September 15 marks the start of National Hispanic Heritage Month, an annual celebration that recognizes how Hispanic communities in the United States and the larger society have influenced and contributed to American culture. The event is observed from September 15 through October 15, and it includes events, educational initiatives and exhibits to honor the history of the United States’ more than 62.1 million Hispanic and Latinx Americans.
Hispanic Heritage Month is a good time for people to reflect on the cultures and histories of the Hispanic community in this country, but it’s also a chance to address thorny issues surrounding what it means to be Hispanic or Latino in the U.S., including how those terms are used by government entities and how a growing number of people choose to describe themselves with variations on the words Latino/a or Latinx.
For decades, Joel Camacho, who is Mexican, has celebrated Hispanic Heritage Month by eating pozole with family and reminiscing about his homeland. “It’s been a great time for me and my family to come together and celebrate,” he says. “And I know that’s the case for many other families in this country.”
But how much do we really know about the more than 62.1 million Hispanic and 62.6 million Latinos living in this country? As NPR’s Cristina Mora reports in a recent feature, the term Hispanic — first introduced in 1968 by California Congressman George Edward Brown — carries a long history of controversies and debate over its use. The word Hispanic essentially denotes someone with ancestry from any of the Spanish-speaking countries of Latin America, which encompasses everything from present-day Southwestern states to the southern tip of South America. It’s a broad definition that has left some feeling excluded from the umbrella term, while others are annoyed by being lumped into a category that could include anyone from anywhere in the world where Spanish is spoken.
More recently, the term Latino has gained in popularity, with some arguing that it’s more inclusive than Hispanic. But it’s not without its own problems, particularly in gender-neutral language: “Latino” and its non-gendered variant, Latinx, don’t sound natural when spoken because they end with an x, which is difficult to pronounce for many Hispanic and Latino speakers who don’t have the same English accent as white speakers.
Despite these challenges, the terms Hispanic and Latino are here to stay for now, with more and more people choosing to identify as Latinx or Latina/o. Whether you prefer these terms or would rather not use them at all, it’s worth checking out the stories behind the people who are using them to describe themselves and their complex cultures. Start with a few of these podcasts to learn more about the history, struggles and victories of those who call themselves Latino or Latina in this country and beyond.