The Colonial Roots and Legacy of the Latinx/Hispanic Labels: A Historical Analysis

Valerie Reynoso | Race & Ethnicity | Analysis | May 24th, 2018

Statues of indigenous people in the Americas.

An influx of immigrants throughout the decades as well as centuries of colonialism has resulted in a heterogeneous population in the US composed of different ethnic groups and races. This diversity among US residents has also sparked debate on whether or not the fastest-growing pan-ethnic group in the country, Hispanic/Latinx, is a race. In a larger context, the question that will be answered in this piece is how the labels Latinx/Hispanic are colonial, what are the roots, and how do their political implications differ in Latin America versus the US. Exploring the history and politics surrounding the labels is purposeful and of importance because readers will gain an anti-colonial perspective, and likely previously unknown knowledge, on the development of said terms and implications in the Americas. In a majority of published writing and especially those within the West, the terms Latinx/Hispanic are seldom acknowledged in regards to how they reinforce colonialism and how their socializations differ depending on what region of the world one is observing.

Given the lack of information provided on the pan-ethnic group Latinx/Hispanic, many persons in the US do not know much on the subject and have misinformed preconceptions based primarily on ethnic stereotypes and mainstream media portrayals of said group. Being provided with a detailed analysis of Spanish, French, and Portuguese colonialism in the Americas, and the racial hierarchies that were established as a result of that in said regions, is necessary to deconstruct and decolonize these terms. In this paper I argue that in the US, Latinx/Hispanic is treated as a homogenous group and often times as a race, when it is not; and the roots of the terms as well as the developments of capitalism and Latin-European imperialism in what is now known as Latin America are proof as to why that is.

Using historical instances such as the codification of institutional racism in 15th-Century Spain, the idea of limpieza de sangre (purity of blood) as a result of this, and the development of the casta system in the American colonies of the Iberian Peninsula, it will be proven that racism is a European conception and that the creation of the terms Latinx/Hispanic are informed by that through Iberian imperialism. Another idea that will be demonstrated is that the term Latin refers to those from the predominately Catholic countries where Latin-based languages originated and which colonized the Americas, where the non-white colonized subjects of these regions would then be referred to as Latin as well.

In regards to the chronological order of this paper, I will start off by discussing Iberian colonization of the Americas, focusing on Spanish imperialism, and how racism was first institutionally codified in Spain during the 15th Century, which was then followed by Spanish invasion and ravaging of the Americas and Africa. I will then follow with discussing the idea of limpieza de sangre and how this idea is based in white-supremacist ideology and was used as a tool to institutionalize anti-Black racism when the conquistadores invaded the Americas. Moreover, I will analyze the racial and class hierarchies established by the Iberian colonizers as well as the racial categories they created, which include the subsequent formation of the terms Latinx/Hispanic, what they mean, and the groups they include. Following this, I will examine the division of the North-American continent between the US and Mexico given the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo, which resulted in the US annexation of Aztlan territory, and how this act deepened apartheid conditions among the Americas which resultantly informed the ways in which the terms Latinx/Hispanic are constructed. I will conclude the paper by talking about how constructs of race differ in the US versus Latin America due to all the historical instances I mentioned above as well as opposing viewpoints and why they are ahistorical and factually incorrect.

Origins of Institutional Racism in 15th-Century Spain

The racist and imperialist circumstances that shaped the Latinx/Hispanic label cannot be deconstructed without first addressing the origins of Iberian colonization of the Americas, the institutionalization of racism in Spain, and how these built the racial hierarchies in Latin America that are still in place today. Along with chattel slavery of Africans, whose free and cheap forced labor would be used to construct the system of capitalism for the benefit of European Crowns, and which in part was used to codify racism, European imperialism was the other significant factor that was complicit in this. Moreover, racism was first institutionalized in Spain in 1449 by rebels in Toledo, Spain, who published an edict that became known as the first set of racially discriminatory laws. This edict, along with the Spanish classification and marginalization of Jews, paved the way for the development of anti-Black racism informed by the white-supremacist ideals of Eurocentric Christianity in the Iberian Peninsula, as well as the origins of the idea of biological race with the popularization of Spanish limpieza de sangre.

