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Hispanic vs Latino vs Spanish vs Latin American: What’s the Difference?


The terms Hispanic, Latino, Spanish, etc. are often misinterpreted, confused, and misused, so we aim to help clear up the differences between each term. Learn the differences between Spanish vs Hispanic, Latin American vs Latino, Spanish vs Latino, and more.

Updated: 2019-05-04.

After the popularity of a post stating the differences between ethnicity vs race, I have decided to do another in the same vein. I did that previous post because I needed to understand more about what each word meant, so I researched the topic and then wrote a post about it.

Likewise, I feel like clarifying, both to myself and for anyone who is eager to learn, these various words and terms.

Though I write this as no expert, let’s see if we can figure out the differences between Spanish vs Hispanic, Hispanic vs Latino, Latin American vs Latino, and Spaniard vs Spanish.

I’m not sure how often these words are confused outside of the United States, but I am constantly disturbed by the rampant misuse of these terms here. The most disturbing/annoying is that in some places in the United States, anybody of color is called a “Mexican” – even if they are not Latino! When my parents relocated to Virginia a decade ago from New York City, my Indonesian mother was constantly asked if she was Mexican; she still gets it, and the ignorance still bothers me.

Anyway, let’s clarify these terms, so that we better ourselves and set an example for others:

Hispanic Spanish Latin American


This first one is complicated, because there are several definitions, each which can be interpreted in a slightly different way.

The term “Hispanic” was originally derived from Hispania, the ancient Roman name for the Iberian Peninsula, which is modern day Spain and Portugal. Using this broad definition, the Spanish, Portuguese, and peoples of all countries with a historical link to these two countries (such as Brazil and Mexico from colonization) are considered Hispanic.

This was the original definition, but so many argue today about its overly-encompassing nature that it is refuted and regarded as wrong. This is because modern-day Spain, termed España in the Spanish language, is derived from Hispania

So, using this narrower sense, we get the more common definition that says that being Hispanic refers to the culture, peoples, or nations with a historical link to Spain, which leaves out Portugal, Brazil, etc. The term is more-commonly used in the Western Hemisphere, especially in the United States, and applied to people of those countries which were once colonized by Spain, particularly the countries of Latin America.

Other than these two definitions, another interpretation of the term Hispanic uses the original ancient Roman Hispania for the Iberian Peninsula and then allows Hispanic to only refer to Spain and Portugal specifically, without their Western Hemisphere diaspora and others.

Then, a fourth definition narrows it further by saying that Hispanic refers simply and only to the people of Spain, and that’s it; this is due to the fact that Hispania is the namesake of Spain (España).

So, what’s it gonna be?

Well, they are all valid definitions, technically, since they are each given credit by reference materials such as dictionaries and encyclopedias. It is good to remember these differences, though, so that if you use the term and get called out on it, you can explain why your usage of Hispanic is valid and appropriate.

However, I believe the most popular interpretation would be the second one, which says that Hispanic people are the people of Spain or those with a common link to Spain, which can loosely be defined as people who speak the Spanish language.

Spanish & Spaniards

The term Spanish is easier to understand, because there are no conflicting definitions. Other than being a language shared by many people around the world, Spanish basically refers to anything from the nation of Spain; Spanish people are people whose nationality is of Spain.

Just because Mexicans, Peruvians, Chileans, Colombians, and others speak Spanish, they are not Spanish. The Spanish people are also referred to as Spaniards – that’s called a demonym.

Did you know? The term “Chicano” or “Chicana” refers specifically to Mexicans living in the United States. These Mexican-Americans use Chicano / Chicana as a kind of proud chosen identity.

Latino, Latina & Latin American

Latin America is defined as all of the Americas south of the United States, including the Caribbean, which speak a Romance language (Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, French, etc.), because these are derived from Latin. Thus, a Latin American is a person of these Western Hemisphere countries, usually ones that speak Spanish or Portuguese primarily (e.g., person from Chile, Argentina).

However, it is common nowadays for the term to be incorrectly defined as specifically a person who comes from any Spanish-speaking country in the Americas or the Caribbean. Because of this common misinterpretation, you may find many Brazilians, for example, who hate to be referred to as Latin American.

Latino is a term, primarily used in the United States, that is meant to refer to people from Latin America or of Latin American origin. As the term comes from the gendered Spanish language, Latino can refer to the men of Latin America or, as a group, both the men and the women of Latin America; a Latina would be just a female from Latin America or of Latin American origin.

The terms are dynamic enough to include people of the aforementioned countries by heritage, nationality, lineage, or birth country, giving multiple options to people, depending on how they’d like to identify themselves. 

