Planning October 2020

JAPA Takeaway

Hispanic, Latino, Latina, or Latinx?

An urban planning scholar traces the terms and shows how to be intentional about their use.

Planners should try to understand the complex identities of the Hispanic and Latin/o/a/x communities they serve. Navigating ethnonyms plays a huge role. Below, residents play dominoes in Miami’s Little Havana neighborhood. Photo by Llevin1/iStock Editorial/Getty Images Plus.

Planners should try to understand the complex identities of the Hispanic and Latin/o/a/x communities they serve. Navigating ethnonyms plays a huge role. Below, residents play dominoes in Miami's Little Havana neighborhood. Photo by Llevin1/iStock Editorial/Getty Images Plus.

By Ivis García, AICP

Hispanic and Latin/o/a/x people are a fast-growing group in the U.S. In 2017, they made up 18 percent of the population; by 2044, that could rise to over 25 percent. Ethnonyms play a huge role in this population's collective identity, politics, and consciousness. Usage of Hispanic, Latino/a, and Latinx has evolved over time and differs between users, so it can be difficult for planners to navigate which term to use in the correct context.

Failure to understand the historical and cultural differences and nuances between people of Latin American descent and from Spanish-speaking countries can result in friction, hostility, and marginalization. By understanding the complex ethnic and racial identities of Hispanic and Latin/o/a/x people, planners can more effectively plan with this community and undo discriminatory practices like exclusionary zoning, as well as address environmental and economic inequality.

In a recent Journal of the American Planning Association article, I explored these terms' evolution and provided strategies to help planners decide which to use in certain contexts.

The differences

It is essential to understand that Hispanic and Latin/o/a/x people are not a monolith: They come from multiracial backgrounds; are citizens, noncitizens, authorized, or unauthorized; and personally identify as one, all, or a few of these ethnonyms.

Let's examine each of these ethnonyms in more detail:

HISPANIC. The term Hispanic is the most widely used, particularly in the planning field. It originated during the Nixon administration in the 1970s to better classify those of Spanish-speaking origin after organizations serving Spanish speakers lobbied the U.S. government to address their issues and concerns. The word comes from the Spanish term Hispania, which is the geography that later on became Spain; the term includes all Spanish-speaking nations.

According to a Pew Research Center study, 50 percent of those who trace their roots to Latin America do not show a preference for the term Hispanic over Latino. However, among the 50 percent who do have a preference, they prefer the term Hispanic at the rate of two to one. Although it has been argued that preferences are class based, associated with political views, being native born or immigrant and old or young, most studies suggest that it is actually based on regional usage.

Opponents of the term Hispanic note that the ethnonym ignores the respective cultures and conflicts of the various peoples within Latin America. For instance, the term leaves out the indigenous populations who do not speak Spanish. What makes the Latin American community unique is its mixed-race — comprising White, Black, Asian, and Native American heritages. According to Pew Research Center, 67 percent of Hispanic and Latin/o/a/x people consider their ethnic background inseparable from their multiracial background.

The Hispanic ethnonym is also criticized as a form of artificial race, thus ignoring the racism that has characterized the Latin American region, where economic inequality exists along racial lines. Still, even when Hispanic is not a race, this group has been racialized and become "brown."

LATINO/A. This term is the second most used across the U.S. The campaign for the inclusion of the term was begun in the 1980s by another activist group. Latino has an origin closer to home for many, referring explicitly to countries in Latin America and the Caribbean.

The ethnonym Latino is also more inclusive of those who are mixed-race and from Spanish and non-Spanish-speaking groups. The term has been adopted mostly by Spanish speakers and their descendants, particularly on the U.S. West Coast. The U.S. Census officially adopted the term in 2000, nearly 30 years after the first use of the word, but the term does not replace Hispanic. Instead, the terms coexist.

However, the ethnonym Latino has also come under its fair share of criticism, particularly from modern feminist and gender-fluid activists looking to abolish binarism. The term already had been morphed to be more inclusive, including Latin, Latino/a, Latino(a), Latin@, LatinUS. But none have gained popularity.

