The Grammarphobia Blog

A judgment call

Q: Now that Sonia Sotomayor has been named a candidate to the Supreme Court, I have a question: Is she a “Latina” or a “Hispanic”? The talking heads on television have been using those two words interchangeably. She was born in the Bronx, but her roots are from Puerto Rico.

A: The short answer is that a case could be made for using either one. If I had to choose between them, however, I’d go with “Latina.” Here’s my reasoning.

The noun “Hispanic” (derived from Hispania, Latin for the Iberian Peninsula) is considered the more far-reaching term, referring to a male or female person who has roots in any country where Spanish is spoken.

(Although the Iberian Peninsula includes Portugal, the term “Hispanic” is generally not used to refer to people with roots in Portuguese-speaking countries.)

The noun “Latina” is thought to be a short form of Latinoamericana, Spanish for (among other things) a female Latin American. The noun “Latino” is believed to be a short form of Latinoamericano, Spanish for a male Latin American, one whose sex is unknown, or in the plural Latin Americans of both sexes.

Both “Hispanic” and “Latina” are widely used in English for a woman living in the United States who has roots in a country where Spanish is spoken.

The New York Times, for example, has used both “Latina” and “Hispanic” in referring to Judge Sotomayor.

The Times stylebook’s entries on “Latino” and “Hispanic” say the two words, as both nouns and adjectives, can refer to someone with roots in a Spanish-speaking land or culture. Here’s an excerpt from the 1999 stylebook:

“The use of Latino, long preferred in the West and Southwest, is spreading in the United States; for now, though, Hispanic remains in wider use. When writing about specific people or groups, use the term they prefer.”

That concluding piece of advice makes sense to me.

Since Judge Sotomayor has repeatedly referred to herself as a “Latina,” and seems to prefer that word, I’d refer to her that way too.

The term “Latina” would also be more precise in her case, since she’s a woman with Latin American roots who lives in the United States.

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