Uncovering JAPA

How Do Planners Understand the Terms Hispanic, Latino, and Latinx?

With the rise of participatory planning processes and the general movement within the field to a more collaborative approach, planners must be in tune with the communities they serve.

Planners must understand the culture, language, and complex identities of their constituents. The world we live in today — particularly its urban centers — is the site of heated debates on systemic racism, immigration policy, and politically correct language. Planners must be well-versed in these debates and have a deep understanding of the nuances and implications of the words they use.

The first step in this process, says author Ivis García, is for planners to become more familiar with the historical and cultural differences in the various terms they use to refer to people of Latin American and Spanish-speaking backgrounds.

In "Cultural Insights for Planners: Understanding the Terms Hispanic, Latino and Latinx," Journal of the American Planning Association (Vol. 86, No. 4), García examines where these terms originated, their relevance in planning practice and education, and strategies to help planners to decide which terms to use.

Planners Lag in Adopting Latinx Term

A look at Google Trends to discern the popularity of each term, together with an in-depth analysis of JAPA peer-reviewed writings and the APA website, shows that planners are either not aware of the shift from Hispanic to Latino/a to Latinx or they are slow adopters: As of August 5, 2019, the term Latinx had been used only twice in JAPA peer-reviewed writings.

García outlines why planners need to better understand the differences between the terms, noting that Hispanics/Latin/o/a/x contribute a large percentage of population growth in the U.S. and are the youngest ethnic group in the country.

Failure to understand the changing nature of these ethnonyms can result in discrimination and marginalization for this population group.

Also, she notes that there is a lack of representation in planning practice and academia, and recommends that in addition to becoming aware of their own biases, planning organizations should hire diverse planners who can relate to the communities better. Ultimately, she argues that engaging in understanding Hispanics/Latin/o/a/x's complex identity is a way that planners can undo discriminatory practices.

The author provides an in-depth overview of the origins, popularity, controversy, and history of each term:

Summary of terms from “Cultural Insights for Planners: Understanding the Terms Hispanic, Latino and Latinx,” Journal of the American Planning Association (Vol. 86, No. 4).

Table 2: Summary of terms.

Navigating Hispanic, Latino, and Latinx

It is important to note that "Hispanic" refers to language while the term "Latino" refers to geography. While "Hispanic" counts only countries of Spanish-speaking descent, "Latino" was popularized to include non-Spanish-speaking groups in Latin America.

"Latinx," the newest of the three, is part of a broader cultural shift to raise awareness of gender as nonbinary in that it aims to address the gendered nature of "Latino/a." García points out a key criticism of "Latinx": By adding an "x" ending into Spanish, the Latin roots of the language become Anglo. By addressing a "problem" with the language, the term implies that there is a problem with the culture, too.

This study reveals the inherent difficulty in trying to create ethnocultural categorizations. There is no clear formula to help planners decide which terms to use.

Nevertheless, understanding the evolution of these terms is "a step forward for planners to become more culturally competent, foster inclusion, and implement policies under an imperative equity framework," García concludes.

And for those who would like a more concrete and definitive answer, García suggests using the terms interchangeably in a single document, similar to the way organizations like the Census Bureau have been doing with "Hispanics" and "Latinos" for the past few years.

Top image: There are historical and cultural differences in the terms planners use to refer to people of Latin American and Spanish-speaking backgrounds. Pixabay photo.

About the Author
Elifmina Mizrahi is a Master in Urban Planning candidate at Harvard University.

November 5, 2020

By Elifmina Mizrahi