A question we’ve been hearing often from our clients is, what should we call the Latino communities we work with? Should we use Hispanic, Latino, or Latinx? 

For those who don’t know how these terms are different, this is what each one generally refers to:

  • Hispanic refers to those who identify themselves as being of Spanish-speaking background and trace their origin or descent from Spanish-speaking countries.
  • Latino refers to those who trace their origin or descent from Latin American countries.
  • Latinx, also refers to those who trace their origin or descent from Latin American countries and is meant to be gender neutral.

Since these terms are used interchangeably a lot of the time—and there are mixed messages out there on what is preferred—many organizations are looking for guidance on which one they should use in their communications. 

Most of our clients want to be as inclusive as possible with the language they use, while still being effective communicators that can reach and engage with their intended audiences.

Looking into Latinx

Survey research shows that the majority of Latinos do not use the term Latinx, or even know about it.

In a nationally representative, bilingual survey conducted in late 2019, Pew Research Center said that 23% of U.S. adults who self-identify as Hispanic or Latino had heard of the term Latinx. Moreover, just 3% said they used it to describe themselves.

These polls are consistent with our own research. In a national survey Hattaway conducted in December of 2019 for the Lumina Foundation, we found that respondents who self-identified as Hispanic or Latino largely preferred the term Hispanic.

Nevertheless, Latinx is often used in news and social media. And a growing number of organizations are adopting Latinx in response to employees who expect their organizations to be inclusive of different gender identities and use gender-neutral language. 

Additionally, the 2019 Pew Research Center survey indicated that young U.S. Latino adults, ages 18 to 29, are among the most likely to have heard of and use the term Latinx—which may mean the term Latinx will only continue to grow in popularity and use. 

In one of the recent COVID communications webinars we regularly host for the Rockefeller Foundation’s State and Territory Alliance for Testing (STAT), we invited  Dr. Gilberto Lopez, an assistant professor in the School of Transborder Studies at Arizona State University and a Latino studies expert, to share his view on communicating with Latino audiences. 

Dr. Lopez led a webinar on the topic of crafting authentic and motivating culturally-tailored COVID-19 creative content for the Latino community. During his presentation, Dr. Lopez shared that he and his collaborators faced a conundrum over what term to use  when writing the copy for their COVID-19 animation campaign.

“I use [Latinx] in an academic setting,” Dr. Lopez said during the webinar. “In our animations, in our work, we use Latino or Hispanic. Because that’s what the community is currently using.”

Even the leaders of our country switch between using the two terms. Vice President Kamala Harris frequently uses Latinx in her tweets. Yet last month, speaking at the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce’s 2021 Virtual Legislative Summit to Latino business leaders, she was quoted as saying “Latino-owned businesses are the fabric of communities across our country.”

So, what should your organization do?

Just because your organization doesn’t use Latinx primarily, doesn’t mean you’re not serving the Latino community. Not every nonprofit’s mission is to be an activist for inclusive language. 

What’s most important is to define why you’re communicating with Latino audiences. Always think of your audience and your objective—after hearing your message, what does your audience need to know and do?

Once you’ve defined your communications objectives, you can look at the social expectations of the space you’re stepping into. If you’re sharing content on Twitter, the use of Latinx is most common. If you’re going to be communicating directly with Latino communities you should know that among them, the overwhelming majority uses the terms Hispanic or Latino.

Here’s the bottom line: As an organization, you don’t have to commit exclusively to using just one term—you can use either Hispanic, Latino, Latina, or Latinx, depending on who your audience is and the channel you’re using to communicate.

Carlos Diaz Carlos is an expert in international and multicultural communications who develops research-driven messaging and communications strategies for clients such as The Rockefeller Foundation, UnidosUS, and World YWCA. He previously worked as a public relations consultant at Burson-Marsteller’s Mexico City office and as a graduate fellow at American University’s Center for Latin American and Latino Studies. Carlos earned a master’s degree in international media from American University and a bachelor’s degree in marketing from the Tecnologico de Monterrey.