Hispanic vs. Latino & Hollywood Brownface

Hispanic Heritage Month

September 15th to October 15th is officially recognized as Hispanic Heritage Month in the USA.The dates of the observance were chosen due to the timing of El Grito, the “cry” that brought the independence of Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua‘s independence (followed closely by Mexico and Chile.).

Some fellows celebrating “El Grito”

“Hispanic” vs. “Latino”

I suppose it’s kind of interesting that whoever named the month chose the term “Hispanic” instead of, say, “Latino.” Hispanic sounds old-fashioned to me, but then again, I know people younger than me who refer to themselves as just that. I still think it’s like calling February “Colored History Month” or May being “Oriental Heritage month.” The government’s choice of “Hispanic” probably owes to the fact that the term “Latino” was in less common usage forty years ago when the observance was instigated by Lyndon B. Johnson (initially as Hispanic Heritage Week). Both terms are considered offensive by some indigenists since they disappropriate Native Americans from their origins and languages by defining people with sometimes no European ancestry with Eurocentric terms.

That being said, though Latino and Hispanic are frequently used interchangeably, they don’t mean exactly the same thing.


Map of the Hispanosphere

“Hispanic” comes from the Roman term for Iberia, Hispania. The term is now used to refer to people from countries with a Spanish historical legacy, including Spaniards and those from Spanish speaking countries (the Hispanosphere) such as Western Sahara, the Philippines and most of the countries in Latin America (but not those in Brazil, Guyana, Suriname, Belize, French Guiana nor sometimes Bolivia and Peru) and parts of the Caribbean. It primarily emphasizes a linguistic connection between people of multitudinous backgrounds who may have little else in common. People like Penelope Cruz,  Luis Bunuel, Martin & Charlie Sheen, Rita Hayworth, Antonio Banderas, Lynda Carter, Elena Verdugo, Adele Mara and Trini Alvarado are all Hispanic but not Latino.  


Latin America

“Latino,” on the other hand, is derived from the word “Latinoamericano” and therefore includes Romance Language-speaking North, Central and South Americans, merely broadening the applicability of linguistic connection to Portuguese, French and Italian-speaking South Americans and Caribbeans whilst removing Spain and other non-Latin American countries of the Hispanosphere. Latinos who aren’t Hispanic include Carmen Miranda, Sonia Braga, Paula Abdul, Maiara Walsh, Morena Baccarin, Camilla Belle, Wyclef Jean, Pras, Pastor Troy, MC Tee, and Jordana Brewster.

The Confusion of Race and National Identity

Both terms refer to people of any race and Latin America effectively erases distinctions between populations that are equally diverse to those anywhere. In the U.S.A. and Canada, people with African, European, Native, Asian and any other origins (and mixture) are all viewed as Americans. Probably due to Spain’s bizarre and complicated racial caste system, people south of the Rio Grande are discussed as belonging to a single race with an implied homogeneity that marginalizes those of African and Asian origin and suggests that Native/European mixes are somehow more authentically Latino.



All Latinos by definition, if not necessarily self-identification

Just considering the various backgrounds of Latinos, this notion fails to hold up to reality. Salma Hayek (Spanish & Lebanese), Shakira (Spanish, Lebanese & Italian), Lalo Schifrin (Jewish), Alberto Fujimori (Japanese), Paula Crisostomo (Filipina), Evo Morales (Aymara), Ibrahim Ferrer (West African) are all as “Latino” as anyone else in Latin America. The populations of Latin American countries themselves are broadly different. Haiti is 95% black, Boliva is 55% native, Argentina is 97% white, Paraguay is 95% mestizo and Netherlands Antilles is 85% mulatto. And yet people still confuse these multi-ethnic states with ethnicity. That’s why you’re likely to hear someone say Salma Hayek is half-Lebanese, half-Mexican when in fact she’s 100% Mexican. In fact, I just heard a news story about Henequen, the Mexicans whose ancestors came from Korea five centuries ago. The narrator wasn’t mentally able to reconcile the fact that Henequen are of Korean ancestry and yet still just as “Mexican” as someone whose ancestors came from Spain, Africa, Lebanon or across the land bridge.