Though rarely acknowledged, technically Haitians are actually Latin Americans, as French is a national language and a Romance language. Another side note to consider is that the U.S. government wrongly seems to promote the incorrect position that Hispanic and Latino are interchangeable – but then again, we Americans get a lot of things wrong.

Latin & Latinx

I thought I’d include this term in there, just to cover all my bases. Latin first and most-commonly refers to a dead language that is the predecessor of the Romance languages of today, and which has even contributed significantly to the English language.

Other than that, it is sometimes also another way to say Latino or Latina, thus referring to things and people of Latin American origin. You should be able to judge by the context, but when the term Latin is heard today, it is most likely referring to something or someone Latino / Latina / Latin American.

These days, a new alternative ridding itself of the shackles of gender can be found in the term Latinx. Latinx, pronounced lah-TEE-nex, is a modern-day gender-neutral way of describing a person without having to say Latino or Latino to denote male or female, respectively.

• • • •

One thing to note that is accurate for all of the above definition is the fact that, regardless of how someone identifies (Hispanic, Latino, or Spanish), they may be of any race.

Another point is that, because these terms are so broad, they don’t properly distinguish the many individual differences in culture, traditions, food, music, etc.; for this reason, the best thing to do is to call someone by their nationality when possible. Hope that helps clear some things up for you!

So, what did you think? Does this article help clear up the differences between Hispanic vs Latino, Spanish vs Hispanic, and Latino vs Latin American? Let us know in the comments below!

This is part of our ongoing series, “Versus: ‘What’s the Difference?'” For more like this, check out these articles:

Ethnicity vs Race | Great Britain vs United Kingdom | Middle Eastern vs Persian | Embassy vs Consulate | St Martin vs St Maarten | Oriental vs Eastern | Avenue vs Street | Tempeh vs Seitan

Written by
Christian Eilers
Join the discussion

  • You pretty much cleared a lot of the confusion up. Another group of people you should consider are the French Canadians (about 20% of the Canadian Population) that should be consider Latin Americans.

    • I agree Edurado; I also love how they elaborated on the difference enough to comprehend and also give similarities to completely clear up any confusion. The French Canadians should be included because many people do mistaken them for another nationality very often.

  • I’m Indonesian and I’m always asked if I’m Mexican and it doesn’t bother me. I learned Spanish and now I tell people I’m Mexican. lol

    • Beto, you’re just like me, haha 🙂 Mama saya juga dari Indonesia, dari Bandung. When I lived in VA for a few years during high school, most people there didn’t even know Indonesia was a country, so I was another Mexican to them. It was cool, though, for me; I learned some good Spanish, as well 🙂

  • History tells us that Spain ruled the Philippines from 1521 to 1889, and admittedly the Spanish language was the official language of the Philippines in those years until when the English language was introduced into the country by the Americans after the fall of the Spanish rule and the after the Philippine American war in 1899. Today the only place in the Philippines where Spanish, broken Spanish though, is spoken is in Zamboanga City. The latest census tells us that about more than two millions speaks the language, called Chavacano. I easily learned to fluently speak pure Spanish language when I worked in Venezuela, Puerto Rico and Mexico because of my Chavacano background.

    • Technically, The Philippines was only under Spain (Madrid) from 1821 to the early 1898. From 1565 to the early 1800s, it was under The Viceroyalty of New Spain … in other words, Mexico. English was introduced to the Philippines by the British in 1762 when they occupied the country for 2 years. However, it was the Americans who made English accessible to the masses when they occupied the country in 1898.

  • Dear Christian, Instead of clarifying you made a mess with the term Hispanic, including Brazil and Portugal on it. At the time of the Roman Empire, Hispania was the name given to the area currently named as Spain and Lusitania was the name given to the area currently named as Portugal. So, Brazilians and Portugueses are NOT Hispanics, but Lusitanics. And yes, Brazilians are Latin Americans and South Americans. I just don’t understand why in USA you call mexicans indians as Hispanics or Latins. It is the same of calling American indians (Navajos, Cherokees, etc.) as Anglo-Saxons or British.

    • Hey! I’m so happy that you came back, and again to comment on another article! But, if you look at what I said, I stated that this was the ‘original definition,’ as the Hispania was the name of the Iberian Peninsula, which Portugal is on. I also stated that this definition is highly contested today, and you prove that 🙂

  • WRONG: Spanish is a language- not a nationality or ethnicity !
    WRONG: Brazilians don’t dislike to be called Latin Americans. They are aware they live in the Continent of America!

    • In fact, there are many people in Spain (like myself) unconfortable with the term “spanish” refereing to the lenguage. It is more accurate to name it “castillian” (the region in Spain where it was born), since there are “other” spanish languages as well: catalan, basque and galician.

