Sometimes people ask me if I prefer to be called Hispanic or Latina. It's becoming more well-known that people from Spanish-speaking countries (or their descendants) have preferences for one or the other. So they either worry that they will call me something I consider un-PC, or they're simply curious as to what's considered appropriate.
I am the first to admit that I am just as confused as your average American about this whole thing. In PR it wasn't an issue whether I was Hispanic or Latina - I was just Puerto Rican. No big whoop. In living in the States for a while, I've discovered that to some this is indeed a pretty big whoop, and it would behoove me to be aware of that.
The etymologies of both words, and which countries they include, can get a bit complicated. As a generalized definition, Hispanic refers to people of Spanish-speaking origin and originates from Hispania, the name for the Iberian peninsula; the term was coined by the US government for census purposes to classify people of Spanish-speaking origin or descent. Latino is a bit more complicated: It is a shortening of "Latin American", but it shares its name with people of latinate descent, which includes those who speak Romance languages. Therefore, the French and Italians, for example, are "latin". This etymology is what engendered the name "Latin America", but nowadays there is obviously a difference between latin and Latino.
There is a concern that both words can be exclusionary. Hispanic, by virtue of the word's relationship to Spain and its language, excludes Brazilians. Latino can include Brazilians because their language is latinate. But wait! Brazil was colonized by Portugal, which is part of the Iberian pensinsula - so, technically speaking, they could be called Hispanics as well. In common usage, however, Hispanic is synonymous with "Spanish-speaking", which ends up leaving Brazilians out. Also in common usage, Latino excludes Spaniards, even though their language is latinate. However! Latino's etymology points back to Europe as well because it references Romance languages. The link to Spain with the term Hispanic is okay with some, but offensive to others who want to get away from a legacy of colonialism - these people may choose to call themselves Latinos, even though that term is also bound with colonialism. But because Latino is a word that riginated at a grass-roots level, as opposed to a word like Hispanic which was coined by the government, it is seen by some as more politically correct. In the end, though, opponents of either word have similar reasons for being against either term. Confusing? ¡Sí!
A lot of the reasons for prefering one term over the other are not going to be common knowledge for those who do not belong to that culture. How would Bob from Iowa know why the relationship to Spain may chafe some and not others? All he knows is that he heard somewhere that one term was preferable over the other, but he can't remember which one, or why. So if he is at all inclined towards being politically correct, he'll stammer a bit when talking to a Spanish-speaker, until he finally asks, sheepishly, "Which term do you prefer?"
I don't really make it any easier on the Bobs of the world, because I call myself a Puerto Rican and that's it. Having to think so hard about which label to assign to myself irritates me, and I'll be damned if I have to start worrying about what a fellow Hispanolatinowhatever thinks of my political sensibilities just because of what I choose to call myself. I understand that words are powerful, even though we are taught early on that they can never hurt you in the way, say, sticks and stones can. But when I try to weigh one word against the other, I come up with a draw. To me, they cancel each other out.
What confuses me the most is that Spanish speakers in Latin America routinely call themselves, as a group, hispanos. Some also say latino, but in general I never detected an animosity towards either word. Both were used interchangeably and with no emotional baggage.
I can't expect people to be able to pinpoint that I am Puerto Rican, just like I can't always be expected to identify the individual countries of origin of people who are, say, Asian. But, like Thomas Jefferson, who identified himself as a Virginian first and an American second, if I have to identify myself to someone, I start out with Puerto Rican. If I am asked which term I prefer, I say I don't care. Because, guess what? I really don't. Nitpicking two words to the point where both end up revealing that their similarities outnumber their differences makes me feel as though I am struggling to establish a cultural identity - and to be honest, I am not a part of that struggle. And to be even more honest, it makes me sad that people feel like they need to engage in that struggle. Culture is something you carry with you, and struggling to define it in such detail seems anathema to the whole idea of culture. Culture is home, it's what calls out to you on the most basic of levels - and it shouldn't have to involve this much work.