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Latino? Hispanic? Which is it?

Spanish speakers are divided, and others are confused

Don't call Jos Mass Hispanic.

To him, the term gives ''an emphasis to Hispanics as in Spain and that part of the world. 'Hispanic' never gave me a sense that it was a definition of empowerment," says the Puerto Rican-born Hyde Park resident. ''I use the word 'Latino' because it speaks to the combination of the history and culture of the indigenous people who lived here prior to the Europeans. 'Latino' is much more empowering."

Don't call Alex Gonzalez Latino.

''I don't feel Latino. To me, it sounds like you are more Central American," says the Lower Roxbury doctor who was born in Miami to parents from Spain. He prefers ''Hispanic," or, more specifically, criollo, a reference to someone ''who was born in the New World but whose parents are from Spain." '' 'Hispanic' is a pretty universal word. It's more encompassing."

Latino or Hispanic: Which is it?

The terms vex native Spanish-speakers and spark debates at social gatherings. Non-Hispanics get stumped on which to use, while they are used interchangeably in media reports and advertisements. The dictionary doesn't provide much assistance: Merriam-Webster's online dictionary defines ''Hispanic" as a person ''of Latin American descent living in the U.S., especially one of Cuban, Mexican or Puerto Rican origin" and a Latino as a ''person of Latin-American origin living in the U.S."

The question of whether Portuguese-speaking Brazilians fit the definitions is also not clear to many, but ''Hispanic" is generally restricted to Spanish speakers, while Brazilians usually classify themselves as Latinos on U.S. Census forms.

But to many the terms touch on identity as well as cultural affirmation. They reflect the bloodlines of Spanish speakers and illustrate the rainbow of diversity in the community. Latinos/Hispanics can be of any color from the late queen of salsa Celia Cruz, who was black, to light-skinned entertainer Raquel Welch, who recently declared her pride in being Bolivian.

Cubans in Miami and conservative Mexican-Americans in Texas strongly identify themselves as Hispanics, while Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, and more liberal Mexican-Americans along with those outside Texas opt for Latino.

''Hispanic" makes some bristle because they view it as government-imposed.

In the mid-1970s, a federal advisory committee of Spanish speakers met to come up with an ethnic term for the country's growing Spanish-speaking population to use in the Census. They agreed on ''Hispanic."

''Hispanic" stems from ''Hispania," the Spanish name for the cultural diaspora created by Spain, according to Janet Helms, director of the Institute for the Study and Promotion of Race and Culture at Boston College.

But that diaspora, to some, is also associated with Spanish conquest from centuries ago. They prefer ''Latino" because it sounds more like a Spanish word and underscores ties with Latin America rather than Spain.

According to Helms, racial considerations can also play a part in choice of terminology. The word ''Hispanic" also stems from the name of the island ''Hispaniola," she said, which consists of the Dominican Republic and Haiti. "Many people do not like 'Hispanic' because it implies people of color, and they don't think themselves people of color because the island from which it (the word) derives from was an island or region in which most of the inhabitants were people of color."

Some see the argument as a tug of war over semantics, but others believe the labels reflect the course of the community and see similarities to the movement of ''black power" advocates who cast aside the term ''Negro" during the civil rights movement and eventually embraced ''African-American."

The dialogue on whether to use ''Latino" or ''Hispanic" is likely to accelerate as the nation's largest minority group continues to grow at a rapid rate.

But for now, whether to use ''Latino" or ''Hispanic" is a question that just may not have a solid or right answer, community leaders say.

''We are a community in transformation," says Mass, regional director of the Puerto Rico Federal Affairs office and a 30-year Boston resident. ''In many circles, for some people, this kind of discussion is the first time they have to deal with it. It's important because the transformation we are going through is rapid. It's happening every day. This is something that is going to be going on for a while.

''The unfortunate thing is that we have a tendency here in the United States to use one word to capture who we are, when in reality it's many words."

Are the terms synonymous?