Limpieza de sangre as an expression was popularized in the 16th Century; however, at the time it denoted the idea that blood was central to the formation of one's character since it circulates throughout the body. Limpieza attained its white-supremacist connotation in the mid-16th Century with blood purity restrictions being imposed in Spanish archdioceses and churches. Likewise, limpieza became a central tenant in the foundation of anti-Black racism with the birth of Iberian imperialism of the Americas, enslavement of Africans, and expansion of plantation agriculture beginning in the 1440s when Iberia became involved in the slave trade of Africans. In 1552, the Spanish Crown mandated that Iberian settlers in the Americas provide evidence of limpieza, so Spain could spread "purity" throughout its colonies while Portugal did the same in Brazil. In the American colonies of Iberia, limpieza served to indicate a lack of Black blood and of Jewish blood; however, it was mostly used as a colonial tool to enforce anti-Black racism through the justification of chattel slavery of Africans and the establishment of the racial casta system. Limpieza in the Americas was modeled from the Spanish system and used to systemically prohibit Black people from civil, religious, and many commercial occupations (Gorsky, Jeffrey).

Foundation of Spanish Casta System through Limpieza de Sangre

In The Origins and Demise of the Concept of Race, Charles Hirschman explicates that the racist beliefs of the European settlers is evident in the systems founded in nations they colonized, such as their racial categorizations in censuses and racial identities through limpieza. White-supremacist ideologies and constructs of race became a new foundation in the societies of colonized peoples despite these ideas having originated in Western nations (Hirschman). Due to this, the formation of the terms Latinx/Hispanic are also informed by the white-supremacist institutions that are still intact in Latin America to this day. Along with anti-Black racism and racial stratification, limpieza also played a key role in the formation of the Spanish casta system that was used to racially categorize Iberians and their descendants, as well as the Black and Native peoples they colonized and exploited throughout the Americas. Casta means "lineage, breed or race" in numerous Iberian dialects and stems from the Latin "castus," which is a term that suggests the encouragement of "white racial purity."

Castas was an Iberian term used in the 17th-18th Centuries to label the multiracial people of their colonies. Casta ideology functioned simultaneously with the structure of grouping built upon assimilation and proximity to Hispanic culture, which differentiated gente de razón (people with rationale), which were Spaniards and colonized peoples who assimilated into their culture, and gente sin razón (people without rationale), which were Black and Native peoples who maintained their tribal affiliations and pre-colonial cultures independent from Iberia (Native Heritage Project, "Las Castas - Spanish Racial Classifications").

The Spanish Casta System

Las castas was a socioeconomic and racial classification system founded in the 18th Century in the Spanish colonies within the Americas and included 16 racial casta combinations. The multiracial offspring of the Iberian settlers who mated with or coerced the Native and African women in the Americas became known as castas. The casta system was influenced by the belief that the birth, skin color, racial and ethnic origins of a person determined their value and character and permeated every aspect of life in the Americas, not just socioeconomically speaking. The Spanish colonial state and Church demanded more taxes and tribute payments from the lower socioeconomic racial castas who were the Black and Native peoples not mixed with Iberian blood. The prime categories of the casta system were: Peninsulars, who were the Spaniard settlers who were born in the Iberian Peninsula and settled in the Americas; Criollos, who were the Spaniard descendants who were born in the Americas; Indios, who were the pure Amerindians; Negros, who were the pure African descendants; Mestizos, who were the Spanish and Native mixed people; Castizos, who were the Spanish and Native mixed peoples predominantly of Iberian ancestry and sometimes had enough proximity to whiteness to be racialized as criollo; Pardos, who were those of mixed Spanish, African, and Native descents; Zambos, who were of mixed African and Native descents; and Mulatos, who were of mixed African and Spanish descents (Native Heritage Project, "Las Castas - Spanish Racial Classifications"). People in the Americas who were colonized by Spain and Portugal existed prior to the creation of the terms Latinx/Hispanic. Their diverse cultures also existed and they were never socialized as a homogenous group in the Iberian colonies and still are not so.

