Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Spanish, Hispanic, and Latino

People may have been confused by my self description as being 10% Latino, 10% Mexican, and 10% Spanish/Catalan. Wouldn't it be the same to say I'm 30% "Spanish"? All these groups speak the same language, so they're variations on the same general culture, no?

No. But since many people are fuzzy on this, and I'm unusually steeped in all three, I'll try to sketch it all out. If you're already hip to these cultures, stick around for a few higher-level insights sprinkled in.


If you're going to describe a person (rather than a language) as "Spanish", that can only mean you're talking about someone from Spain. Period. And the culture there is Mediterranean, so Spaniards are culturally far closer to Italians or Greeks than to Dominicans or Mexicans. For a sense of the chasm, consider that Spaniards use the word "tacos" to refer to "cuss words", and are only starting to recognize that it's also a food term.

So if you're talking about the cultures of New World Spanish-speakers, the supposed "mother country" is really more like another planet.

Hispanic vs Latino

Even experts - including natives from Down There, who may be even less familiar with other Spanish-speaking cultures than your average Pennsylvanian is - are confused by this distinction. Here's how I parse it:

Latinos are Caribbean Spanish-speakers, or culturally influenced by them. Ancestry is mostly European and African (the Caribbean Indians were slaughtered many centuries ago). African influence brings syncopation to the music and diverse, snazzy flavorings to the food.

Hispanics are from Mexico and Central America (or culturally influenced by them) and may not even speak Spanish. Ancestry is either European/Indian or else pure Indian, and the Indian influence brings groundedness - square meals (sturdy stuff like beans and maize) and square music. Family values, etc. 

Among the two gazillion exceptions: there is really deep Hispanic/Indian music with a devilish syncopation of its own (as the sole gringo musician in the long history of the municipal band of Teotitlán del Valle, I'm particularly aware of this)...but it's very different than the sort of syncopation you hear out of Africa and African-descending cultures.

Garlic is Latino; chili sauce is Hispanic. Bongos are Latino; tubas are Hispanic. Whirling gracefully is Latino, pounding tortillas is Hispanic...though, per the disclaimer above, lots of great Hispanic chefs use lots of garlic, plenty of Latinos love chili, Mexico is full of bongo players and NYC's top tuba player is Puerto Rican. Etc., ad infinitum. Difference is not destiny!

Cuban musicians, accustomed to deeply syncopated, sizzlingly brash stylings, have trouble relating to Mexican music, with its dowdy roots in polka and Germanic brass bands (though the Germanic-ness of Mexican brass bands is in the process of being utterly deconstructed by Indians, making it a particular delight to listen to - check out the "Todo Banda" compilation as a starter). Once again, exceptions abound, including me. I've played lots of fiery Latino music, yet I also love the Hispanic stuff. But the two feel like entirely different worlds, which is the entire point.


Colombia is a fascination. Adjacent to Hispanic zones to the north and south, it should be (and is) Hispanic. But lying a stone's throw across the Caribbean Sea from Cuba, it should also be (and is) Latino. Colombia spans multitudes! Depending on where in Colombia you are - the Caribbean coast to the north or the Pacific coast to the west or the mountains in the interior - you will see very different people with very different cultures. Colombia, alone, spans the whole divide. Per my Eat Anywhere smart phone app:
Colombia straddles the divide between earthy Hispanic culture and the syncopated complexity of Caribbean culture. Imagine a blend of Cuba and Mexico. And its cuisine extends to both extremes. Gussying up tamales with cumin is a move Mexican grandmas would scarcely imagine. Same goes for Colombia's fancy soups and garlicky yuca preparations. But an arepa - the corncake that nearly defines the nation - is kissing cousin to earthy Mexican gorditas, and the fascination with simple grilled meats is something any Mexican cowboy could relate to.
Venezuela's a mixture, too, but geography makes it lean much more Latino.

Peru's a major melting pot just generally, so these are just two more elements in the mix. But in the macro, urban coastal Peruvians love salsa and garlic, and Latino influence runs high, but the soul of the nation is the underlying earthy Hispanic beauty that is Mayan culture. As with Colombia (and, to some extent, Ecuador), it's the classic contrast of coastal vs mountain cultures.


Argentina (and, to lesser degrees, Uruguay and Paraguay) is a whole other thing. As they say down there, an Argentine is an Italian who speaks Spanish, thinks he’s French, and would secretly like to be British. They and the Chileans are removed from the Latino/Hispanic distinction.

I've probably over-emphasized the exceptions (because 1. I find them interesting, and 2. it's my Slog and I'll digress if I wanna), but, anyway, there you have it. Riddled with paradox, as it must be, yet hopefully still useful. Despite copious blending and exceptions, Hispanic (Indian/European) cultures could not possibly be more different from Latino (African/European) cultures, and both are also super distinct from Spain itself. Aside from language - which doesn't really affect things either way - we might as well be contrasting Switzerland, Cambodia, and New Zealand.

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