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.




  1. Big Bear says

    Mexica Movement is not similar to AIM. They are more like the Brown Berets. I wouldnt recommend anyone to check out their website since half of their stories are false and racist.

  2. says

     @Big Bear Thank you for the feedback Big Bear. I'm still learning about the Mexica Movement and I have noticed a thread of anger through the Mexica Movement site. I've been trying to figure out how much of the anger is righteous indignation and how much is negative energy.  The Brown Berets seem to be similar to the Black Panthers. 

  3. says

    Chicanismo derives it’s origins in the Chicano Movement which sought, among many things, to answer the existential questions: Where did we come from? How did we get here? Where are we going?

    In a (Eurocentric) lexicological context chicano derives from the mexica tribe (pronounced Mesheeca: Nahuatl) which is what the aztecas called themselves (much like Dine for Navajos). Note: The Aztecas did not have a written language which makes this analysis eurocentric. The term was used to name Mexico (Mesheeco) and those who reside there Mexicanos (Meshicanos). Mexicanos was shortened to Chicanos which as you may note was spelled phonetically. Along that same line of reasoning many Chicano activists use “X” in place of “Ch” to spell the adjective as to honor it’s semantics: “Xicano”. This is also done for the spelling of names, i.e. Xris as a form of decolonization. Also, to honor the xicana feminist movement, i would add the queer Aztlan movement, we also use the spelling Xican@s, as to disrupt the patriarchy undertone of privileging only biological males by using Xicano/Chicano/Latino/Hipsano/etc. Those who wish to employ a more technical way to disrupt this grammatical patriarchy use the suffixes -a/o or -as/os instead of @/@s. Further disrupting the intrinsic patriarchy of written Spanish the norm is to place the feminine before the masculine. The ending -o is the masculine suffix for words whereas the ending -a is the feminine ending. If speaking about both genders one traditionally ends the word with -o/os in Spanish. My apologies for reifying this.

    Chicano has transcended the original racial pejorative of describing an American-born individual with Mexican/Mexican American heritage. Chicanismo, for some, is not a racial category or essence such as “blackness,” rather it is a social and political consciousness attached to the Chicano Movement (see MEChA El Plan de Santa Barbara/El Plan Espiritual): the commitment to seeking social, economic, political, and educational justice for all La Raza in the U.S., particularly, those from “Aztlan” or the ancestral homelands of the Aztecas (S.W. United States: some suggest Utah). Chicanismo membership should not, for many, be extended to those outsde of La Raza (those who share indigenous/Spanish heritage). However, bestowing honorary Chicano membership to allies is more accepted today with the advent of inclusion, colorblindness and American multiculturalism.

    It is commonly held that “latino” it is short for “latinoamericano” or “americano latino”. “latino”, as an ethnic identity, is preferred by the majority of Latin Americans who come from the regions outside of North America. Many who do not self-identify with chicano or Hispanic prefer “Latino”. ”Latino” is yet another european construct-that is creation of european racial/ethnic ideology-and pays homage to the fact that most “latinos” have Spanish heritage (Spanish being a Latin-based language). “Latino” like “hispanic” is widely viewed as making invincible one’s indiginous roots. Subsequently, the use of “latino” has become widely popular among American mestizos as to avoid using “hispanic” to self-identify. On the same token many Raza avoid using Chicano because of its orthodox connotation of having Mexican/Mexican American ancestry or due to its association with chicanismo. Chicanismo ideology has been critiqued as being anarchical, seccesionist, radical, violent and even reverse-discriminatory. Let me take a moment to acknowledge that “La Raza” is also a contested identity. Many dwell on the literal translation-the race-and note that this also essentializes many peoples in a very reductionist fashion.

    Mestizaje or having spanish and indiginous ancestry is the trait which binds La Raza but which is not shared, nor affirmed, by all individuals of La Raza. Note that not all individuals, whether self-identified as chicano, latino or hispanic accept the use of the term La Raza for a myriad of reasons. I use the term as a “catch-all” descriptor. Most of those considered members of La Raza are biologically/genetically “Mestizo”. “Mestizo,” yet another european construct, is generally used to describe individuals with indigenous (Meso-American) and Spanish genes and/or biological essence (this includes many Native Americans). The first documented mestizo was the child of “La Malinche” or “La chingada madre” or Malinalli Malintzin or Doña Marina, who was a Nahua/Aztec/Mexica woman who married Hernan Cortes.

    It is not well documented where the term “Hispanic” originated but most attribute its etymology to “Hispania” or the Iberian peninsula not “Hispaniola” which is a Caribbean island. For this reason it is seen as making invincible the indiginous side of the hybridity which resulted from spanish conquest, colonization and inter-breeding. Most agree that “Hispanic” is not interchangeable with “Spanish”-the latter is the term used to describe those who come from the Iberian Pennisula the former used to describe American-born members of La Raza. However, many Mexican Americans—particularly those with deep roots in Aztlan— self-identified as “Spanish,” which I claim was a distancing strategy used to avoid being cast as Mexican due to the many negative associations with being Mexican. Those associations led the dominant white to socially, economically, politically marginalize/disenfranchise those of La Raza who were marked as “other” by skin color, language, culture, etc. Those marked as outsiders were oppressed/denigrated as to maintain white supremacy. This resulted in many brown Americans being forced to endure oppression of all sorts: physical brutality (including lynchings), segregation (residential/educational), enslavement (indentured servitude/exploitation), regimes of assimilation/cultural genocide (i.e. punitive assimilation/acculturation), unequal enforcement of legal sanctions, racial/ethnic profiling, surveillance, etc. Due to the pervasiveness of racism, colorism, and “racist enthnocentrism” in American society many raza vehemently defended their pure “Spanish” heritage through narratives and documentation. I’ll expand on this more below.