Creation of the Terms Latinx/Hispanic

Latinx/Hispanic are terms of European origin that were then brought to the Americas through imperialist conquests and enforced on non-white populations by colonial means. The denomination Latin was created in Europe in the early 19th Century given the increase of romantic nationalism and racism which prompted Europeans to identify their countries with the languages they spoke. The concept of a Latin race initially referred to nations where Romance languages (Spanish, Catalan, Portuguese, French, Italian, etc) originated or were spoken and where the populations were predominately Catholic. The nations and regions that would become known as Latin Europe are Portugal, Spain, Basque Country, Galicia, Catalunya, France and Italy, respectively.

Latin was spread as a label by French intellectuals in the 1830s in reference to those residing in former Iberian colonies in the Americas (Gobat, Michel). This was in part to legitimize French colonial aspirations in the region by persuading people from these regions that they are all members of the Latin race, regardless of whether or not they were European, and that they therefore had proximity to the French as well as a duty to combat US and British expansion in Latin America. In the years of tensions between the US and pre-Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo Mexico, Anglo-Saxons became the standard of whiteness in the US, and non-Anglo Europeans such as the Irish, Italians, and Spaniards were not racialized as white in the US at the time. Criollo elites affiliated the Hispanic race as those in the Americas who shared Iberian culture regardless of race, and Hispano-América was built against former Portuguese colony Brazil (Gobat).

Hispanic refers to cultures and people from Spain as well as people from former Spanish colonies who are identified as having a Spanish culture due to colonialism. Despite this, the cultures of Spanish-speaking Latin Americans are rather a blend of primarily Iberian, Amerindian, and African influences-as well as some Arab influence due to Moorish conquests of Spain during the 13th to 14th Centuries and establishment of Al-Andalus and the Umayaad Caliphate in the Iberian peninsula, stretching through North Africa and the Middle East. Likewise, not all people in what is now known as Latin America identify as having an Hispanic culture, such as Natives, who the colonizers would refer to as gente sin razón due to their continuation of their tribal affiliation and pre-colonial cultures with little Iberian influence, as well as Afro-descendants, such as many Afro-Colombians in regions like Choco, Colombia, who have primarily afro-centric cultures.

Historically White-Supremacist Standards of the Latinx/Hispanic Labels

Criollos and other white settlers in Latin America began to embrace their new identity as the Latin race, among the first to do so being the liberal, Parisian émigrés such as the Chilean Francisco Bilbao, who befriended 1848 French Revolution icon Félicité Robert de Lamennais. Lamennais encouraged Bilbao to advertise the unity of Latin Europe and South America; as a result, the idea of the Latin race rapidly dispersed throughout Latin America and Latin Europe. This concept reached Brazil by the early 1850s, especially seeing that the Brazilian elite yearned for Brazil to become the France of South America, as well as to associate themselves more with Spaniards and their American colonies (Gobat, Michel).

The Latin race was also socialized as an identity that non-white people could be part of if they spoke Spanish or Portuguese and were Catholic, or that they would be excluded all together from by those who associated Latin explicitly with whiteness. For instance, Juan Batista Alberdi was an Argentine intellectual who stated that anyone in the Americas who is not Latin or Anglo-Saxon of European descent only, is a barbarian. To him and others who agreed with him, the Latin race was one founded by and for Latin Europeans and their settler descendants only; one that Native and African descendants could never become part of, despite their forced assimilation into the culture. Alberdi was advocating for a political system in which the "inferior" Natives and mixed-race peoples of Argentina would be eliminated and the white Latin race would dominate in all its hegemony, such as what occurred in the Argentine genocide of the Conquest of the Desert in the 1870s.

These absolutist and white-supremacist views were not unique to Alberdi and other white Argentines who sided with him, as these ideas were common throughout Latin America among criollos and other European settlers (Gobat, Michel). The rise of manifest destiny in the US and strengthened desire of Anglo-Saxons to take over the non-Anglo and therefore, "inferior," races of the region led criollos to view themselves as the Latin race that was under US attack and had to resist US dominion over their colonies. Due to this, many criollo elites felt compelled to embrace the Latin race because they thought that by doing so they would receive help from France, the most powerful Latin power, in resisting US invasions of Latin America. During this time period, the Latin race was constructed against the Protestant Anglo-Saxon race of the US that posed a threat to the criollo elite of the former Iberian colonies; the Latin concept was one that denoted Iberian settlers who wanted to defend their conquered territories against other white settlers in North America (Gobat, Michel).

