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   Volume IV, Issue 2
November 2007   

The meaning of “Hispanic”: A student forum

What comes to mind when you see or hear the term “Hispanic”? Are you Hispanic? Questions such as these defined the discussion on Sept. 27 as Falvey Memorial Library hosted a student forum on the meaning of the term “Hispanic.” Dr. María Gladys Vallières and Dr. Carlos Trujillo, both associate professors of Spanish in the classical & modern languages and literatures department, led the discussion.   

Dr. Vallières stated that, among Spanish-speaking people, no consensus exists on the meaning of Hispanic and that the term is used most often in the United States. The etymology of Hispanic, as defined on a handout, begins with the word “Hispania”: “the name given by the Romans to the entire Iberian Peninsula—modern-day Spain, Portugal, Andorra, and Gibraltar.” Hispanic eventually came to be applied only “to Spain and things related to it.” Using the term in relation to modern-day Portugal, Brazil or Portuguese-speaking Brazilians, however, “is not appropriate and may cause irritation.” 

Hispanic is also used synonymously with “Latino,” which is not always accurate. A shortened version of the noun Latinoamericano, Latino literally refers to people who speak Latin-based languages, such as Spanish, Italian, French and Portuguese, or to descendants of countries in which those languages are spoken.   

Dr. Vallières discussed characteristics of language and culture. She distinguished between “Culture,” which pertains to famous people and events, and “culture,” which refers to food, music and the manner of speaking a language. It was this second culture that was her focus as she explained the term “transculturation”: the transformations from one culture to another without abandoning the culture-of-origin. This is opposed to “acculturation,” the abandoning one’s culture-of-origin in order to assimilate.  

Dr. Trujillo disputed the way the United States “catalogs” people, such as in the U.S. Census. Referencing a handout that featured a map, he added that Spanish is spoken in 21 countries in Europe, South America and North America. It is, therefore, inaccurate to group such disparate peoples under the term Hispanic. To illustrate his point, he asked, “Would we call an English-speaking person from South Africa ‘English’?” Both facilitators agreed that improving geography education in the United States could help its citizens understand such issues.   

Dr. Trujillo also addressed connotations of Hispanic, including the stereotypes familiar to many residents of the United States. He examined the term in the context of current U.S. immigration concerns.   

Students then shared their own experiences and challenges. One student who has a Spanish parent mentioned she has difficulty responding to official forms that ask her to identify her background. After learning her heritage, a skeptical friend told her, “You don’t look Hispanic.” Another student who indicated she is Portuguese said being multicultural and multilingual are assets in the business world. She also said, however, that her brother legally changed his name to conceal his Portuguese heritage while living in the United States.   

A student with Puerto Rican heritage illustrated peculiarities stemming from U.S.culture. She knows, for instance, people who were born in the United States and who share her background, but have no desire to learn about Puerto Rican culture. These same people, she continued, refer to themselves as Puerto Rican, ostensibly when doing so works to their benefit.    

Dr. Trujillo encouraged students to talk about such concerns when they have opportunities to do so. Political correctness in the United States, he added, sometimes stifles the beneficial exchange of ideas. He concluded the forum by stating “This discussion is the start of the conversation.”   

Contributed by Gerald Dierkes