Hispanic, Latino, Chicano, Mexica – The Origins of Race Labels


The Origins of Race Labels

I’ve been confused about people labels most of my life.

If you’re familiar with my writing, you’ve seen that I use the term ‘Hispanic Latino Mexica’ all together.  You may have wondered why I use so many terms, what Mexica means and how to pronounce it.

I prefer including more descriptions to avoid offending anyone.  Here’s a breakdown organized from general to specific.



Origin: U.S. English but with roots from the Spanish words Hispania and Hispaniola

The word Hispanic has become popular in U.S. main stream media from the time ‘Hispanic’ appeared as a limited trail on the 1970 U.S. census and on all U.S. censuses from 1980 to the most recent 2010 census.

The Oxford Dictionary defines Hispanic as:

  • relating to Spain or to Spanish-speaking countries, especially those of Central and South America

Merriam Webster adds:

  • of or relating to the people,  speech, or culture of  Portugal

Wikipedia says:

  • In the United States the term can mean a person of (usually) mixed race with a Spanish surname.
  • The term Hispanic was first adopted by the United States government in the early 1970s, during the administration of Richard Nixon.

Scholars would argue:

  • Brazilian people are not Hispanic because they don’t speak Spanish. I was told this by a Stanford professor of Spanish Literature who’s husband’s parents are from Brazil. Also interesting, she said that on the 2010 census, neither her or her husband checked Hispanic. They both checked ‘White’, she said because their culture was more ‘White’ than Hispanic. Technically ‘White’ is not a culture nor is Hispanic a culture. Both terms are too broad to really be a culture. I suspect their European heritage factored into their answer on the census.

The U.S. Census says:

  • Hispanic origin includes South America

Bottom line:

  • Hispanic is a term that European Americans made up in order to group all people of Latin American heritage, similar to the way they made up the term ‘White’ to group all people of European heritage and made up ‘Black’ to group all people of African heritage.
  • Visuals to help remember the meaning of Hispanic are the geographic areas Hispaniola, where Columbus landed when he bumped into Native American land; and Hispania, the old name of the Iberian Peninsula.
  • Hispanic is a Eurocentric way to define a large group of people, many of whom have deep Indigenous roots on the American continent.
  • The labels are not universally embraced by the community that has been labeled.
  • The Hispanic label is consider harmful by some.


Latina / Latino

Origin: Spanish language

Latino is most commonly used by people of Latin American heritage to describe themselves and was used on the 2000 U.S. census.

Merriam Webster says:

  • a person of Latin-American origin living in the United States

Wikipedia says:

  • a person considered part of an ethnic background that is traditionally Spanish-speaking, especially a citizen of, or an immigrant from, a Spanish-speaking country.

Bottom line:

  • Latino Latina is generally more accepted (especially among Latinos) than the term Hispanic.
  • The NPR (National Public Radio) program is called Latino USA not Hispanic USA
  • Harvard has a department of Latin American Studies


Chicana / Chicano

Origin: Mixed (English phonetic spelling of Nahuatul word)

The main stream definition of Chicano is a U.S. citizen of Mexican heritage. The full meaning is deeper.

Chicana is the English phonetic spelling of Xicana, which is an abbreviation of the word ‘MeXicana’ (A Nahuatl word) pronounced meh-chi-ka-na.

The West Coast has Chicano Studies & Chicano/Latino Studies whereas the East Coast has Hispanic Studies. This could be because the West Coast has a greater Chicano population and maybe Berkeley chose the title Chicano Studies because the word is a combination of both European and Indigenous language so the word itself pays respect to a blending of the two cultures. The East Coast has a larger Puerto Rican and Dominican population. It’s interesting to see that Brown University went with the more encompassing term of Hispanic Studies.



Origin: Nahuatl (The most common of the official Native languages of Mexico. To hear a few seconds of Nahuatl from a native speaker click here, to hear children learning Nahuatl in Mexico click here)

Mexica are the people of Anahuac (Mesoamerica), or more specifically the people of the Aztec Empire.

I was enlightened about the significance of all these labels when reading the website of the Mexica Movement. Mexica prefer to use their own terms to describe their people and their land in order to preserve their culture and dignity.

The Mexica Movement in a similar struggle as the American Indian Movement, the Chicano Civil Rights Movement, the African-American Civil Rights Movement and the Asian American Center for Advancing Justice.

To learn more about the Mexica Movement, one good place to start is with their glossary which can be found here.



Glenn Robinson

Glenn Robinson

Glenn is a European-American married to a Mexican-American. They have two children. Glenn is interested in progressive immigration reform, and desegregation within schools and communities. He is a life long learner with interests in sociology, anthropology, psychology, history and politics.
Glenn Robinson
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