Latinx/Hispanic is homogenized in the US without any regard to the fact that it is not a race, but instead a colonial term that was built by and for Latin Europeans. It has historically excluded non-white colonial subjects of Latin Europeans, especially if they refuse to assimilate into the cultures of Latin Europeans and convert to Catholicism. Another common misconception is that Latinx/Hispanic people cannot be African simultaneously, which is also false given that a majority of enslaved Africans were taken to Latin America, not the US, and that Brazil has the largest population of Afro-descendants in the world outside of the African continent.

The Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo, Its Influence on Latinx/Hispanic Constructs, and the Perpetuation of Indigenous Erasure

Along with the history of the development of the term, the notion of the Latin race is constructed against indigeneity as well as Blackness, which was reinforced with the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo between the US and Mexico. The Mexican-American war of 1846-1848 ended with the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo on February 2nd, 1848 at the city of Guadalupe Hidalgo. The Mexican government surrendered to the US on September 1847 following the demise of the Mexican capital, Mexico City, and defeat of the Mexican troops. Peace talks were mediated between chief clerk of the US State Department, Nicholas Trist, and General Winfield Scott-who concluded that Mexico should be treated as a defeated enemy.

Trist and Scott negotiated with a particular delegation of the fallen Mexican government represented primarily by Don Bernardo Couto, Don Miguel Atristain, and Don Luis Gonzaga Cuevas. Trist negotiated a treaty which stated that Mexico should cede to the US its Upper Californian and New Mexican territories, also known as Aztlan. This was also recognized as the Mexican Cession and consisted of what are now the states of Arizona, New Mexico, and portions of Utah, Nevada, and Colorado. Mexico had given up territorial rights to Texas and identified the Rio Grande as the US-Mexico border (The U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo).

The division of North America via an imperialist treaty in which the US claimed Aztlan created the artificial border between the US and Mexico as well as a division between Natives in the US, whose colonizers were from England, and Natives below the US border, whose colonizers were from Spain. When entering the US by any means, Natives from below the US border are labeled Latin and therefore illegal foreigners in the country, due to their colonizers having been from Latin Europe rather than the UK. The Latin concept was designed to give non-white subjects of Iberian colonialism more proximity to whiteness; to label oppressed peoples of Latin America derivatives of Latin Europeans and Iberians, and therefore not indigenous to the lands they either inhabited prior to European settlement, or were forcefully taken from by Latin Europeans.

The Latin concept also gives criollos and other white settlers in the former Iberian colonies a false sense of indigeneity; that they are the original peoples of the region their conquistador ancestors labeled Latin America, that Spanish and Portuguese languages are native to the Americas, and that dialects of Native languages throughout the region are what is considered foreign. Non-white Latinx/Hispanic people are expected to assimilate into the white standard of the Latin race, especially considering that Latin Americans with lighter skin possess a disproportionate amount of wealth and political power in comparison to their non-white counterparts due to criollo inheritance from their Iberian, colonizing ancestors (Planas, Roque). Given the casta system, the closest one is to the criollo category or any derivative of that, the more one is able to reap material benefits from being racialized as closer to white.

Homogenization of Latinx/Hispanic People in the US Due to Different Constructs of Race in the US

In her article "For Many Latinos, Racial Identity Is More Culture than Color," Mireya Navarro addresses the complexities of Latinx racial and ethnic identities, especially in regards to the US census. She explicates how the race classifications offered by the US census are not satisfactory to many Latin American descendants for numerous reasons; some of these reasons being that they are racialized differently in their home countries, that they are very multiracial and have difficulty drawing fine lines in terms of racial identity, or disconnections they may feel with their cultures if they did not grow up around other Latinx, or if they have a parent who is not of the heritage. On the other hand, Navarro also brings up a portion of Latinx who do not identify as such on the census and just put their race instead.

The US census contributes to the identity issues many Latinx/Hispanic people experience because constructs of race and socio-racial categorizations are different in Latin America than in the US. This has created debates in the US regarding whether or not Latinx/Hispanic should officially be considered a race since Fronteras Desk reported that 37 percent of Latinx/Hispanic participants marked that they were "some other race" (Planas, Roque). Despite this, categorizing Latinx/Hispanic would not change the socioeconomic and racial disparities that exist among the pan-ethnic group and the region they come from even if they are homogenized as a single group in the US. In addition to this, racializing Latinx/Hispanic would lump colonized peoples with their Iberian colonizers, which erases the history of Iberian colonialism and ravaging of the Americas and Africa as well as the need for reparations to be given to Native and African descendants who are systemically disenfranchised as a result of the capitalist system that was forced upon them by Latin Europeans.

