copyright 2000 by Susana Rosende

According to Sociology Professor Dr. Tom O'Connor of North Carolina Wesleyan College, there are nearly 24 million Latinos, comprising about 10% of the U.S. population. There are three (3) major groups: Mexicans (64%), Puerto Ricans (10%), and Cubans (6%), and there are three (3) minor groups: Central Americans (10%), South Americans (8%), and Dominicans (2%).

Despite a common language and culture, there are ethnic and racial differences that US citizens do not distinguish.

Dr. O'Connor defines the many terms used to describe the Latino/Hispanic population in the United States:

  • "Spanish people" is used frequently in the United States to refer indiscriminately to any person who speaks Spanish. But, it is imprecise and often inappropriate in that it includes people from more than two dozen countries, spanning the entire American continent, the Caribbean and Spain. The term does apply specifically, however, as the proper name for the native people of Spain, and for this reason it is as incorrect to use it to refer to any and all Spanish-speakers as the term "English" would be to refer to citizens of New Zealand, Australia or the United States.
  • "Hispanics" is often used to refer collectively to all Spanish-speakers. However, it specifically connotes a lineage or cultural heritage related to Spain. As many millions of people who speak Spanish are not of true Spanish descent (for example, Native Americans), and millions more live in Latin America (see "Latino" below) yet do not speak Spanish nor claim Spanish heritage (for example, Brazilians) this term is incorrect as a collective name for all Spanish-speakers, and may actually be cause for offense.
  • "Latino" is used to refer to people originating from, or having a heritage related to, Latin America, in recognition of the fact that this set of people is actually a superset of many nationalities. Since the term "Latin" comes into use as the least common denominator for all peoples of Latin America in recognition of the fact that some romance language (Spanish, Portugese, French) is the native tongue of the majority of Latin Americans, this term is widely accepted by most.
  • "Chicano", is associated with the mid-twentieth Century "Brown Power" movement, and has its origins in the Spanish rules of grammar which consider it vulgar to pronounce "Mexicano" the way Americans do with a hard "x" instead of the proper, soft "h" sound.
  • "Mexican" is specifically the nationality of the inhabitants of Mexico. Therefore, the term is used appropriately for Mexican citizens who visit or work in the United States, but it is insufficient to designate those people who are citizens of the United States (they were born in the U.S. or are naturalized citizens of the U.S.) who are of Mexican ancestry.
  • "Hispano" refers strictly to a small group of people along the Rio Grande who consider themselves the lost Jews who fled Spain during the Inquisition.
  • Due to ethnic and national pride, the Spanish-speaking peoples often use their country of origin to describe themselves, while adding the "American" suffix (for example, Cuban-American, Peruvian-American) much as Irish-Americans and Italian-Americans do in the United States.

    It is important to mention that there are millions of people of Spanish descent (Hispanics) who do NOT speak Spanish (Brazilians) and millions of people who speak Spanish (Latinos) but are NOT of Spanish descent (Native Americans). And Spanish-speaking people may be white, black, or Asian.


    Cuban-Americans have the highest educational, economic, and occupational levels of any Hispanic/Latino group in the United States. Proportionally, the educational levels of Cuban-Americans are even higher than those of white U.S. citizens. Most Cuban-Americans are affiliated with the Republican party because Cuban-Americans tend to practice "exile politics" via "ethnic politics."

    The Cuban-American community is firmly established in Florida, especially in Miami, South Florida, where Cuban-Americans have a stable economic base built around small businesses and banking, and an economic plan for when Cuba is free again.

    According to Dr. O'Connor's course syllabus,"Twenty-five% of all banks and five of the top 10 corporations in Dade County are Cuban-owned-and-operated. Because of the Cuban-American's refugee/immigrant status, U.S. policy has been somewhat favorable. In fact, Cubans are the only immigrant group that can claim residency after just being in the U.S. for one year."



    During the arrival of about 500,000 Cubans in the 1960s --(my parents, brother, and I arrived in 1962), Congress created resettlement programs for job training, small business loans, educational subsidies, and home purchases. It is also fairly well known that the group of refugees arriving in the 1960s were from the upper and middle classes of Cuba.

    During 1980, Fidel Castro emptied about 125,000 people from Cuban prisons and mental hospitals, beginning the Mariel boat lifts, which brought a different population to America, and the U.S. responded by processing them at Eglin Air Force Base where several riots broke out and federal troops were called in. Much of this population wound up deported or in the nation's prisons (for crimes or what the BOP calls "temporary detention"), but many were released into the community, boosting local unemployment rates from 5% to 13%.


    I am Cuban-born and American-raised and nationalized. I grew up in middle class, suburban, all-American neighborhoods. To my Cuban cousins in Miami, I seem to speak perfect English with no trace of accent, and do not raise my children (who don't even speak Spanish) in the Cuban culture. To them, I am American.

    To my American neighbors, co-workers, and friends in Orlando, Florida I am the bilingual Spanish woman. The Hispanic. The Latina. The Cuban. La Cubana.


    So how should U.S. citizens refer to the Spanish-speaking peoples who inhabit the United States? And how should we refer to ourselves?

    How about "Latinos" from "fill-in-the-blank country" or using the American suffix such as "Cuban-American" to distinguish the population groups?

    Better yet, as many of us are second, third, and fourth generation and may not even SPEAK the Spanish language, let alone read or write it, why not just refer to us as "Americans?!" :)


    Syllabus for SOC 355: SOCIOLOGY OF DISCRIMINATION Last offered 2000 (8 week format) via Raleigh campus, Instructor: Dr. Tom O'Connor


    Abalos, D. (1986) Latinos in the U.S. Notre Dame, IN: Notre Dame Univ. Press.

    Garcia, M. (1998) Hardliners v. Dialogueros: Cuban Exile Politics. Journal of American Ethnic History.

    Moore, J. & H. Pachon (1985) Hispanics in the U.S. NJ: Prentice-Hall.

    Winsberg, M. (1994) Specific Hispanics. American Demographics.

    Weyr, T. (1988) Hispanic U.S.A.:Breaking the Melting Pot. NY: Harper & Row.

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