Defining Hispanicity: E Pluribus Unum or E Pluribus Plures?

As immigrants, Hispanics are likely to experience the same social transitions as other immigrant groups. With time, most immigrant communities become ethnic groups, and within three generations (i.e., the grandchildren of the immigrants), most expressions of ethnicity, including language, are rendered symbolic as a result of improved socioeconomic status, residence in neighborhoods that are outside of ethnic enclaves, and intermarriage. There are signs that similar processes are occurring among Hispanic communities. However, it is uncertain whether “Hispanic” will evolve to become a symbolic identity for people of Latin American descent who become part of the American mainstream. There are risks that Hispanicity could be an enduring marker of ethnic and minority group status.

As detailed below, the panethnic term “Hispanic” became official government terminology in the mid-1970s.1 The term gained popular currency after being used in the 1980 census and all subsequent census schedules. It was joined by “Latino”—most popular in California during the 1980s and 1990s—in census 2000.2 Often used interchangeably, both terms are widely debated. Nor is there consensus on their usage, although there are clear preferences. Given a choice, migrants from Latin America overwhelmingly prefer to self-identify by country of origin, but if required to choose between the two panethnic terms, they prefer “Hispanic” to “Latino” by a margin of 3 to 1.3 It is worth noting that Hispanics are “Hispanic” only in the United States; in their home countries, the term neither resonates nor is used.

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