The Pew Research Center reported that a growing portion of the Latinx/Hispanic population in the US is identifying as white and it is assumed that similar to the Italian and Irish, Latinx/Hispanic could be the next group in the US to become racialized as white. It is also argued that Latinx/Hispanic people chose the white category on government forms that told them the pan-ethnic group is not a race (Liu, Eric). The issue with the assumptions based on the Pew Research Center is that Latinx/Hispanic is not a race and that criollos are white settlers from Spain and Portugal; in other words, Europeans just like British descendants in the US are. Therefore, Criollos labeling themselves as white on documents is not stemming from a desire to be white, but rather from the fact that they are racially white. In contrast to criollos, non-white Latinx/Hispanic people categorizing themselves as white on US government documents may more often be due to Latin-European imperialism and the desirability to be white, which stems from the white-supremacist, capitalist system and las castas that was inflicted upon them.

In 2016, a US appeals court ruled that the pan-ethnic group Latinx/Hispanic is a race under US federal anti-discrimination laws. This was stated after a white man named Christopher Barrella was rejected from a position of police chief in Long Island so the position could be given to a white Hispanic man named Miguel Bermudez instead. Barrella filed a racial discrimination lawsuit in 2012 (Iafolla, Robert), further complicating an already complex and misunderstood history. The issue with US anti-discrimination laws classifying Latinx/Hispanic as a racial category is that it is not a race; members of that group will be racialized and experience discriminations, or lack of, differently as a result of their races. A Latinx/Hispanic of African descent will experience anti-Black racism in legal systems due to them being Black even though they are from a country that was colonized by Iberia. On the other hand, Spaniards directly from Spain are considered Hispanic on the US census, which would imply that the US anti-discriminatory laws would be racializing them as non-white people, which is false because they are white Europeans.

As much as US legal systems and their US-centric understanding of the Latinx/Hispanic pan-ethnicity try to homogenize the group, these efforts will fall apart due to the fact that it is ultimately not a race and not all members of the group are colonized peoples.


Ultimately, the terms Latinx/Hispanic have colonial origins and have been historically used to subjugate peoples who were colonized by Latin Europeans and to force them to assimilate into Latin European cultures. Because of the racial casta system that formed from the colonization of the Americas, whiteness became the standard for Latinx/Hispanic, and those who are not Iberians are obligated to do what they can to gain proximity to whiteness and become as close to criollos as possible. US society doesn't understand this complex history. And as long as the US attempts to homogenize diverse peoples from the Americas through the Latinx/Hispanic label, it will be confronted with contradictions that are exposed when people of that pan-ethnic group experience discriminations based on their races rather than on the fallacy that is the colonial term.


Gobat, Michel. "The Invention of Latin America: A Transnational History of Anti-Imperialism, Democracy, and Race." The American Historical Review, vol. 118, no. 5, 1 Dec. 2013, pp. 1345-1375. Oxford Academic.

Gorsky, Jeffrey. How Racism Was First Officially Codified in 15 th-Century Spain. Atlas Obscura, 22 Dec. 2016.

Hirschman, Charles. "The Origins and Demise of the Concept of Race." Population and Development Review, vol. 30, no. 3, Sept. 2004, p. 395. JSTOR.

Iafolla, Robert. 'Hispanic' Is a Race under U.S. Anti-Bias Laws, Court Rules. Reuters, 16 Feb. 2016.

Las Castas - Spanish Racial Classifications. Native Heritage Project, 15 June 2013.

Liu, Eric. Why Are Hispanics Identifying as White? CNN, 30 May 2014.

Navarro, Mireya. For Many Latinos, Racial Identity Is More Culture Than Color. The New York Times , 13 Jan. 2012.

Planas, Roque. "Latino Is Not A Race, Despite The Census Debate." Huffington Post, 17 Jan. 2013.

The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. The U.S. National Archives and Records Administration.