Debates over who is Hispanic and who is not have often fueled conversations about identity among Americans who trace their heritage to Latin America or Spain. Most recently, the 2020 census has drawn attention to some of the many layers of Hispanic identity, providing fresh details about how Hispanics view their racial identity.
So, who is considered Hispanic in the United States? And how are they counted in public opinion surveys, voter exit polls and government surveys such as the 2020 census?
The most common approach to answering these questions is straightforward: Who is Hispanic? Anyone who says they are. And nobody who says they aren’t.
To answer the question “who is Hispanic?”, this analysis draws on four decades of U.S. Census Bureau data and nearly two decades of Pew Research Center surveys of U.S. Hispanic adults.
National counts of the Latino population come from the U.S. Census Bureau’s decennial census (this includes PL94-171 census data). The bureau’s American Community Survey provides demographic details such as language use, country of origin and intermarriage rates. Some ACS data was accessed through Integrated Public Use Microdata Series (IPUMS) from the University of Minnesota.
Views of Hispanic identity draw on the Center’s National Survey of Latinos, which is fielded in English and Spanish. Hispanics have gone online to take the poll since 2019, primarily through the American Trends Panel (ATP), an online survey panel that is recruited through national, random sampling of residential addresses. This way nearly all adults have a chance of selection. The survey is weighted to be representative of the U.S. Hispanic adult population by gender, Hispanic origin, partisan affiliation, education and other categories. Read more about the ATP’s methodology. The NSL was conducted by phone from 2002 to 2018.
Read details on how the U.S. Census Bureau asked about race and ethnicity and coded responses in the 2020 census. Here is a full list of origin groups that were coded as Hispanic in the 2020 census.
Pew Research Center uses this approach and the U.S. Census Bureau largely does so too, as do most other research organizations that conduct public opinion surveys. By this way of counting, the Census Bureau estimates there were roughly 62.1 million Hispanics in the United States as of 2020, making up 19% of the nation’s population.
Behind the official Census Bureau number lies a long history of changing labels, shifting categories and revised question wording on census forms – all of which reflect evolving cultural norms about what it means to be Hispanic or Latino in the U.S. today.
Here’s a quick primer on the Census Bureau’s approach of using self-identification to decide who is Hispanic.
I immigrated to Phoenix from Mexico. Am I Hispanic?
You are if you say so.
My parents moved to New York from Puerto Rico. Am I Hispanic?
You are if you say so.
My grandparents were born in Spain but I grew up in California. Am I Hispanic?
You are if you say so.
I was born in Maryland and married an immigrant from El Salvador. Am I Hispanic?
You are if you say so.
One of my great grandparents came to the U.S. from Argentina and settled in Texas. That’s where I grew up, but I don’t consider myself Hispanic. Does the Census Bureau count me as Hispanic?
Not if you say you aren’t. Of the 42.7 million adults with Hispanic ancestry living in the U.S. in 2015, an estimated 5 million people, or 11%, said they do not identify as Hispanic or Latino, according to a Pew Research Center survey of U.S. adults. These people aren’t counted as Hispanic in Pew Research Center surveys. The Census Bureau generally takes a similar approach in its decennial census. Hispanic self-identification varies across immigrant generations. Among the foreign born from Latin America, nearly all self-identify as Hispanic. But by the fourth generation, only half of people with Hispanic heritage in the U.S. self-identify as Hispanic.
But isn’t there an official definition of what it means to be Hispanic or Latino?
In 1976, the U.S. Congress passed what was the only law in this country’s history that mandated the collection and analysis of data for a specific ethnic group: “Americans of Spanish origin or descent.” The language of that legislation described this group as “Americans who identify themselves as being of Spanish-speaking background and trace their origin or descent from Mexico, Puerto Rico, Cuba, Central and South America, and other Spanish-speaking countries.” This includes 20 Spanish-speaking nations from Latin America and Spain itself, but not Portugal or Portuguese-speaking Brazil. Standards for collecting data on Hispanics were developed by the Office of Management and Budget in 1977 and revised in 1997. Using these standards, schools, public health facilities and other government entities and agencies keep track of how many Hispanics they serve – the primary goal of the 1976 law.
