Carlos P. Hipolito-Delgado, an associate professor in Counseling at the University of Colorado Denver, gave a virtual talk about identity labels. The Johns Hopkins Latino Alliance hosted the interactive discussion to address questions on how to properly refer to people of Latin American origin.
Hipolito-Delgado defined ethnic identity as the degree to which a person identified with and endorsed the value, beliefs and customs of their ethnic origins.
Hipolito-Delgado highlighted the importance of being respectful and taking time to ask people about their identity and what their identity means to them.
“We’re not all the same, and when we’re lumped together, we could potentially be missing out on things,” he said. “So, understanding and asking folks what their ethnic identity label is can give us more insight into what their values are, what their experiences are, and forces us not to make assumptions.”
According to Hipolito-Delgado’s research, there are numerous psychological and academic benefits for students who have a strong ethnic identity. He explained that undergraduate Latino students who identified strongly with their ethnicity had increased motivation for going to college and had higher GPAs.
Hipolito-Delgado also discussed the difference between ethnic identity and ethnic labels, emphasizing the strong connection between the two. He further stated that one’s ethnic labels can provide important information about a person’s experiences and beliefs.
Touching on some of the most well-used labels, Hipolito-Delgado discussed the difference between the terms Latino, Hispanic and Chicano. He explained that their varied uses were due to distinctions in ethnic identity and the degree to which people who use them identify with dominant U.S. cultural values and beliefs.
Mónica Guerrero Vázquez, who works at the Center for Health and Opportunity for Latinos, asked Hipolito-Delgado what the best term to use is when addressing a variety of people.
“I’ve been wondering what is the best label that I can use to be respectful of the identity of the community that I work with but also be inclusive,” she said.
Hipolito-Delgado advised that, from a safety perspective, the term Latino will probably appeal to the greatest number of people. However, he emphasized that the best course of action would be to simply ask them.
“Unfortunately, there’s been a lot of inattention to ethnic labels, particularly ethnic identity labels, in communities of Latin Americans. So folks will frequently throw around terms Hispanic, Latino, without really getting into what that might mean for folks and how they themselves might identify as,” he said.
He referred to a study on college campuses, which indicates that if a person does not personally identify with a certain label, they will not access resources in Latino Student Services or Hispanic Student Services.
“Folks who don’t endorse that label won’t go to that office. There’s one particular study where Mexican-American women were asked why they didn’t use Latino Student Services. They said they weren’t Latinos,” he said.
Ileana Gonzalez, an associate professor at the School of Education, mentioned that ethnic identity can be contextual and can depend on one’s surroundings — specifically in academia.
“I didn’t know that I was different until I went to a predominantly white institution for college. When you move around, that really does impact how you see your own ethnicity and how others see you,” she said.
Hipolito-Delgado explained that the term Latino is typically endorsed by those who live or were born in the U.S., but it is rarely used by people living in Latin America. On a political spectrum, the term Latino is more popular among those that are slightly left.
Latino/a/x, the most prominent label, originated from 19th century Europe. Nowadays, it is commonly used to refer to people with Spanish speaking ancestry residing in the U.S.
Graduate student Abimelec Torres said that language was an important component to his ethnic identity.
“For me, language is one of the most important things because automatically, if I know someone who speaks Spanish, even if they’re not specifically from where I am from, I feel some kind of connection,” he said.
Regarding the gender naming conventions Latino/a/x, Hipolito-Delgado explained that including the o/a in Latino and Latina was a way to respect the gendered language of Spanish. More recently, the introduction of x in Latinx was to respect those who don’t necessarily identify with gender binomials.
The term Hispanic, Hipolito-Delgado said, was the second most popular label used. The term is an English translation of Hispano or Hispanico, which means “from Iberian Peninsula.”
Hispanic was used by the U.S. Census during the 1970s to classify people of Mexican, Cuban, Puerto Rican, Central or South American descent.
It is rejected by some for the overemphasis on Spanish ancestry and because it is imposed by the U.S. government. On a political spectrum, conservatives are more likely to use the term Hispanic.
The term Chicano is also popular. However, it lacks a clear definition, in part because it was originally used as an insult to lower-class people. During the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s, it was reclaimed as a term of empowerment and was used in rejecting Eurocentrism and embracing indigenous values.
Hipolito-Delgado stated that there is some research showing Chicanos as having values that are much more similar to Native Americans than Latin Americans. This data also suggests that Chicanos are likely to be more politically active, specifically to the left of the political spectrum. The term is most popularly used in California and with political militants.
Chicanos were more likely to identify with their cultural origin and the least likely to identify with progressive U.S. cultural values. At the opposite end of the spectrum was the term Hispanic — consisting of people who were least likely to feel a connection with their culture of origin but were more likely to identify with U.S. beliefs. Latino fell in the middle, closer to the Chicano side of the spectrum.
Furthermore, Hipolito-Delgado explained that some adults with Latino backgrounds don’t identify with any label at all and were more likely to identify with their country of origin.
Graduate student Carolina Garcia stated that ethnic identity has had both positive and negative influence on her life.
“Being from South Dakota, I was one of the few ethnic individuals at the state, so I felt pretty isolated because of that,” she said. “At the same time, I feel like this isolation helped me own my ethnicity, and this allowed me great opportunities.”