Latino/a and Hispanic Culture in the U.S.


6 minutes

Updated: 22 June 2020

The terms Hispanic and Latino/a are often used interchangeably. They actually have different meanings that are often the subject of debate. It is generally accepted that Hispanic refers to people with a Spanish-speaking background. Latino, on the other hand, refers to those from the geographic region of Latin America. This includes much of Central and South America as well as the Caribbean. Although there is much overlap between the two terms, those from countries like Brazil (with its 200 million Portuguese speakers) may identify as latino, but not Hispanic. In recent years, the word latinx has gained traction as a gender-neutral alternative to latino/a.

According to the Pew Research Center, Hispanic Americans and Latino Americans make up more than 18% of the U.S. population. Over 57 million Hispanics and Latinos living in the U.S. In fact, the United States has a larger Spanish-speaking population than many Hispanic countries, including Peru and Venezuela.

More than half of the U.S. Hispanic and Latino population resides in California, Texas, and Florida. California has the largest population of Hispanic and Latino Americans with over 14 million. Texas and Florida have a Hispanic and Latino American population of about 10 million and 4 million respectively. New York also has a large population of Hispanic and Latino Americans with over 3 million. These states, as well as many other cities in the U.S., have a very vibrant Hispanic and Latino American community.

And, of course, we can’t forget about the 3 million inhabitants of Puerto Rico, which is a freely associated state (FAS) of the USA. 

Cultural Influence

Hispanic and Latin Americans come from diverse social, economic, and geographic backgrounds. They can be very different depending on their family heritage and national origin. However, there are some cultural similarities that tend to bring these diverse backgrounds together.

Language

One of the most common cultural characteristics of Hispanic American culture is the Spanish language. In 1980, there were roughly 11 million Spanish speakers in the U.S. This represented 5% of the population according to the Pew Research Center. By 2012 the number of Spanish speakers increased to over 38 million, representing 13% of the U.S. population. Hispanic families often teach their children Spanish as a way of passing down their heritage and culture. This emphasis on being bilingual has helped revive the Spanish language in the U.S.

Religion

Pope Francis among the people at St. Peter's Square
Pope Francis is the first Latin American to head the Roman Catholic Church.
Image by Edgar Jiménez

Religion plays an important role in Hispanic and Latin American culture. Hispanic and Latin Americans represent a highly Christian group. Although Americans in general have gained an increasingly secular view of society in the past few decades, a study conducted by the Hispanic Churches in American Public Life (HCAPL) reports that the majority of Hispanic and Latin Americans identify as Catholic or Protestant.

Cuisine

Typical Colombian bandeja paisa dish, consisting of beans, sausage, egg, avocado, pork rind, and fried plantain.
The hearty bandeja paisa can commonly be found in areas with large Colombian populations.
Image by Dtarazona

Hispanic and Latin American cuisines are very popular in the U.S. and have had a significant influence on American cuisine and eating habits. 

Most notably, Mexican food (and it’s Americanized cousin, Tex-Mex) have long been culinary staples in American society. Some of the typical items in Mexican cuisine include corn-based dishes such as tortillas, tamales, and tacos and various salsas and condiments such as guacamole, pico de gallo, and mole. Tortilla chips and salsa are so popular that they are now one of the highest selling snack foods in the U.S.

In more recent years, other Latin American food varieties have gained popularity in the USA. Brazilian churrascarías (steak houses), with their all-you-can-eat rodizio service, have become mainstream in many urban areas. Colombian arepa stands are often present at street fairs. Ceviche, which is thought to have originated in Peru, is considered a delicacy by many Americans. Of course, the very diverse list goes on and is often influenced by the makeup of an area’s Latin American population.

Family

Hispanic and Latin American culture places a strong value on family. Historically, Hispanics and Latin Americans tended to have large, close-knit families. It was not uncommon for three generations to live in the same household or nearby each other, with grandparents playing an important role in their grandchildren’s upbringing. Although such living situations have become less common, the emphasis on the well-being of the family often makes Hispanic and Latin Americans very group-oriented with family gatherings being commonplace.

Media and Entertainment

Three young men play soccer
Soccer is gaining momentum as a major sport in the USA.
Image courtesy of Pexels

The U.S. has many Spanish-language media outlets ranging from giant commercial broadcasting networks to local radio stations. The two largest broadcasting networks are Univision and Telemundo, which provide Spanish-language television to the majority of the U.S. The availability of Spanish-language television made it possible for Hispanic and Latin Americans to follow the sport of soccer in the U.S. at a time when English-language media outlets were not broadcasting the matches. This increased visibility has greatly influenced the growth in popularity of soccer in the U.S.

Colombian singer Maluma at the microphone while giving a concert in Brazil
After his 2018 collaboration with Madonna, Maluma became a household name.
Image by Teca Lamboglia

Hispanic and Latin Americans have had a huge influence on music in the United States. In the 20th Century, for example, Brazilian and Afro-Caribbean rhythms helped shape the sounds of the “uniquely American” genre of jazz. In 1986, Billboard magazine introduced the “Hot Latin Songs” chart, which ranks the best performing songs on Spanish-Language radio stations in the U.S. In 1993, they introduced the “Top Latin Albums” chart, which ranks the top-selling Latin albums in the U.S. The Record Industry Association of America began “Los Premios de Oro y Platino”, meaning “The Gold and Platinum Awards” to certify Latin recordings that contained at least 50% of its content recorded in Spanish. Numerous Hispanic and Latin American musicians have achieved international fame such as Jennifer Lopez, late tejano singer Selena, and Puerto Rican heartthrob Ricky Martin. In recent years, the reggaetón genre has taken American airwaves by storm, with artists like Bad Bunny, J Balvin, and Maluma crossing over into mainstream American music. Similarly, Brazilian pop artists like Anitta and drag superstar Pabllo Vittar are making their mark on the U.S. music scene.


The contributions of Latino/a and Hispanic culture to that of the United States are countless, and we encourage you to learn more. National Hispanic Heritage Month begins September 15 and runs through October 15. Check out Hispanic and Latino cultural events in your area!

Sources Cited:

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