All Points

You Say Latino

By William Deresiewicz | October 16, 2011


I was talking with some graduate students, people I didn’t know, when the subject turned to minority issues. Every time I said Hispanic, the guy sitting next to me said Latino. This was about a decade ago; I hadn’t realized the terminology had changed. Every time I said Latin America, the guy said South and Central America. This was confusing, not to mention annoying. “Wait,” I said. “I’m supposed to say Latino, but I’m not allowed to say Latin America? That doesn’t make a lot of sense.” He looked at me as if to say, “Fuck you, white man. We don’t owe you an explanation.”

I’ve had a problem with Latino ever since, and not because of the guy. (I never heard South and Central America again, so I forgot about it.) I agree, as a general rule, that people have a right to decide what the rest of us should call them, but I don’t believe the principle is absolute. I understand that there were problems with Hispanic. It enthroned the Spanish element in Latin American culture at the expense of the Portuguese, French, and Italian ones. On the other hand, Latino is no better at recognizing the indigenous, African, and other elements. I think the real reason people wanted to drop Hispanic was simply that it was, or at least was felt to be, something that white people had thought up. Which is fine, but here’s my trouble with Latino. It’s not just Latino, it’s Latino and Latina. Which means that every time we use the words, we’re reinforcing gender lines. We’ve made a lot of progress in eliminating sexist language from our common discourse. We say police officer, firefighter, chair. No one says poetess anymore, and a lot of people now use actor for both sexes. Why should we adopt a terminology that moves us in the opposite direction, inscribing gender difference where it didn’t used to be?

We also need to ask what “people” means, as in “people have a right to decide what the rest of us should call them.” The question is, which people are doing the deciding? I was reporting a story about the Indian Health Service, talking to an activist. I kept saying Native American. He kept saying Indian. Finally, I said, “Aren’t we supposed to say Native American?” “No,” he said, “that was just a few hotheads. Most Indians say Indian.” In South and Central America, hispano and latino are interchangeable.

This is not all just semantics, needless to say. Words embody ideologies, and we aren’t always doing the right thing when we do the politically correct one. Over the last couple of decades, a lot of Indian cities have changed their names. Madras has become Chennai. Calcutta has become Kolkata. For the most part, this has been a matter of throwing off colonial identities. But what about Mumbai, the former Bombay? The name was changed in 1995 after the nativist Shiv Sena party took power in the state of Maharashtra. Mumbai derives from Mumbadevi, the goddess of the region’s indigenous people. The name was aimed, not so much at the British as at the city’s many non-Marathi residents. The Shiv Sena are violent, extremist, xenophobic, and racist. They attack Muslims and Christians—as well, sometimes, as people who insist on saying Bombay. Every time we use Mumbai, we’re unconsciously assenting to their ideology.

I say Latino, because I don’t want to be an asshole. But the language belongs to everyone, and we all have a right to decide how to use it.

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