  • Hi Christian, Johnny is right: Brazilians don’t dislike be called Latin Americans. They dislike being called Hispanics for one single reason: they are Lusitanians instead.
    Please do your own research on the subject Lusitania, and you will find that it was an ancient region and Roman province in the Iberian Peninsula, corresponding generally to modern Portugal.
    The Lusitanian or Luso culture, is the culture of all Portuguese colonies (which includes Brazil).
    So, Hispanic culture doesn’t have anything to do with Portugal but with Spain. As Americans like to simplify things they should use the term Iberian which includes both cultures (the Hispanic and the Lusitanian).

  • Hrm. I’ve only heard Dominican Americans refer to themselves (& other Spanish-speaking people in NYC) as “Spanish,” never as Latino. I think it would have been more thorough to take self-identification into account when researching and writing this post.

  • The thing is “Iberian” Americans are use to calling themselves by their former master country I’ve looked at a Youtube video of a Mexican man asking other Mexicans at a Carnival what they put down in the Census they had in America. A lot put “white” because there is no Hispanic race it is only a heritage. The thing that’s wrong about this is Mexicans are not white they’re Mestizo. Mexicans haven’t gotten use to the fact that we may speak Spanish but we have brown skin. We are of Native and European ancestry and Mexicans do not know what to call themselves because they are not use to this, they are more keen to identify themselves by they’re European ancestry because of the hundreds of years of Spanish colonial rule. If you were a mix of European and Native what would you call yourself? Can’t say you’re Native American because you’re Mestizo can’t say you’re white cause your skin is brown. May speak Spanish but you don’t look like one.

  • Nope sorry in Italy and Spain the real pure blood latins refer to ourselves as latin and its pronoucned latino. Judt because american ignorance misuses the word in the americas does not change the ORIGINAL meaning of latino to be from lazio Roma italy. It was our culture first and we dont take to kindly to mixed indians claiming it. We are full blooded latinos and americans are mixed and the one drop rule is applied sorry.

    • Rubbish.

      Italy as a nation isn’t as old as Brazil or Peru.

      Spain is a nation of different ethnicities and nowhere near a thousand years old – tell a Basque, a Catalan and an Andalucian they’re all one.

      Spain (and Italy…) are and were multi-ethnic and multi-racial nations and they always have been – even Mussolino and Franco (who encouranged Latin American immigration to Spain and enshrined many laws regarding this) recognised it. Go and read a history book about it all, you might be surprised.

  • When you said let’s talk about the language, Spanish. Let me tell you that all countries colonized by Spain speak Castillean, we do not speak Spanish. Saying that we speak Spanish is one of the biggest errors I have heard. Spanish are called the people of Spain, period. WE SPEAK CASTILLEAN. Same mistake that United States citizens make when they called themselves Americans. Americans are all individuals born in the North, Central and South of the American continent. From Alaska to Tierra del Fuego. When the discovery of the continent the Europeans refer to the new world as America but not only United States that at that moment was not even form as a nation. The reference was made to the lands at the other side of the Ocean NOT UNITED STATES that arbitrately has monopolized the name to identify themselves. In US the term Hispanic is used in a derogatory way as usual by Americans.

    • I totally disagree. Both Spanish and Castilian are correct terms for the main language spoken in Spain. See these definitions from the RAE: 1. About Spanish, see entry 4 http://dle.rae.es/?id=GUSX1EQ 2. About Castilian, see entry 9 http://dle.rae.es/?id=7qluXx1
      Actually, the term Castilian is normally used only when you are trying to differentiate the variety of Spanish spoken in Spain from other varieties.m

  • It’s important to differentiate and educate people. My husband is from Spain and when he came to Canada has to constantly correct people when they ask if he or when he hears other people who speak spanish and say they are Spanish but really are not. You cannot say you are Spanish or a spaniard unless you are from Spain. This is true and even defines a lot of citizenship laws in Spain. I.e. (the nationality law automatically grants Spanish nationality to people born of a Spanish parent, a person born outside Spain to a parent of Spanish birth and nationality who uses the citizenship of the other country exclusively since birth is said to “recover” their Spanish nationality should they apply for it)

  • one thing come to my mine : what about all the spaniards romanian portuguese Italian french ( not mixed) who has a dark skin even more dark that americans native people; after having traveled different parts of the world I have to admit that dark skinned people have had many more extraordinary cultures in material; spiritual, technique that the clearer skin. name a European culture that is not dark skinned like the Greek Italians who have extraordinary technical, and cultural abilities. On the other hand only in America there are some cultures that leave you with open mouths of admiration; the same in Asia and the same in Africa places with no sign of whites;

  • People from Argentina are mostly of European ancestry (mainly Italians, Spaniards, Germans, French, Britons and Polish, in that order). Argentina was second in terms of European immigration, after the USA only, and ahead of Canada and Australia. Argentina is a Spanish speaking country, which implies that Argentines are Hispanic. If people from the USA think of Hispanic as a race, it must be shocking for them to meet someone from South America whose last name is Sturzenegger, Kirchner, Stolbizer, Stanley, etc. -just to mention a few Argentine politicians. A common mistake is to think of Latin America as a continuation of Mexico.

