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The Social Construction of the ‘Hispanic/Latino/Spanish’ Race

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In daily social discourse, you may have heard people referred to as ‘Hispanic/Latino/Spanish” (HLS) What does this mean? Are they referents of biological races or are they social only social terms? When we think of HLSs, we think of things that group HLSs together and most people, in the American context, think of HLSs as a race. In this article, I will discuss the social construction of the HLS race and what it means for race discourse in America.

Imagine you hear two people speaking Spanish. When you hear this and you are then asked a question about the two interlocutors, you may refer to them as “those Spanish people.” You are only referring to them as “Spanish people” since they are Speaking Spanish. Now, thinking of it in this way, the referent “Spanish”, like, say, “Italian” may refer to a particular ethnic group or it may not (depending on whether or not an individual has migrated to that country, had children and then raised them in the country they migrated to). However, when we—in our daily social discourse—refer to “Spanish people” are referring to many different countries and the people that inhabit them.

For example, we may refer to Dominicans as HLS, on the basis that they speak Spanish. Would they, then, be racially similar to Chileans or Argentinians despite the radically different histories of the countries in question? No. That they share a language does not indicate that the three countries in question are a part of this HLS—it does not mean that they are a biological race. However, these people from these countries that do speak Spanish—if they, say emigrate to America—may receive the same treatment as each other on the basis of the language they speak.

Take the identity group La Raza. La Raza means “the race” in English, and it refers to the countries that the Spanish invaded and then intermixed with the indigenous inhabitants of said country (and even African slaves they brought when the indigenous population began to dwindle). In this way, La Raza becomes a socially constructed race and what unites those people is the fact that they speak the same language and have similar cultural histories (having Spaniards invade their land and forcing their customs on them). They may say a phrase like “Viva La Raza” which translates to “Long live the race.”

If we are talking about “race” in the American sense, then we are talking about how the OMB uses the term “race” and what it means to Americans in American discourse. That we speak of certain social groups as “races” does not entail that we treat them as biological races. One may be of the same racial group and, a country or area where they are the minority they may then be treated differently on the basis of their customs/language.

Take Argentina. An Argentinean may have most of their ancestry derive from Southern Italy, since Argentina saw a large number of Southern Italian immigrants begin to emigrate in 1857, right as The Kingdom of Two Sicilies became Italy. In any case, if this Argentinian had all of their ancestry from Southern Italy, and, say, their parents emigrated from Argentina to America, then they would speak Spanish. On this basis alone, if this family were in, say, New York or New Jersey (two states with a high Italian population) and they spoke Spanish, the Italian population would discriminate against them on the basis of their language and culture and how it is not like their own. So even though they are of the same ethnic group, just the simple fact that their families emigrated to different countries before/after Italy’s ‘creation’ would mean that one group would discriminate against the other on the basis of cultural differences.

So take a La Raza proponent. On the basis of the phrase “Viva La Raza“, since “La Raza” refers to countries with historically Spaniard influence, they would then be referring to those countries that Spain had invaded in the 1500s. So, a Mexican La Raza proponent may be referring to, and even attempt to give special privilieges to, an Argentnian even if they are not of the same (biological) race. The Mexican La Raza proponent may, for example, owe most of his ancestry to the Aztecs while the Argentinean may of most of his ancestry to South Italians. Although they are of different racial groups, the Mexcian La Raza proponent may see the Argentinian as part of their race, and therefore would treat them differently than a Southern Italian-descended person who spoke English/Italian—meaning that even though the phenotype would (theoretically) be the same, on the basis of culture (i.e., language), the Mexican La Raza proponent would treat the Argentenian different from the American differently, even though they trace their ancestry back to the same place. So what matters for the La Raza proponent is shared language and certain shared aspects of what we term “Hispanic culture.”

In any case, the term “Spanish” refers to Spaniards—people from Spain. “Latino” refers to Latin America. “Hispanic” refers to people who speak Spanish. In this way, we see how all three terms coalesce into a socially constructed race. We can see this with the way certain HLS groups treat each other even though they are not the same race.