Crazy Spanish Paintings which attempt to figure out all the racial combinations and permutations

And then you’ve got all of your Spanish terms for all the hybrids of which the following are just a few:

Castizos: 3/4 Caucasian, 1/4 Native
Cholos (or Coyotes): 1/4 Caucasian, 3/4 Native
Mestizos: Native and Caucasian
Mulattos (or Pardos): Caucasian and Black African
Zambos: Black Africans mixed with Natives

This may all seem like hairsplitting, but the ongoing confusion allows for a subtle (and probably inadvertent) racism to creep into film and TV casting. The White Hispanics usually get all the roles as Latinos (of any background) whereas the non-white or mixed Latinos are generally relegated to supporting roles as drug mules, banditos and gangbangers. Meanwhile, the filmmakers who cast Caucasian Antonio Banderas as a Mexican or Penelope Cruz as Brazilian can pat themselves on the back for their casting of a minority when, in fact, it’s just another case of Brownface.


(left) Brando as (right) Emilano Zapata


(left) Telly Savalas as  Pancho Villa (right)

That’s not to suggest that Spaniards and their Caucasian descendants didn’t, in the past, have their own difficulties and struggles finding work in Hollywood. Back in the day, white people were routinely singled out by other white people for not being white enough (e.g. Italians, Irish, Greeks, Romany, Turks, Lebanese, Poles, Slavs, &c.).

They serve White’s what? And which White? Ron? Betty?

Rita Hayworth was born Margarita Cansino and was renamed by Columbia Pictures to downplay her Spanish roots– a practice common for any “ethnic” (i.e. not Germanic) actor. But her difficulties in finding work were obviously more easily overcome than those of her Latino peers. Looking back at what should’ve been choice roles for Latinos reveals a parade of Brownface minstrelsy. Marlon Brando as Zapata, Telly Savalas as Pancho Villa, Warren Baxter as the Robin Hood of El Dorado, Charlton Heston as a Mexican copper in Touch of Evil and Lou Diamond Phillips in just about everything he does.

Rita Hayworth 
Then- Rita Hayworth was too Hispanic                            Now- Sofia Vergara isn’t Latin enough

On the other hand, with a growing Latino population in the US, there’ve been reverse attempts to exploit Latinos, sometimes with comical (if familiar) examples. Colombiana and natural blonde Sofia Vergara often has to dye her hair black to look “more Latina” for her roles and conform to the stereotype of Latino homogeneity. Remember the so-called “Latin pop wave” of the late 1990s with Jennifer Lopez, Ricky Martin, Shakira and Christina Aguilera and their ilk?

Following the 2000 census, it became clear that Latinos (of any race) were the country’s largest minority (46 million out of 299 million Americans total. Interestingly, Mexican-Americans only make up 64% of the Latino population). Latinos also go to the movies more than other groups. The movie studios smelled blood; shelving black romantic comedies and Latino movies not-so-mysteriously proliferated. Reggaetón, which reached an artistic plateau back when I was in High School in the 1990s, suddenly blew up all over the place. Still with nothing to say, the music execs coined the term “Hurban” (a portmanteau of Hispanic and Urban) and soon radio stations scrambled to jump on the bandwagon. I first heard Nuevo Latino 96.3 whilst buying some pants at Jim’s Western Wear in San Fernando. Shortly after, Power 106 fired all of its non-Latino personalities except Big Boy and Fuzzy Fantabulous in an effort to cash in.

And, back when I was ordering the DVDs for Amoeba, one of the distributors would include a county-by-country map of Latino population changes so that we buyers would know what’s up. The header for the map is the same, week after week: “Muy Caliente!” with the exclamation point replaced by a chili pepper.


Eric Brightwell is an adventurer, writer, rambler, explorer, cartographer, and guerrilla gardener who is always seeking writing, speaking, traveling, and art opportunities — or salaried work. He is not interested in writing advertorials, clickbait, listicles, or other 21st century variations of spam. Brightwell’s written work has appeared in AmoeblogdiaCRITICS, and KCET Departures. His work has been featured by the American Institute of Architects, the Architecture & Design Museum, the Craft & Folk Art MuseumForm Follows FunctionLos Angeles County StoreSkid Row Housing Trust, and 1650 Gallery. Brightwell has been featured in the Los Angeles TimesHuffington PostLos Angeles MagazineLAistEastsider LABoing BoingLos Angeles, I’m Yours, and on Notebook on Cities and Culture. He has been a guest speaker on KCRW‘s Which Way, LA? and at Emerson College. Art prints of his maps are available from 1650 Gallery and on other products from Cal31. He is currently writing a book about Los Angeles and you can follow him on FacebookInstagram, and Twitter.

Click here to offer financial support and thank you!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s