On Ethnonymic Traditions

by Adrian Centeno for ZOOTSUITTURGY:

The Hispanic-Latino/a naming dispute is an ethnonymic disagreement concerning two panethnic terms primarily used to describe US inhabitants of Spanish-speaking or Latin American ancestry, respectively. As such, both terms are applied broadly to disparate groups within the United States under the belief of perceived social and political common interest.

The term “Latino/a” originates from the second Franco-Mexican War orchestrated by French Emperor Napoleon III in the 1860s. Napoleon’s government constructed a vision of the “New World” as Latin America (Amérique latine) and sought to racialize those descended from Romance language-speaking nations. In doing so, the French hoped to legitimize their efforts to overthrow democratically elected Mexican President Benito Juárez and reestablish monarchy as a way of uniting the “Latin race” in Europe and the Americas. The effort was well-received by the Conservative Party of Mexico, which was happy to accept European monarchy if it allowed the Catholic Church and Mexico’s military to fortify their softening national influence under Liberal Party rule.

The term “Hispanic” has a messier origin.

In 1933, US President Franklin Delano Roosevelt announced the Good Neighbor policy, which was a non-intervention policy aimed at eliding Latin America’s fear of US imperialism. The sincerity of the Good Neighbor policy was tested in 1935 by a federal court case in which three Mexican expatriates were denied their petitions for US Citizenship. Judge John Knight ruled that, as each was “not a free white person,” none of them were legally eligible for naturalization. This ruling established legal precedent necessary to deny all Latin American expatriates citizenship and infuriated the Mexican government. In an effort to smooth things over, the US State Department offered a messy solution: rather than eliminating whiteness as a condition of US Citizenship, the American government would simply amend existing law to allow a legal definition of whiteness to include Latin American nationals. Socially conservative organizations like the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) embraced the move as a way push forward their assimilation ideology and deemphasize indigenous roots.

The term “Hispanic” is the result of the shrewd political dealings of American President Richard Nixon. Alarmed by the increased realization of Black political aspiration, Nixon sought to unify Spanish-speaking Americans as a new conservative voting bloc that could be weaponized against the increased diversity of the Democratic Party. Republican Party strategists coined the term, which conjured to mind European cultural history more effectively than “Latino/a” by this time, and emphasized broad ideals shared by the Grand Old Party and the so-called Hispanic community—a strong belief in faith and family. Nixon capitalized by publically supporting bilingual education and ordering the Census Bureau to add the term to the upcoming 1970 Census, thereby giving Spanish-speaking people back the “race” that was stripped from them in the Nationality Act of 1940.

The use of both terms, sometimes interchangeably, perpetuates to this day and are embraced or rejected on a seemingly individual basis. Residents of the Eastern United States often use “Hispanic” with greater frequency than the Western United States. The historic preference of the term “Hispanic” in East Coast newspaper style guides offers a possible answer for the regional division. Regardless, both terms are rooted in the process of racializing—or, in the case of the Nationality Act of 1940, re-racializing—various inhabitant groups of a region with the purpose of economic exploitation and political manipulation.

While “Hispanic” is used without variation, the gendered use of “Latino” and “Latina” has come under increased scrutiny in the 21st century. This ethnonym, in both forms above, asserts the legitimacy of a fixed gender binary. The necessity for terms that acknowledge genders outside this binary led to the development of various neologisms, but few, if any, have been as effective as “Latinx.” This term acknowledges the intersection of Latinidad and agender, nonbinary, gender non-conforming, genderqueer and genderfluid identity within the United States.

Separate from the Hispanic-Latino/a naming dispute are terms like “Mexican-American,” a form of hybrid ethno-national labeling common in the United States, and “Chicano/a,” the reclamation of a pejorative alleged to have put down US-born Mexican descendants that lacked sufficient cultural legitimacy vis à vis Mexicans. The term “Chicano/a” gained political significance during the Chicano Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, wherein grassroots social interest groups, predominately (but not exclusively!) Mexican-American, helped organize and participate in: the Delano Grape Strike, the East Los Angeles Walkouts, and the National Chicano Moratorium Committee, among other examples. This renewal of “Chicano” as a socio-political term also resituated indigenous cultural roots originally denied by “Hispanic” and “Latino/a.”

The term “Pachuco/a” refers to a Chicano/a youth subculture associated with fancy clothes, dance halls, and territorial street rivalries. Pachuco/a’s are also known for their use of slang, Caló, and their aggressive rejection of both American and Mexican cultural norms.

The terms “Latinx,” “Chicano/a/x,” and “Pachuco/a/x” represent a push towards ethnonymic terminology that is more specific and therefore more representative of the actual people each term identifies. They come from within the communities they represent and that marks considerable progress from panethnic terms that are often imposed on a subjugated people. Still, the persistence of terms like “Hispanic” and “Latino/a” is complicated by the fact that, for many, those terms have lifelong associations with individuals, institutions, and intellectual properties that they feel a deep personal connection toward.

Ethnonymic disputes are complicated. There is no single term that will satisfy the intersecting identities that comprise a particularly ethnic, racial, or national group. Specificity is often preferred and, as with any interaction, it is advisable to refer to a person or group of people by the term they self-identify with.