In the book White Privilege: Essential Readings on the Other Side of Racism, edited by Rothenberg (2008), Foley (2008) argues in his article Becoming Hispanic: Mexican Americans and Whiteness that Mexican Americans fought for the ‘Hispanic’ term, and so, wanted it to be an ethnic and not racial term. Mexican Americans wanted to be seen as ‘white’ in order to get over de jure segregation and so, from the 30s-50s, Mexicans argued that they were “white” and even supported the segregation of blacks and whites, on the basis of the claim that they too were white and would not have to be treated like blacks. Foley (2008: 56) cites some concerns of the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) and what they thought their race should be in America:

In a 1932 article in the LULAC news titled “Are Texas-Mexicans ‘Americans’?” the author asserted that Mexican Americans were “the first white race to inhabit this vast empire of ours. Another member of LULAC boasted that Mexican Americans were “not only a part and parcel but as well as the sum of substance of the white race.” As self-constituted Whites, LULAC members considered it “an insult” to be associated with Blacks and other “colored” races. In 1936 a LULAC official deplored the practice of hiring “Negro musicians” to play at Mexican bailes (dances) because it led to “illicit relations” between Black men and “ill-informed Mexican girls.” He urged fellow LULAC members to “tell these Negroes that we are not going to permit our manhood and womanhood to mingle with them on an equal social basis.”

It was then in the 60s, however, when Mexican Americans began referring to themselves as ‘Chiacanos/Chicanas” and speaking of their skin color (brown), not trying to integrate into ‘whites.’ So, argues Foley (2008), Mexican Americans wanted “Hispanic” to be an ethnic and not racial category as they wanted to “keep their whiteness” but still be classified on the basis of language, too. It wasn’t until the 1960s that Mexican Americans began referring to “Aztlan” and “La Raza” and started referring to their browness while not trying to integrate with whites. So although Mexican Americans were de facto ‘white’ in America leading up to the Civil Rights Act (CRA) and were seen as ‘white’ in court cases/the census, they were rarely treated like ‘whites’ (Martinez, 1997; Foley, 2008; Ortiz and Telles, 2013).

Spencer (2019: 241) says “…the OMB is very clear … Hispanics are not a race.” Spencer (2019: 241) continues:

So, even if there are contexts in current American life where … Hispanics are treated as races by ordinary people, there are also contexts in current American life where … Hispanics are not treated as races by ordinary people, namely, when ordinary people use OMB race talk.

In agreeing with whites in the years leading up to the Civil Rights Act—that whites and blacks should be segregated—they wanted to then be seen as ‘white’ and so argued that the term ‘Hispanic’ should be an ethnic and not racial category. Funny how today, Mexican Americans are seen as the social term “people of color” (PoC) and are grouped in with black Americans.

But if we really think about what the HLS distinction really means, it refers to a sociolinguistic group. In this way, certain aspects of Central and South American culture may mirror what may be referred to as the ‘mother culture’ in Spain, as those country’s histories are strongly influenced by the Spaniard invasion post-1519. Though, the term ‘Hispanic’ arose in the 20th century as an ethnonym (a term given to an ethnic group), the terms ‘Hispanic’ and ‘Latino’ and even ‘Spanish’—in ordinary American race talk—refer to the same things. They are used as synonyms. Although the self-described ‘Hispanic’ may be a mixture of, say, three races, they attempt to not classify themselves with any of those races and racially mixed groups even though they themselves may be racially mixed.

This is put well by Quiros (2009: 14) who writes:

…women from Puerto Rican and Dominican ancestry with racially mixed backgrounds are often ascribed a single identity of Hispanic, Latina or even “Spanish,” thereby reducing them to a single ethnic category and silencing their complexities. Yet heterogeneity is also found within the Latino culture. Although Latinos may share some cultural similarities, Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, Mexicans, and Cubans, for example, have unique characteristics and histories that set them apart from one another.

These “unique characteristics” come from the ethnic groups the Spaniards brought to the countries in question, along with the types of customs and cultures that came to dominate in those countries. One may even say that the way a Latin American country ‘looks’ is a direct result of how long the Spaniards were there and what peoples (cultural groups) they brought to replace the dwindling indigenous peoples.

For instance, some Puerto Ricans and even Dominicans may speak of “Taino” heritage even though they may have little to no actual Taino heritage. The Taino are an indigenous people to the Carribean. They are what an American may term a ‘Native American’. Now, no matter how the Puerto Rican or Dominican looks, (say the Puerto Rican looks white and the Dominican looks black) they both may talk about this Taino heritage. For the Carribean Latin countries, this amount of ancestry may seem to bring them together and, along with speaking the same language they may believe that they are the same “people.” But, even though PR and DR are close together, they have radically different histories and phenotypes.

