What’s the difference between Latino and Hispanic?

Are you Spanish? No. Are you Mexican? No. Are you Latina? I guess.

I fielded these questions almost daily when I first arrived in the United States. Previously, I identified as Venezuelan, or even “Caraqueña,” if I needed to be specific about being born in Caracas, the capital of my home country.

But in the U.S., I was now labeled as ‘Latina’ or ‘Hispanic.’ As part of this nation’s largest minority group, (54 million according to the Census Bureau) it felt good to identify with JLo, Penelope Cruz or Sophia Vergara. But if was going to be called this word, I needed to understand what it meant.

Although both are used interchangeably, Hispanic and Latino have different meanings, and even we (Hispanics) do not fully comprehend them:

-Hispanic denotes a relationship to ancient Hispanic culture (Iberian Peninsula). As Hispanics we are an ethnicity sharing a language (Spanish) and cultural heritage.

-Latino refers to persons or communities of Latin American origin.

“Hispano refers to someone from the Spanish-speaking world, while Latino refers to someone from Latin America, including Brazil and the French Caribbean (Haiti, for example),” explained Alberto Villate Isaza, assistant professor of Spanish at University of Georgia.

I’m both a Latina and an Hispanic.

Brazilians, for example, are Latinos who are not Hispanic because they speak Portuguese. And none of these terms refer to a race. However, in the U.S., they are often used to refer to race as well.

Among our community, many are ambivalent about these two terms. A Pew Research Center survey conducted in 2013 showed half of all Hispanic adults say they don’t prefer either term. Among those with a preference, ‘Hispanic’ is preferred over ‘Latino’ by a ratio of about 2-1.

Along the way I learned about Hispanic Heritage Month.

The observation began in 1968 as Hispanic Heritage Week under President Lyndon Johnson. In 1988, President Ronald Reagan expanded the celebration to cover a 30-day period, starting on Sept. 15, since most Latin American countries including Costa Rica, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua and Guatemala celebrate their independence within this time period.

The celebrations end close to Columbus Day (Día de la Raza), which is Oct. 12. Mexico and Chile celebrate their independence days on Sept. 16 and Sept. 18, respectively.

In the coming days we will see Latinos highlighted in the media with festivals showcasing the great food and music that is typical of Latin-American countries. There will be celebrations put on at places ranging from the White House to libraries, schools, parks and community centers.

Look for events in your neighborhood. There are perfect opportunities to enjoy Latin American folklore, food and the contagious rhythms. You may even learn more about our culture.

I will proudly celebrate my heritage as a Hispanic or Latina and take advantage of this culturally rich time to try ‘puposas’ from El Salvador, Mexican enchiladas and even ‘chorriadas’ from Costa Rica.

Will you, too, celebrate Hispanic Heritage month?