  • I am of Puerto Rican origin and I was born and raised in NYC. As a child in the 70’s and 80’s Hispanic was used to refer to all the people of the Latin American countries that speak Spanish. Brazil was included in this group by some and not by others. Latino arose in the late 80’s 90’s because we as a people did not want to use a term thrown at us by white Americans. Today the neutral term Latinx was introduced to be less patriarchal, but still to be a term that we choose for ourselves. All terms are still used by different people today, age is an influencer on which, and the discourse about which one is correct still goes on. I would also like to note that Latin America as a whole is influenced by origins from Africa, Europe, and Asia (all the parts) and the native Americans that were also enslaved and killed off. All of those influences vary by country, but they are still present in surnames, skin colors, hair textures and facial features. So people in Argentina having German last names does not only occur there, and not only German ones. In the case of Argentina, the majority of European influence is Italian and Spaniard.

  • All you guys are so wrong and confuse ; for example why will I call a Mexican that his/her roots are 100% Aztec a hispanic or of spanish descent, for example I’m of spanish and Jewish descent and I’m from Cuba but in Cuba we have Africans that speak spanish and does that make them Spanish ? ; in my eyes they are cubans of African descent but on the confuse latin community speaking a language give you an identity and that is so wrong, by doing that all of south and central Americans are forgetting about their own Native american culture who by right and identity have nothing to do with us Spaniards.

  • Spanish: Person who leave in the America of Spaniard descent ; by definition not everyone is spanish or hispanic , speaking Russian does not make Russian ?

    Spanish Native American speaker : Central and south American people who identified themself as hispanic only because they speak the language.

    There are two variations here; people don’t fully understand but just because you speak a language that does not make you from that country.

    Latin: We are latin because we speak a language that derives from the romances languages, in this case Portuguese and Spanish but only by speaking the language does not make you latin of origin.

  • I’m from Argentina. My 8 grand-grand parents came from the Basque country (Saint Jean de Luz, in France) and from Lombardy (Lake Como in Italy). So, none of my ancestors spoke Spanish and I don’t have native looks. If people in the US think that all people South of Rio Grande look like Mexicans, it’s because they learn from Hollywood directors, not from teachers.

  • you know christiaan what it is, the facial feature of the native mexican people is very similar to indonesia people, but they speak spanish, that’s why they think your mother is mexicooooo, (actually they are asian too, you know)

    and all the people in south and central america speak spanish coz of colonization
    this has ofcourse nothing to do with race but with language, i myself am dutch-indo, you know if you would mixed a filipino or indonesian with a spaniards you would have a facial feature which is the same as a mestiezo people like in colombia or venezuela,
    in bahasa indonesia you can find actually many latin words like bola, bendera, sabtu, minggu,etc because the portugese were colonized parts of indonesia mainly eastern, maluku, east-timor, before the dutch,
    but indonesia people are not latinos, but latino/mexican people are more like a lost brothers,

  • Most Mexicans are the descendants of the indigenous population that was already there when the Spaniards arrived. They adopted the language of the invaders, what happened to their original language?. Most of Central Americans had the same thing happen to them. Argentina native population was eliminated and replaced by white Europeans, so because the language connection the Argentines and the Mexicans are the same group? i don’t think so

  • Before the adoption of the ethnonym ” Hispanic or Latino ” by the United States Government, the term Hispanic was commonly used for statistical purposes. However, many people did not feel satisfied with the term and started campaigns promoting the use of “Latino” as a new ethnonym. The Office of Management and Budget has stated that the new term should be, indeed, “Hispanic or Latino” because the usage of the terms differs—”Hispanics is commonly used in the eastern portion of the United States, whereas Latino is commonly used in the western portion”.

  • I just feel pretty confused because the groups we are talking about don’t even agree on what to call themselves. I will just ask each individual what they prefer if it comes to it.

  • In the 45 years I’ve lived in NYC, “Hispanic” broadly referred to mixed-race, Spanish-speaking people and their descendants (e.g. the Argentinian Jews I’ve know, despite Spanish’s being their first language, are neither Hispanic nor Latino). Some years back, I asked someone I thought of as Hispanic whether people to whom it applied preferred “Hispanic” or “Latino.” He said most preferred the latter, so that’s what I’ve been using. And for the record, there’s no way in hell I’m ever using “Latinx.” This attempt to eliminate gender is insane.

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