So, who is considered Hispanic in the United States? And how are they counted in public opinion surveys, voter exit polls and government surveys like the upcoming 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.
The U.S. Census Bureau uses this approach, as does Pew Research Center and most other research organizations that conduct public opinion surveys. By this way of counting, the Census Bureau estimates there were roughly 59.9 million Hispanics in the United States as of July 1, 2018, making up 18% of the total national population.
A 2015 survey found that 50% of Hispanics most often describe themselves by their family’s country of origin, 23% use the terms Latino or Hispanic, and 23% most often describe themselves as American. As for a preference between the terms Hispanic or Latino, the survey found that 32% of Hispanics prefer “Hispanic,” 15% prefer the term “Latino” and the rest (51%) have no preference.
Another common identity label is “Latinx,” an emerging panethnic, gender-neutral term that is used in place of “Hispanic” or “Latino.” While the Census Bureau has not recognized the term, U.S. public interest in “Latinx” has grown since 2018, according to an analysis of Google search data. However, some have not embraced the term.
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 south or central regions of the U.S. to be 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 will not appear in the 2020 census.