Should We Say Latino or Hispanic?

By Mary Ann Zehr — June 10, 2009 2 min read
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In The New York Times column After Deadline, Philip B. Corbett reports that news coverage of Sonia Sotomayor’s nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court has raised some questions about the usage of words such as “Latino,” “Hispanic,” and “immigrant.”

It’s a topic that is relevant to this blog since 68 percent of English-language learners are Spanish-speaking, and teachers and administrators may often be in the position of describing them to others.

Corbett notes that Sotomayor refers to herself as “Latina.” He adds that while “Latino” or “Hispanic” are acceptable, some people have a strong preference. He says that reporters and editors should routinely ask how an individual or group wants to be described and honor that. He notes that it may be best to be specific, such as to say someone is Mexican-American or a Guatemalan immigrant. He also properly notes that Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens and are thus not “immigrants.”

Someone who prefers the term “Latino” asked me recently at an education conference why Education Week uses “Hispanic” in its pages. I answered that we use both.

Federal studies, for instance, use the word “Hispanic,” so I use that same word when writing about such studies. In addition, if I’m writing about demographics in a school, I usually use the word “Hispanic” because that’s how the data are reported to the federal government.

Many advocacy groups use “Latino,” so if they host an event or release a report that I write about, I pick up on their language and use “Latino” in my story.

When writing about individuals, I try to be as specific about someone’s heritage as possible. I say that someone is a “native of Mexico” or “Mexican-American,” depending on what information the person gives me.

What I find challenging to determine sometimes, though, is when it makes sense to include someone’s heritage in a story. My editors, of course, help me think through these decisions. For example, I debated recently whether I should say that J. Michael Clara, an activist who filed a complaint with the office for civil rights of the U.S. Department of Education alleging that the Salt Lake City school district wasn’t providing adequate services for English-language learners, was a “Mexican-American city transit planner” or simply a “city transit planner.”

I had asked Clara, who was born in the United States and grew up in Austin, Texas, if he calls himself a Mexican-American. He does. I thought that the fact that he was Mexican-American could have made him more sensitive to what kind of education ELLs, many of whom were from Mexico, were getting in the schools. I decided Clara’s heritage was relevant to the story.

What do you think? Did we at Education Week make the right call?

A version of this news article first appeared in the Learning the Language blog.