''I wish I can you tell the right answer," says Lisa Navarette, vice president of the National Council of La Raza in Washington, D.C., where the label game comes up several times a month when an organization or company calls her to ask which is the better term to use. She says they are given a diplomatic answer: Both are right. ''We now use the terms interchangeably. We believe both terms refer to the same exact group of people."

But when asked how she describes herself, Navarette, a Cuban-American, goes with Hispanic.

And so does Ruddy Bello, a Roslindale commercial photographer of Dominican background.

'' 'Latino' is too broad of a word to pigeonhole Spanish-speaking and Portuguese-speaking people," he says. '' 'Hispanic' is the way to go." Bello, whose parents were born in the Dominican Republic, finds himself ''schooling" people about the difference between ''Hispanic" and ''Latino," not to mention ''Spanish."

''People ask me, 'Oh, are you Spanish?' because I speak Spanish, but I am not from Madrid," he explains. ''I say I am Hispanic, that I am from Boston, I was born and raised here, but my parents are from the Dominican Republic." Bello, who is dark-skinned, says ''the odds of that conversation happening to a Caucasian than to a Hispanic is much slimmer. The whole descendant conversation always comes up when you meet people."

Most Hispanics prefer to identify themselves by national origin, or at least 88 percent of them do, according to a 2002 survey by the Washington-based Pew Hispanic Center and the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, of Menlo Park, Calif.

Raquel Ortiz, an independent producer, writer, and director in North Cambridge, says she tells people she is Puerto Rican, but she also calls herself Latina.

'' 'Hispanic' means you come from Spain, most of Latin America was conquered by Spain. That is where we get the language, and that is where we get the history and the culture," says Ortiz, who has written a memoir, not yet published, called ''The Silk Purse," based on her experiences growing up as a Puerto Rican in the South Bronx in the 1950s.

'' 'Latina' seems to be more U.S. and pan-American, which means it includes not just Spain but South America, Central America, and the African influence."

The same 2002 Pew survey of Hispanics also shows that 53 percent said they had no preference between Hispanic and Latino. Among the 47 percent who do have a preference, ''Hispanic" (34 percent) is generally preferred to ''Latino" (13 percent).

Sabrina Avils, director of the newly named Center for Latino Arts in the South End, calls herself Hispanic or, as she says in Spanish, ''Soy Hispana."

But in the past year, she has also used Latina to describe herself.

''It's a hip terminology. 'Latina' is an easy way to lump everyone together who has some sort of Hispanic heritage. I feel that 'Latina' is a North American marketing term," she says.

Although she began her job after the new center was named, she finds that name to be reflective of the dominant Spanish-speaking communities in Greater Boston: Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, Mexicans, and Salvadorans, but says all are welcome there.

When people ask about herself, she says she is Hispanic, then details her roots: ''I was born in New York City, but my parents are from Puerto Rico and Santo Domingo. Then they get it."

Cantabrigian Cynthia Cortez Kamishlian knows that feeling.

''I have to keep explaining that one over and over," she says of her background.

She goes by ''Hispanic" because her parents are from Mexico. Her mother's family tree extends back to Spain, while her father's heritage is rooted in Mexico.

'' 'Hispanic' fits more than 'Latino.' 'Latino' covers a lot of territory," says the 40-year-old part-time business analyst. ''From what I have been able to gather, that is more of a current term, that twenty-somethings would prefer. It's not something I grew up with and know."

Alex Alvear, a local musician and event producer from Roxbury, sees the other side of the issue. Born in Ecuador, Alvear is partial to ''Latino" because ''it is something that really encompasses and brings everybody under one term or category." '' 'Hispanic' has too much of a link with Spain. I don't think Spain did a lot of great things for us."

Then there are those who shun both.

''I really don't identify with either term," says Alfredo Roldan-Flores of South Boston. ''If I have no other choice but to box myself into a commonly known term, I typically describe myself as a person of Puerto Rican descent."

To Roldan-Flores, the question of which to use ''only validates the fact that social labels can't ever accurately and comprehensively describe the essence of a human being and its identity."

Johnny Diaz, who identifies himself as a Hispanic and Cuban and who lives in Cambridge by way of Miami , can be reached at

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