What’s in a name? Debate continues as Hispanic Heritage Month begins. 

James Bosquez | Ken Coleman photo

Whatever you do, don’t call Elena Herrada Hispanic or Mexican American. 

“I never liked the term ‘Mexican American’ because it marginalizes us. I refer to myself as a ‘Chicana,’” said Herrada, who earned a degree in Chicano-Boricua Studies from Wayne State University, is a former Detroit Board of Education member and now is a talk radio host on WFDF-AM in Southfield.

Similarly, she describes the term “Hispanic” as a government-created name that doesn’t adequately represent the variety of people of Latin American descent in America. 

Elena Herrada | Elena Herrada photo

“It comes from a term that refers to our conqueror,” Herrada said, referring to Spanish colonization of a portion of the Americas in 1519 and the Aztec Empire, in particular.   

She grew up in Southwest Detroit during the 1960s and ‘70s and was heavily influenced by the paternal grandparents who were Mexican immigrants who moved to Detroit in the 1920s. Herrada also was inspired by cultural liberation efforts like the Black Power and Chicano movement of the late ‘60s and ‘70s that pushed back against racism and oppression in a way that her grandparents couldn’t imagine.  

In our reporting, the Michigan Advance has generally used “Latino/a,” unless those interviewed prefer a different term. But as the nation prepares to recognize and celebrate what is known as Hispanic Heritage Month, which runs from Tuesday through Oct. 15, the question of what term should be used to describe people of Latin American descent continues to be debated.  

Should it be Hispanic, Latino or Latinx?

It depends on who you ask.

Survey says 

In Michigan, Latinos represent 5.3% — 504,857 — of Michigan’s 10 million residents, according to the 2017 U.S. Census estimate.  

The Pew Research Center conducted a nationally representative, bilingual survey of more than 3,000 U.S. Latino adults in December 2019. 

Pew Research Center on Latinos, 2019

Only 23% of U.S. adults who self-identify as Hispanic or Latino have heard of the term “Latinx,” and only 3% say they use it to describe themselves, according to the survey. 

Roughly one-quarter of Latinos said they have heard the term “Latinx” but awareness and use vary across different subgroups. Latinos ages 18 to 29 are among the most likely, with 42% saying they have heard of it, compared with 7% of those 65 or older. 

Latinos with college experience are more likely to be aware of Latinx than those without college experience. About four in 10 Latino college graduates (38%) said that they have heard of Latinx, as had 31% of those with some college experience. By comparison, just 14% of those with a high school diploma or less are aware of the term.

In addition, those born in the United States are more likely than those born in other countries to have heard the term Latinx (32% vs. 16%). Latinos who are predominantly English speakers or bilingual are more likely than those who mainly speak Spanish to say the same (29% for both vs. 7%). 

Latinos who identify with or lean toward the Democratic Party, according to the survey, are more likely to have heard of Latinx than those who identify with or lean toward the Republican Party (29% vs. 16%).

A look back   

Beginning in 1931, Mexico-born immigrant Diego Rivera created his iconic set of 27 murals illustrating workers in the Ford Motor Co.’s Rouge River factory. Much of the work is on display at the Detroit Institute of Arts today. 

During the 1930s, Berrien County growers recruited migrant workers, including Latinos, as seasonal workers. Before 1930, Mexicans, the dominant Latin American origin group, had been classified as white in many circles. A “Mexican” race category was added in the 1930 U.S. census. 

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But Mexican Americans, assisted by the Mexican government, lobbied successfully to eliminate it in the 1940 census and revert to being classified as white, which gave them more legal rights and privileges. It occurred after Mexican American organizations lobbied the federal government to collect data on Latino populations. 

In 1942, the federal government signed an agreement with the Mexican government that resulted in migrant workers becoming part of the workforce in states like Michigan. Called the Bracero Program, it offered employment contracts to five million people in 24 states. 

By 1968, the Civil Rights Movement was in high gear. African Americans were fighting for public policy that resulted in the Civil Right Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the Housing Act of 1968. 

But in October of that year, Puerto Rican-born Jose Feliciano sang a soulful rendition of the “Star-Spangled Banner” during a Major League Baseball World Series game in Detroit that offended some whites. Some fans at Tiger Stadium booed the 23-year-old Feliciano.  

“It was a disgrace, an insult,” a baseball fan, Arlene Raicevich of Detroit told the Associated Press at the time. “I’m going to write my senator about it.”

Meanwhile, Mexican-American activist Cesar Chavez spearheaded an effort toward economic justice for migrant workers through the use of picketing and strikes. 

