Illegal, criminal, threatening, family-oriented, hard-working, patriotic — these are the contradictory words used to describe Latinos. They demonstrate an inconsistency we Latinos know all too well. Even as marketing industries popularize our music, food, holidays and fashion, Latinos remain commonly misunderstood and discriminated against.
People of Latin American descent are regularly flooded with repetitive questions about who they are as a people and as a culture. Whether the queries come from racist Twitter users or ignorant yet well-meaning colleagues and classmates, such comments only serve to homogenize disparate and unique cultures, and “other” Latinos in our society.
Even with good intentions, saying such things is discrimination. To help put some of these stereotypes to rest, here are some of the most common misconceptions, questions and remarks people make too often about Latinos.
1. Not all of us speak Spanish.
Most recent migrants are fluent in their home tongue, so it’s no surprise that the majority of first-generation Latinos speak Spanish. But that’s not true for all Latinos. By the second generation, their use of English rises as their Spanish usage drops, and by the third generation, most Latinos are English-dominant. Many prefer to speak Spanglish, using both Spanish and English in one sentence or giving English words Spanish accents.
What’s more, not all Latinos come from Spanish-speaking countries or communities. Brazilians, for example, speak Portuguese, while Haitians (yes, Haiti is a Latin American country) speak Haitian Creole. Then there are those who come from the hundreds of indigenous groups across Latin America and the Caribbean, bringing with them their own native languages.
Equally important: Most of us don’t actually speak Latin.
2. Speaking English with an accent doesn’t make us unintelligent.
On the contrary, studies show that people who speak two or more languages are actually smarter than those who do not. Not only does bilingualism mean one can communicate with a greater number of people, but it also can actually improve cognitive skills unrelated to language. According to the New York Times, being bilingual improves the brain’s executive function, allowing people to ignore distraction and stay focused so they can better and more quickly solve problems and perform difficult tasks.
3. Spanish, Hispanic, Latino, Latinx, Mexican — which one is it? Not that simple.
Because these are labels that were forced on Latinos upon their arrival to the U.S., the answer as to how people from different Latin American countries identify varies depending on who you ask. With that in mind, here’s a primer:
Spanish people come from Spain, so it would be incorrect to refer to someone from Latin America or the Spanish-speaking Caribbean as Spanish.
Hispanic, on the other hand, refers to people who descend from Spanish-speaking countries (Brazilians and Haitians, for example, wouldn’t be considered Hispanic). It’s important to note, however, that many people from Spanish-speaking countries resist the Hispanic categorization, viewing it as a marker that connects them directly to their colonizers — that is, the Spanish.
Instead, they may prefer Latino, which, while referring to all the countries in Latin America, including Brazil and Haiti, also ties these people together through a history of colonization.
Latinx is similar to Latino, but the “x” erases gender, making the category inclusive of men, women, agender, gender-nonconforming, genderqueer and gender-fluid people.
Finally, it bears repeating that people in Latin America neither refer to themselves as Latino nor Hispanic. These, again, are words placed on them soon after their arrival in the U.S. For many people in Latin America, they are just Cuban, Ecuadorian, Bolivian or whichever country or indigenous population they belong to.
4. Latinos don’t all look the same.
In fact, they are one of the most racially diverse ethnic groups in the world. It’s true. Despite media portrayals of olive-skinned Latinas with curly hair and curvy bodies, Latinos can be black, with Afro-textured hair, brown, Indigenous, Asian, light-skinned and straight-up ethnically ambiguous.
5. Speaking of race, not all Afro-Latinos come from the Dominican Republic.
Latin America is home to one of the largest African-descended populations outside of Africa. Brazil, for instance, is the second blackest country in the world. There are millions of Afro-Latinos across Colombia, Puerto Rico, Cuba, Venezuela, Peru and, yes, the Dominican Republic.
6. The only thing more diverse than our hues is our culture.
When people tell Latinos that they love dancing to Latin music or eating Latin food, we’re never really sure what they’re referring to. We know by “Latin” they mean “Latino,” but even that’s not enough to brief us on whether they dance bachata or cumbia or if they’re in the mood for arroz con gandules y pernil or pupusas. Those dances, rhythms and dishes are all as different as the cultures they belong to. Wrapping everything of Latin American descent into one category, Latino, erases the major political, economic, racial and cultural differences of each country.
7. Most Latinos aren’t undocumented.
Mainstream coverage of the Latino community is basically limited to issues of crime, immigration and illegal border-crossing. As such, it’s not surprising that more than 30% of non-Latinos believe a majority of Latinos are undocumented. But that’s simply not true: In fact, just 17% of Latinos in the U.S. are undocumented, and that number is actually dropping.
8. Puerto Ricans and U.S.-born Latinos are, in fact, U.S. citizens.
In July 2013, singer-actor Marc Anthony sang “God Bless America” at the 84th MLB All-Star Game. Just a few months later, 11-year-old Sebastien de la Cruz gave his rendition of the national anthem at the NBA finals. Both performances were met with protests, and the Puerto Rican megastar and Mexican-American youth were called “un-American” and “illegal aliens.”
But both of these performers are U.S. citizens. Considering some people have clearly forgotten elementary school social studies, here’s a refresher: Any child born in the United States is automatically a U.S. citizen, regardless of their last name. And while Puerto Rico is not a U.S. state, the 1917 Jones Act granted citizenship to all Puerto Ricans, whether they were born in the continental U.S. or on the island.
9. Contrary to popular belief, we’re not “welfare-sucking Hispanics.”
A 2012 poll released by the National Hispanic Media Coalition and Latino shows that 51% of non-Latinos believe “welfare recipient” describes Latinos very or somewhat well. While it’s true that many Latinos may be struggling to make ends meet and benefit from their right to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, they are not the “welfare queens” or “welfare-sucking Hispanics” they are so often portrayed as. In fact, the majority of SNAP recipients are actually white.