What's in a name? How about identity, culture and history, for starters | St. Louis Public Radio

What's in a name? How about identity, culture and history, for starters

Oct 3, 2012

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Oct. 3, 2012 - A few weeks ago, while writing a story about approaching events for Hispanic Heritage Month, I stood up and said to my editors: “Which one’s right? Hispanic or Latino?”

Like good editors, they all had different answers. So we turned to the bible of journalism, the Associated Press stylebook, which said something to the effect of, it’s preferable to use Latino but Hispanic is OK, under the Latino heading, and it’s preferable to use Hispanic but Latino is OK, under the Hispanic heading.

In 2010, the U.S. Census Bureau defined Hispanic and Latino as "those people who classified themselves in one of the specific Spanish, Hispanic, or Latino categories listed on the Census 2010 questionnaire -- 'Mexican,' 'Puerto Rican', or 'Cuban' -- as well as those who indicate that they are 'another Hispanic, Latino, or Spanish origin.' People who do not identify with one of the specific origins listed on the questionnaire but indicate that they are 'another Hispanic, Latino, or Spanish origin' are those whose origins are from Spain, the Spanish-speaking countries of Central or South America, or the Dominican Republic. The terms 'Hispanic,' 'Latino,' and 'Spanish' are used interchangeably."

Now we’re all scratching our heads.

It’s at this point that Brent Jones, our presentation editor, spins around in his seat and says, why don’t we ask the PIN? Our Public Insight Network is a pretty cool resource that helps the St. Louis Beacon connect to sources with a variety of viewpoints and expertise. And, I think, their answers below show that variety.

In 1990, the Hispanic population in St. Louis was 0.3 percent. In 2010, the Census reported, it was 2.6 percent. To be clear, this is not at all a new question. But as the Hispanic/Latino population in St. Louis and Missouri continues to grow, it's one more and more people face.  

Carlos Restrepo, a 23-year-old Colombian student at Webster University, told us, “The words are not interchangeable. However, they both could apply to the same person. Someone from Brazil, for example, would be a Latino, but not a Hispanic.”

And in Colombia, he said, they’re taught we’re all Americanos, “In other words, we are all from the American continent.”

Vincenza Previte was born in the United States, but her mother was born in the Philippines and her father lives in Venezuela. She prefers to get country-specific.

“I usually say I'm from Venezuela to avoid explaining my background,” she told us. “But if I had to choose, I would say I'm Latina.”

Previte, a 24-year-old graduate assistant at Webster University, doesn’t think there’s a better alternative to the terms and that maybe we make too big a deal of labeling people in the first place.

“People are what they are,” she said. “Here in the United States there's too much thought into using a specific term for a group of people that share the same race.”

Michael Byrd, an architect, prefers Hispanic. Latino seems more about cultures that speak Spanish, which he doesn’t. And Karlos Ramirez prefers identifying himself as Mexican-American, which speaks of both his heritage and upbringing. 

He has found, however, that the term people prefer may depend on where in the country people are.

“I believe that both Latino and Hispanic can be used interchangeably, but my experience tells me that it’s more of a regional thing. The East Coast is more likely to use Latino(a) and the West Coast and Midwest are more likely to use Hispanic,” said the 40-year-old executive director of the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of Metropolitan St. Louis.

Irene Compadre, a 26-year-old teaching assistant at Washington University, is the daughter of Mexican immigrants. She prefers Latina because of the baggage she sees the term Hispanic carries. 

“The way Hispanic sounds bothers me,” she said. “The -ic- in Hispanic(s) is harsh and I have heard it spat out belligerently too many times. Latino/a is friendly to a bilingual tongue and I think subconsciously encourages kinship by others toward Latino culture and language.”

Frances Morales-Neufeld identifies herself either as a Puerto Rican from Connecticut -- or Hispanic. 

“To each their own,” said the 29-year-old, who produced a mini-documentary about Hispanics in St. Louis and runs the blog Crossover STL. “According to the Pew Hispanic Center, a majority of Hispanic Americans identify themselves as the country of origin.”

She's referring to the Pew Hispanic Center's recent report on labels, which found that only 24 percent of respondents "prefer a pan-ethnic label." Instead, people prefer to be identified by their country of origin or that of their parents.

When possible, we do and will continue to identify people by country of origin when it is relevant. During an interview last week for the two-part series I wrote about new Americans and voting, I posed the question to Omar Maldanado, president of the Hispanic Leaders Group of Greater St. Louis.

Think of it this way, he said: We don’t refer to British as Europeans, or French or Spanish for that matter, though they all are, he told me. Instead, we get country-specific, recognizing  that, while the countries might share many things, they are very different places.

“I think the reason why people prefer for you to say Puerto Rican or Bolivian," he said, "is because you’re talking about very different countries."