Mano de Obra Campesina (Hand Of The Peasant Labor) by Dasic Fernandez | Ken Coleman photo

Government action 

National Hispanic Heritage Week was first proclaimed by President Lyndon Johnson in 1968. It was expanded to a month-long celebration in 1989 during President George H.W. Bush administration.

A 1976 law sponsored by U.S. Rep. Edward Roybal, a California Democrat, required the federal government to collect information about U.S. residents of Mexican, Puerto Rican, Cuban, Central American, South American and other Spanish-speaking country origins. It called for the U.S. Census Bureau to create a broader category that encompassed all people who identified as having roots from these countries. 

By 1980, the U.S. population numbered at 226.7 million and included 14.6 million people identified as Latino. It was the first time the term was used in the census. 

By 1997, the U.S. Office of Management and Budget issued a directive adding the term “Latino” to government publications. The two terms were used interchangeably, with Latino first appearing on the U.S. census in 2000, alongside the term “Hispanic.” 

“Latino” referred to the romance languages of France, Italy, Spain and Portugal and spoke to both genders of Latin America descent. However, it is a masculine word in Spanish. In recent years, women have been referred to as “Latinas.”  

The emergence of the term “Latinx” coincides with a movement to present gender-neutral nouns and pronouns into many languages whose grammar has traditionally used male or female constructions. In the United States, the first uses of Latinx appeared about 10 years ago. It was added to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary in 2018.

Latino Legislative Caucus announces leadership

The debate in Michigan

The Michigan Latino Legislative Caucus has used Latino, as opposed to Hispanic or Latinx. 

State Rep. Darrin Camilleri (D-Brownstown Twp.), the group’s treasurer, said that older generations usually prefer to be identified as Hispanic or Latino while younger generations have begun to identify as Latinx. As the son of an immigrant from Malta and a Latino woman, Camilleri, 28, became Michigan’s youngest Latino and first-ever Maltese American elected to the state Legislature in 2016.

“My mom and my grandpa prefer Hispanic,” said Camilleri. “That’s the most natural way that they describe themselves. My cousins and I mostly use Latino and we use that in our caucus. More recently, I have used Latinx for some things and want to be more intentional about it. But to be honest, it isn’t always the first thing that comes to mind to describe ourselves.”

State Sen. Erika Geiss (D-Taylor) is the caucus secretary and the granddaughter of Panamanian immigrants who moved to the U.S. in the 1950s. Geiss prefers Latinx.

Sen. Erika Geiss | Anna Liz Nichols

“I err toward Latinx because there are folks who are nonbinary or don’t categorize themselves as either gender,” Geiss said. “So, out of respect for our much more nuanced understanding of gender identity I err toward saying Latinx.”

Belda Garza was elected to the Michigan House of Representatives in 1998 and served one term. Born in Mexico City, in 1949 and raised in Detroit, Garza is the first person of her ethnicity to serve in the state Legislature. She prefers the term Latino or Latina.

“Our community is very diverse and people feel very differently,” Garza said. “You have Puerto Ricans, you have Mexicans and they all have different names to identify themselves. I prefer to go with Latino or Latina because it kind of encompasses everybody.”

However, James Bosquez, a 30-year-old Southwest Detroit resident, prefers to be referred to as Hispanic.

“I prefer Hispanic because it’s a generalized term for Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, and pretty much all from South America,” Bosquez said.  

James Bosquez | Anna van Schaap photo

Betsy Lopez-Wagner, who recently moved to Grand Rapids from California, has been involved in the Latinx for Black Lives Matter Greater Grand Rapids organization. The 37-year-old communications professional studied at Columbia College Chicago and the Universidad de Guadalajara in Mexico.

She refers to herself as a Chicana so as to acknowledge Mexican ancestry. However, she also respects those who identify as Latino, Latina or Latinx. 

“Hispanic and Latino, Latina, Latinx are not interchangeable,” Lopez-Wagner said. “I personally am not Hispanic.” 

Ken Coleman
Ken Coleman covers Southeast Michigan, economic justice and civil rights. He is a former Michigan Chronicle senior editor and served as the American Black Journal segment host on Detroit Public Television. He has written and published four books on black life in Detroit, including Soul on Air: Blacks Who Helped to Define Radio in Detroit and Forever Young: A Coleman Reader. His work has been cited by the Detroit News, Detroit Free Press, History Channel and CNN. Additionally, he was an essayist for the award-winning book, Detroit 1967: Origins, Impacts, Legacies. Ken has served as a spokesperson for the Michigan Democratic Party, Detroit Public Schools, U.S. Sen. Gary Peters and U.S. Rep. Brenda Lawrence. Previously to joining the Advance, he worked for the Detroit Federation of Teachers as a communications specialist. He is a Historical Society of Michigan trustee and a Big Brothers Big Sisters of Metropolitan Detroit advisory board member.