    It is widely accepted that “hispanic” as an ethnic category was created by the U.S. government to distinguish European “Whites” (anglo-saxon/european/”honorary” whites) from Mestizos and even Spaniards. In the first half of the 20th Century many Mexican Americans, Mestizos and Spaniards were categorized as “White” on census and vital statistic documents (i.e. birth cirtificates). This did not translate into the possession of “whiteness” however. Because spaniards are, for all intents and purposes, white europeans and more so due to the material benefits/privileges gained by the “possesive investement” in whiteness many raza sought to declare/defend their spanish or white heritage through producing birth certificates/census records of an ancestor which clearly states their race as “white”/”spanish”.

    Socially speaking, Mexican Americans wanted to be “white” or invested in whiteness as to enjoy the material benefits of “whiteness” also known as white privilege. Legally, “white” Americans could easily maintain their hegemonic status as long as Mestizos were legally “white”. Discursively, if Mexican Americans were honorarily “white” then they could not be considered to be socially/legally disadvantaged and racial stratification could be explained by cultural differences versus white nationalistic/supremacist ideology. The American racial hierarchy-with whites at the top-is preserved when claims of racial prejudice/discrimination are contextualized within race neutral, colorblind, equal opportunity and post-racial paradigms. Furthermore, if Mexican Americans were legally “white” they could not bring litigation against institutional whiteness and were exempt from equal protection/opportunity.

    After the supreme court case Hernandez v. Texas (1954), Mexican Americans became a “race-apart” (see the PBS documentary “A Race Apart”) and a protected class under the 14th Amendment. This meant that Mexican Americans and other members of the “brown mennace” needed to be legally defined.

    It is claimed that the ethnic category “Hispanic” did not appear in U.S. Census or government documents until the 1970’s. The categories which are employed today are “White-non-Hispanic” or white Americans, “White-Hispanic” or “criollos” (whites from Latin America i.e. those of German descent who come from Argentina) and “Hispanic-non-White” or Mestizos. These categories butress the pervasive colorism which persists among la raza. Further complicating the issue, many “coyotes” (black, native, spanish), “mullatos” (black and Spanish: not PC), Afro-Cubans, Brazilians, and Portuguese do not identify with being “Hispanic”, “Latino”, or “Chicano” despite being seen as “hispanic”.

    All these terms are problematized, especially by critical theory, as treating la raza as essentially monolithic and criticized as being unable to account for the many differences which exist within and between the various “hispanic/latino” sub-groups. Similarly post-colonial theory holds that these racial/ethnic categories are remnants of the colonial project designed to divide, label, categorize, differentiate, essentialize and “other” la raza. Many post-structuralists see race as socially constructed subjectivities/positionalities versus biological/genetic variables. These ethnic categories also do not acknowledge the existence bi/poly-racial individuals or those who wish to affirm a raceless persona. Social science, and the like, tend to treat these racial/ethnic categories as independent variables which can easily be plugged into structural equations. This for, critical theorists, reifies the racial hierarchy because they are commonly used to compare la raza with white America with whiteness placed at the center and seen as the norm or benchmark of normativity.

    These racial/ethnic categories described above can be “externally ascribed”, meaning people are placed into these categories by decoding markers of difference such as skin color, language/anccent, cultural expressions/aesthetics, etc. by means of what many call the “normative gaze”. “Externally ascribed” identities are widely seen as complicating an individual’s “internally ascribed”, or self-reported/self-determined, racial/ethnic identity. The way in which someone comes to determine their “internally ascribed” Racial/ethnic identity is explained/detailed through racial/ethnic identity formation models (Erickson, Helms, Phinney). These models are usually linear and sequential as to suggest that one progresses along a continuum, starting with childhood, eventually “arriving” at an “authentic” racial/ethnic identity. These models also suggest that an individual progresses forward through stages of identity formation and doesn’t allow for identity regression meaning once you’ve passed through the “immersion/emersion” stage (Helms), for example, you will never return or go back through the “disintegration” (Helms) stage.

    So what does this say about racial/ethnic identity politics in America?: so much is at stake in affirming an “internally ascribed” identity which may or may not trump any “externally ascribed” identity especially if the “externally ascribed” identity is stigmatized. Socially speaking, so much is attached to racial signifiers like ethnic/racial categories that we will deny or avoid affirming our “true” (not with a capital T as this is all subjective and socially constructed) racial/ethnic heritage and arm ourselves with a less-denigrating identity, i.e. “Spanish”. This is one conundrum that “whites” don’t have to navigate and even enjoy the ability to appropriate other racial/ethnic identities without reprisal: proof positive of “white privilege”. Ironically, white Americans do avoid affirming a “racist white” identity and can “other” such whites.

    Most young Americans of color wish to be socially defined in colorblind or raceless terms in order to be emancipated from having assumptions made about their intrinsic character, abilities and worth based upon your race/ethnicity. While it may be a reality that America is no longer overtly racist, cultural reproduction persists. The American (neo)liberal notion that we are a post-racial society defined by equal opportunity (aka colorblind meritocracy) discursively denies the pervasiveness of racism/racial discrimination and makes invincible the taken-for-granted racial hierarchy that stratifies Americans. This leads many to the “culture of poverty” paradigm or discursively attributing the many social/political/economic disparities which occur along lines of race/ethnicity in America to the cultural deficiencies of the subjugated versus white privilege, white nationalism and white supremacy/hegemony.