish…finally we get to know that Spanish exist.

  2. Angela Says:

    Sorry if this comment distances a bit from the original comment but why should we Brazilians be called hispanic when we don’t speak spanish or have any history with the hispanics? Brazil is a giant country, it’s land mass is bigger than continental US. I refuse to accept that. I say we are all latinos but we are not all Hispanic. In terms of Sotomayor I would say that she is hispanic for even if she was raised here she was under the impact of the cultural ‘teachings” of her ancestral people. My kids have a good amount of Brazilian culture in them when they were not raised in Brazil and in fact didn’t even spoke much Portuguese in the house. They got the Brazilian culture impact from me for I am Brazilian. So if Sotomayor was raised by a hispanic mom and even if she never spoke Spanish but she had mom giving her guidance, support etc then she is hispanic and that is good.

  3. Andy Hallman Says:

    I have a huge problem with the word “hispanic” for it over generalizes people of a tremendously large geographic location and various different cultures.

    Strictly speaking, the word hispanic itself is not an overgeneralization. It may be employed too broadly to people outside the definition and in that case the person using it would be committing an overgeneralization.

    But if by “hispanic” we mean “Spanish-speaking” (one possible definition, but not the one I quoted above) then we are not overgeneralizing by calling most Mexicans, Venezuelans, Cubans and Spaniards “hispanics” because they would fit the definition provided they speak Spanish. Granted, they may practice different religions, celebrate different holidays and be located thousands of miles apart but they would be hispanics in that they all speak Spanish, and that is, afterall, the only thing they need to do to fit the description.

    I should perhaps say that I agree that the term “Latino” is a lot more appropiate in describing us the Latinos.

    Would you mind giving us your definition for a latino and how it differs from hispanic?

    From the research I’ve done, the phrase “Latin America” was coined by French President Napoleon III (the word is “Amérique latine” in French), in the mid-19th century, as a way of making Mexicans feel a sense of kinship with the French because the French were attempting to expand their influence in the country, and wanted the influence to seem more natural. Before that time there was no such thing as “Latin America” and thus no such thing as a “latino.” In the English speaking world, the term “Spanish America” was more commonly used.

    Here is one source in particular: “Born in blood and fire: a concise history of Latin America” By John Charles Chasteen.

    Another source suggests that a French writer named Michel Chevalier was partly responsible for popularizing the idea that speakers of Romance languages were of a “Latin Race” in 1836. See “The Idea of Latin America” by Walter D. Mingolo, pages 77-80, for more information.

    I don’t mean to put words in your mouth but are you asserting that speakers of Romance languages, that is to say languages descended from Classical Latin, are in some sense of the same race? Or is the term “latino” purely linguistic in your mind without any reference to blood lines?

  4. Adam Says:

    I think Hispanic should apply to anyone who has Spanish blood, regardless of percentage.

  5. Angela Says:

    Andy to answer you question. Latino to me is one from Latin America. It’s not important when did the name Latin America started if it was a million of years ago or 2 months ago..someone had to name the land “donw South.” Which is a fine term, Europe is Europe, Australian is Australia…it doesn’t lose it’s name given because it was by this person 3.ooo years ago or not. Latin America is Latin America. I am a Latina since I was born in that geographic location. It’s geography and also culture, although some may disagree with that. No one from Brazil or Chile have ever heard about this word “hispanic” that I have heard of. It is an American “thing.” It is fine though if it is used to describe someone that speaks Spanish, has been born in an Spanish speaking country etc, etc… like I mentioned before. It is a correct term created by Americans if it helps them to describe people from those areas. However it is incorrect to include Brazil in that and the people from the Island of Fernando de Noronha that also belongs to Brazil.
    Could or may I suggest a topic for the future? Descrimination and ways we can offer links or any suggestions for those who are discriminated in the “Land Of The Free.”???

  6. Angela Says:

    Adam…what is Spanish blood??? Could one say Brazil is included??? I don’t think so. Brazil is a melting pot “just like the USA.” In the beggining long and long time ago it was the Portuguese who discovered it and it was the Portuguese who colonized it and we still speak Portuguese and later on we have the coming of Africans (slaves) and Arabes for coffee plantations, Japanese, Germans (by huge amount) in the South. the Spanish element has been there also in small amount…hummm. You can get a book about the history of Brazil and learn more on your own if you want! So how do we trace Spanish blood?? Thinking about that it will be interesting in a few years in the future since a good marjority of the immigrants now a days are Spanish and they inter-marrying with Americans so not long into the future the United States then can be called Spanish blood if it isn’t already. I heard that in a decade or so “whites” are going to be minority. So when we want to call someone of Spanish blood…I am thinking..humm Americans form the United States for sure are included in that. Reality of the times my friend!

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