The labels Hispanic and Latino/a
The labels in the US
According to the U.S. government, Hispanics are "all persons of Mexican, Puerto Rican, Cuban, Central or South American, or other Spanish culture or origin, regardless of race." Thus Hispanic would include much of Latin America, excluding Brazil and a few other small countries where Spanish is not the main language (Belize, the Guianas, Jamaica, Haiti, etc.). [Wikipedia: Equal Employment Opportunity Commission]
In the U.S., the term Hispanic started to be used officially in the US in 1973 by the Nixon administration to lump together people from countries in the old Spanish empire: Mexico, Puerto Rico, Cuba, etc. This was done in recognition of a common history of these peoples in the United States and, most importantly, a similar underprivileged status in the U.S., with socio-economic indicators which were more like those of African-Americans and Native Americans than those of more 'traditional' immigrants. The purpose for the goverment to collect such data was to help this group of traditionally (and on average) underprivileged Americans to improve their situation through public programs such as affirmative action.
The labels in the "Hispanic world"
Some 'Hispanics' with indigenous or African heritage dislike the label Hispanic, since it focuses in the Spanish side of their heritage, and use the term Latino instead (Latina is the feminine version in Spanish), short for Latinoamericano/a (Latin American) for a group which by-and-large shares a common experience in the U.S.
Although the Census uses the terms Hispanic and Latino as equivalent, the two terms are fuzzy and vague and not necessarily equivalent.
The term Spanish
The term Spanish is also used in the census and often popularly as well to refer to the same population, due no doubt to their identification with the Spanish language. This is something that should be avoided, since it is somewhat like saying that all people who speak English are English people. Spanish people are people from Spain, that is, Spaniards.
The countries that Hispanics come from are a blend of cultural and racial heritages: Spanish (from Spain), Amerindian ('Native American'), and/or African. The label Hispanic though understandable because of the language and the connection to Spain is what all Hispanic countries share unfortunately eclipses all but the first in these peoples' identities. The term Latino suffers from similar deficiencies and ambiguities. Furthermore, to the extent that there is no common overarching and overriding identity among Hispanics, they tend to prefer to use terms having to do with their national origin, such as Mexican or Mexican-American.
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