Wikipedia, for example, states this about Dominicans:

According to a 2015 genealogical DNA study of 27 Dominican individuals, their genetic makeup was estimated to be 52.15% European, 39.57% Sub-Saharan African, and 8.28% Native American and East Asian overall.[17]

In a 2014 population survey, 70.4% self-identified as mixed (mestizo/indio[a] 58%, mulatto 12.4%), 15.8% as black, 13.5% as white, and 0.3% as “other”.[18][19] A different survey in 2006 reported 67.6% mulatto and indio, 18.3% black, and 13.6% white.[20] However, according to the electoral roll completed in 1996, 82.5% of the adult population were indio, 7.55% white, 4.13% black, and 2.3% mulatto.[21] Historically there has been a reluctance to expressly identify African ancestry, with most identifying or being identified as mestizo or indio rather than mulatto or black.[21][22]

Regarding Puerto Rico, Wikipedia says:

One genetic study on the racial makeup of Puerto Ricans (including all races) found them to be roughly around 61% West Eurasian/North African (overwhelmingly of Spanish provenance), 27% Sub-Saharan African and 11% Native American.[211] Another genetic study from 2007, claimed that “the average genomewide individual (ie. Puerto Rican) ancestry proportions have been estimated as 66%, 18%, and 16%, for European, West African, and Native American, respectively.”[212] Another study estimates 63.7% European, 21.2% (Sub-Saharan) African, and 15.2% Native American; European ancestry is more prevalent in the West and in Central Puerto Rico, African in Eastern Puerto Rico, and Native American in Northern Puerto Rico.[213]

Although in the 2010 census about 61.4 percent of Puerto Ricans reported they were ‘white’. Meanwhile, only 13.5 percent of Dominicans reported they were ‘white’ while 70.4 percent claimed to be racially mixed (58 percent mestizo/indian and 12.4 percent mullato—which is mixed white and black; per Wikipedia).

So what the examples of Mexican Americans and whites and Puerto Ricans and Dominicans show is that although certain aspects of culture may be shared, the demographics of the countries in question are radically different—even the regions of the countries in question have radically different admixtures based on the history they have with Spain and even recent migrations into that area.


I have shown how HLS terms refer to social distinctions and not biological ones. The examples given with Mexican Americans and white Americans and Puerto Ricans and Dominicans show that, although these groups are held to be the same race, important distinctions exist between the two groups. So great, in both cases, that they cannot be the same “race” logically speaking, but they are the same socialrace. Using Hardimon’s socialrace terminology, HLSs are a socialrace and not a biological one. Although socialraces do have mirrored biological races, in this case, HLSs do not have one, as they are racially/ethnically distinct (as argued above). Hardimon (2017: 39) writes:

To deny that Latinos constitute a race is not to deny that individual Latinos or Latinos as a group can be the targets of racism (for example, owing to skin color). Nor is it to deny that Latinos are often regarded as “racially other” (as differing in some essential humanly important way corresponding to skin color) by members of other racialized groups (for example, Anglos). … Nor is it to deny that they constitute a socialrace in my sense of the term. Still less does it imply that Latinos ought not to aspire to a degree of solidarity connoted by the Spanish word raza.

Although in some studies “Hispanics” do cluster together (depending on where the dataset comes from), this does not mean that these clusters are races (a line of thought that Charles Murray would be married to on the basis of his assumption that clusters = races) (eg Tang et al, 2005). Though Risch et al (2002) write that “Hispanics, who represent a recently admixed group between Native American, Caucasian and African, did not form a distinct subgroup, but clustered variously with the other groups.”

The social construction of racial groups is a pretty complicated topic, and you will get different answers depending on who you are having the discussion with. So the answer to the question “Are HLSs a racial or ethnic group?” is “It depends.” If one is operating on the socialrace definition, then they are a racial group. If they are operating on a biological definition, then they are not a racial group, as they would cluster differently based on the majority admixture of that country (which has to do with the Spanish relationship with that country post-1519).

These groups are a good look into how we socially construct certain racial categories. What you see them as depends on what your previous leanings are. There is of course a social element to this, and this social element dictates what race a certain ethny/nationality would call themselves. Although people who speak the same language are socially the same ‘race’ since in American causal conversation they are referred to as one of the three synonyms (HLS), that does not mean that they are the same race, as evidenced with my Puerto Rican and Dominican examples. Thus, the “HLS” race is a social, not biological, construct as it refers to social, not biological, kinds.


  1. VAPG1974 says:

    Latino they said, but none of those mixed breed pay homage to Roman culture.


  2. James Malone says:

    It goes deeper then that. if you look at different countries in latin america, most of them will always draw deep racial lines between what is native and what is not. While living in Peru as an expat, I found it very telling that most of the natives there did not view mixed race or european peruvians (they exist) as aymara.

    the best thing to note here is that this is an American phenomenon; not something that it commonly practices outside of it. It may have just been peru, but i’m willing to bet if I was in bolivia, chile, colombia, or mexico it would all still be the same.

    I can’t really speak on mestizos since I don’t know how to classify them other then mixed race (through not fault of their own, i blame spain for this) but I would like to repeat that this style of social construct is a western invention.


  3. Al says:

    The racialization of Mexicans goes further back to the Mexican-American War and its outcome and chicano identity is rooted in decolonization – not defending hispanicity.


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