However, the Census Bureau does not apply this definition when counting Hispanics. Rather, it relies entirely on self-reporting and lets each person identify as Hispanic or not. The 2020 decennial census form asked the question this way:
What’s the difference between Hispanic and Latino?
The terms “Hispanic” and “Latino” are pan-ethnic terms meant to describe – and summarize – the population of people living in the U.S. of that ethnic background. In practice, the Census Bureau most often uses the term “Hispanic,” while Pew Research Center uses the terms “Hispanic” and “Latino” interchangeably when describing this population.
Some have drawn sharp distinctions between these two terms, saying for example that Hispanics are people from Spain or from Spanish-speaking countries in Latin America (this excludes Brazil, where Portuguese is the official language), while Latinos are people from Latin America regardless of language (this includes Brazil but excludes Spain and Portugal). Despite this debate, the “Hispanic” and “Latino” labels are not universally embraced by the population that has been labeled, even as they are widely used.
Instead, Pew Research Center surveys show a preference for other terms to describe identity. A 2019 survey found that 47% of Hispanics most often describe themselves by their family’s country of origin; 39% use the terms Latino or Hispanic, and 14% most often describe themselves as American. As for a preference between the terms Hispanic or Latino to describe themselves, a 2018 survey found that 27% prefer “Hispanic,” 18% prefer the term “Latino” and the rest (54%) have no preference. These findings have changed little in nearly two decades of Pew Research Center surveys of Hispanic adults, which are conducted in English and Spanish.
What about “Latinx”?
Another pan-ethnic identity label is “Latinx,” which has emerged as an alternative to Hispanic and Latino in recent years. It is used by some news and entertainment outlets, corporations, local governments and universities to describe the nation’s Hispanic population. Yet the use of Latinx is not common practice, and the term’s emergence has generated debate about its appropriateness in a gendered language like Spanish. Some critics say it ignores the Spanish language and its gendered form, while others see Latinx as a gender- and LGBTQ-inclusive term.
The term is not well known among the population it is meant to describe. Only 23% of U.S. adults who self-identify as Hispanic or Latino have heard of the term Latinx, and just 3% say they use it to describe themselves, according to a 2019 survey. Awareness and use vary across subgroups, with young Hispanics ages 18 to 29 among the most likely to have heard of the term – 42% say they have heard of it, compared with 7% of those 65 and older. Use is among the highest for Hispanic women ages 18 to 29 – 14% say they use it, compared with 1% of Hispanic men in the same age group who say they use it.
The emergence of Latinx coincides with a global movement to introduce gender-neutral nouns and pronouns into many languages whose grammar has traditionally used male or female constructions. In the U.S., the first uses of Latinx appeared more than a decade ago. It was added to a widely used English dictionary in 2018, reflecting its greater use.
How do factors like language, a person’s last name and the background of their parents play into whether someone is considered Hispanic?
Whether someone chooses to identify as Hispanic is entirely up to the individual. Our surveys of U.S. Hispanics have found many have an inclusive view of what it means to be Hispanic. A 2015 survey found 71% of Hispanic adults said speaking Spanish is not required to be considered Hispanic, and 84% said having a Spanish last name is not required to be considered Hispanic. Meanwhile, 32% of Hispanic adults said having both parents of Hispanic heritage or descent is an essential part of what being Hispanic means to them, according to a 2019 survey.
Views of Hispanic identity may change in coming decades as broad societal changes, such as rising intermarriage rates, produce an increasingly diverse and multiracial U.S. population. In 2019, 30% of Hispanic newlyweds married someone who is not Hispanic, a similar share to Asian newlyweds (29%) and a higher share than among Black (20%) and White (12%) newlyweds. Among Hispanic newlyweds, 39% of those born in the U.S. married someone who is not Hispanic compared with 17% of immigrants, according to an analysis of American Community Survey data. Among all married Hispanics, 20% had a spouse who is not Hispanic as of 2019.
The Center’s 2015 survey of U.S. Hispanic adults found that 15% had at least one parent who is not Hispanic. This share rises to 29% among the U.S. born, and 48% among the third or higher generation – those born in the U.S. with both parents who were also U.S. born.
The Census Bureau also asks people about their race. How do these responses come into play when determining if someone is Hispanic?