LATINX. The criticism of Latino in today's modern culture has even inspired an entirely new classifying term: Latinx. The term first began to crop up in 2004 on the American University campus in Washington, D.C., but was not popularized until 2014. By 2016, adoption had become commonplace across U.S. campuses, specifically among LGBTQ groups.

The recent shift to Latinx is a discourse outside of Hispanics and Latin/o/as; it is a broader cultural shift to raise awareness of gender as non-binary. In the planning field alone, the LGBTQ movement has been shaping conversations, including the use of gendered pronouns, the growth of unisex bathrooms, advocacy for safer streets, and ways of strengthening the LGBTQ presence in the built environment.

The term has not enjoyed success among most Spanish-speaking populations. Those who are not college or university educated, for example, may not find the term so easily palatable. Many individuals have questioned whether the term itself inherently attacks the Spanish language. The ethnonym is viewed as another form of Anglo imperialism yielding power over Latin America. This criticism points to the fact that Latinx seeks to address a "problem" with the language and thus the Latin American culture, too. Furthermore, feminists would prefer to highlight the term Latina because they have fought to be acknowledged. Worse still, anyone who uses it might be accused of being an elitist.

8 strategies to help you choose

Given the implications of the use of these ethnonyms, how do planners decide which terms to use when writing reports and interacting with the public? In the case of Latinx, if Hispanic and Latin/o/a communities do not embrace the term, why should planners think about its use?

The following eight recommendations are meant for self-discovery and developing a collective process within your organization.

1. HIRE DIVERSE PLANNERS who can relate to the communities you are working for/with.

2. ASK COMMUNITY ORGANIZATIONS and residents which terms they prefer. Given that most people prefer pan-ethnic terms (e.g., Costa Rican, Paraguayan, Uruguayan, etc.), get to know which groups are more prevalent in your community.

3. CONNECT WITH your local APA chapter as well as planning departments at universities to coordinate office trainings.

4. HOST A CONVERSATION with work colleagues.

5. TAKE STEPS for your team to map their identities and become aware of their own biases.

6. LEAD AN EQUITY PLAN in your workplace or city.

7. CREATE A MANUAL of style for written and verbal speech that includes these ethnonyms and describes when to use each nomenclature.

8. USE THE TERMS interchangeably in a single document.

Bottom line: When determining which term(s) to use, intentionality is key. For example, if a planner intends to speak to the community at large, it might be better to use the ethnonyms Hispanic and Latino. If a planning office were making an equal employment opportunity statement, it would be essential to include the term Latinx in the mix with Hispanic and Latino. For advocacy planners who are trying to advance the rights of the LGBTQ community, particularly among the Hispanic and Latin/o/a population, it might make sense always to use the term Latinx.

Ethnonyms at a Glance


Popularity: Very popular; 33% prefer Hispanic

Who arguably prefers the term: Republicans, native born

Geographical location of Google hits: New Mexico, Idaho, West Virginia, Missouri, and South Dakota

Origin: 1970s Nixon administration in response to organization wanting to count those of Spanish-speaking descent including Spain

Controversy: Not used in Latin America and not inclusive of non-Spanish speakers


Popularity: Somewhat popular; 15% prefer the term Latino

Who arguably prefers the term: Democrats, immigrants

Geographical location of Google hits: Virginia, California, Minnesota, New Jersey, and New York

Origin: Popularized in the late 1980s to include non-Spanish-speaking groups and countries in Latin America

Controversy: Is not a gender-inclusive term


Popularity: Not very popular but increasing in popularity; 2% prefer the term Latinx

Who arguably prefers the term: Ages 18–34, the LGBTQAI + community, academics, activists, and cultural influencers

Geographical location of Google hits: Rhode Island, Oregon, Massachusetts, Washington, and Iowa

Origin: Popularized by millennials and Gen Z in social media in 2015 as a way to be more inclusive of gender identities

Controversy: Problematic due to its imperialist origins; English speakers are telling Spanish speakers how to be, and it erases Latinas

Ivis García is an assistant professor in city and metropolitan planning at the University of Utah and author of "Cultural Insights for Planners: Understanding the Terms Hispanic, Latino, and Latinx" (May 2020), originally published in JAPA.