They generally don’t. In the eyes of the Census Bureau, Hispanics can be of any race, because “Hispanic” is an ethnicity and not a race – though this distinction can be subject to debate. A 2015 survey found 17% of Hispanic adults said being Hispanic is mainly a matter of race, while 29% said it is mainly a matter of ancestry and 42% said it is mainly a matter of culture. For many Hispanics, the current census categories may not fully capture how they view their racial identity. For example, 26.2 million single-race Hispanics said they were “some other race,” which refers to those who wrote in an answer that did not fit in the race categories listed on the census. The next largest single-race group was White (12.6 million), followed by American Indian (1.5 million), Black (1.2 million) and Asian (300,000).
At the same time, more than 20 million Latinos identified with more than one race on the 2020 census, up from just 3 million in 2010. The increase in multiracial Latinos could be due to a number of factors, including changes to the census form that make it easier for people to identify with multiple races and growing racial diversity among Latinos. Growth in multiracial Latinos comes primarily from those who identify as White and “some other race” (i.e., those who write in a response to the race question) – a population that grew from 1.6 million to 17.0 million over the past decade. At the same time, the number of Latinos who identify as White and no other race declined from 26.7 million to 12.6 million.
Can a person’s country of origin or ancestry affect whether or not they are Hispanic?
Similar to race, Hispanics can be of any country of origin or ancestry. This results in varying patterns that relate to where people come from and how they choose to identify themselves on census surveys. For example, in a Pew Research Center analysis of the Census Bureau’s 2019 American Community Survey, nearly all immigrants from several Latin American and Caribbean countries called themselves Hispanic, including those from Mexico, Cuba and El Salvador (99% each). By comparison, 93% of immigrants from Argentina and Paraguay said so, as did 91% of immigrants from Spain and 86% from Panama.
What about Brazilians, Portuguese and Filipinos? Are they considered Hispanic?
People with ancestries in Brazil, Portugal and the Philippines do not fit the federal government’s official definition of “Hispanic” because the countries are not Spanish-speaking. For the most part, people who trace their ancestry to these countries are not counted as Hispanic by the Census Bureau, usually because most do not identify as Hispanic when they fill out their census forms. Only about 2% of immigrants from Brazil do so, as do 1% of immigrants from Portugal and 1% from the Philippines, according to the 2019 American Community Survey.
These patterns likely reflect a growing recognition and acceptance of the official definition of Hispanics. In the 1980 census, 18% of Brazilian immigrants and 12% of both Portuguese and Filipino immigrants identified as Hispanic. But by 2000, the shares identifying as Hispanic dropped to levels closer to those seen today.
What people report on census forms is not subject to any independent checks, corroborations or corrections. This means that, in theory, someone who has no Hispanic ancestors could identify as Hispanic and that’s how they would be counted.
Has the Census Bureau changed the way it counts Hispanics?
The first year the Census Bureau asked everybody in the country about Hispanic ethnicity was in 1980. Some efforts were made before then to count people who today would be considered Hispanic. In the 1930 census, for example, an attempt to count Hispanics appeared as part of the race question, which had a category for “Mexican.”
The first major attempt to estimate the size of the nation’s Hispanic population came in 1970 and produced widespread concerns among Hispanic organizations about an undercount. A portion of the U.S. population (5%) was asked if their origin or descent was from the following categories: “Mexican, Puerto Rican, Cuban, Central or South American, Other Spanish,” and “No, none of these.” This approach had problems, among them an undercount of about 1 million Hispanics. One reason for this is that many second-generation Hispanics did not select one of the Hispanic groups because the question did not include terms like “Mexican American.” The question wording also resulted in hundreds of thousands of people living in the Southern or Central regions of the U.S. being mistakenly included in the “Central or South American” category.
By 1980, the current approach – in which someone is asked if they are Hispanic – had taken hold, with some tweaks made to the question and response categories since then. In 2000, for example, the term “Latino” was added to make the question read, “Is this person Spanish/Hispanic/Latino?” In recent years, the Census Bureau has studied an alternative approach to counting Hispanics that combines the questions that ask about Hispanic origin and race. However, this change did not appear in the 2020 census.
Note: This post was originally published on May 28, 2009, by Jeffrey S. Passel, senior demographer, and Paul Taylor, former vice president of Pew Research Center. It has been updated several times since then.