Skip to main content
Social Sci LibreTexts

2.1: Defining Latinx Demographics

  • Page ID
  • \( \newcommand{\vecs}[1]{\overset { \scriptstyle \rightharpoonup} {\mathbf{#1}} } \) \( \newcommand{\vecd}[1]{\overset{-\!-\!\rightharpoonup}{\vphantom{a}\smash {#1}}} \)\(\newcommand{\id}{\mathrm{id}}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\) \( \newcommand{\kernel}{\mathrm{null}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\range}{\mathrm{range}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\RealPart}{\mathrm{Re}}\) \( \newcommand{\ImaginaryPart}{\mathrm{Im}}\) \( \newcommand{\Argument}{\mathrm{Arg}}\) \( \newcommand{\norm}[1]{\| #1 \|}\) \( \newcommand{\inner}[2]{\langle #1, #2 \rangle}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\) \(\newcommand{\id}{\mathrm{id}}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\) \( \newcommand{\kernel}{\mathrm{null}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\range}{\mathrm{range}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\RealPart}{\mathrm{Re}}\) \( \newcommand{\ImaginaryPart}{\mathrm{Im}}\) \( \newcommand{\Argument}{\mathrm{Arg}}\) \( \newcommand{\norm}[1]{\| #1 \|}\) \( \newcommand{\inner}[2]{\langle #1, #2 \rangle}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\)\(\newcommand{\AA}{\unicode[.8,0]{x212B}}\)

    The Influence and Impact of the U.S. Census

    This section provides a demographic portrait of Latinxs in the U.S. as defined by the U.S. Census. It also illustrates some of the tensions between how Latinxs identify and the ways the Census categorizes and counts peoples of Latinx origins, both historically and in the present. According to the Pew Research Center, the U.S. Hispanic population totaled 62.5 million in 2021, making up nearly one-in-five people in the U.S., up from 50.5 million in 2010.2 People of Mexican origin accounted for nearly 60% (about 37.2 million people) of the total Hispanic population, however, their numbers increased by only 13% from 2010 to 2021, the smallest rate of increase among the largest Hispanic groups. Puerto Ricans, the second largest group, make up 9.3% of the Hispanic population with 5.8 million people on the mainland and another 3.1 million on the island. Salvadorans, Cubans, Dominicans, Guatemalans, Colombians, and Hondurans are the next largest groups, each comprised of one million or more people. Those with origins in Venezuela, the Dominican Republic, Honduras, and Guatemala experienced the fastest population growth from 2010 to 2021.3 These numbers are reflected in Table 2.1.1.

    Hispanic origin groups in the U.S., 2021
    Origin Group Population % among all Hispanics % change 2010-2011
    U.S. total 62,530,000 100% 23%
    Mexican 37,235,000 59.5 13
    Puerto Rican 5,800,000 9.3 24
    Salvadoran 2,475,000 4.0 35
    Cuban 2,400,000 3.8 28
    Dominican 2,395,000 3.8 59
    Guatemalan 1,770,000 2.8 53
    Colombian 1,400,000 2.2 46
    Honduran 1,150,000 1.8 57
    Spaniard 995,000 1.6 43
    Ecuadorian 815,000 1.3 25
    Peruvian 720,000 1.2 20
    Venezuelan 660,000 1.1 172
    Nicaraguan 455,000 0.7 19
    Argentinean 295,000 0.5 26
    Panamanian 240,000 0.4 37
    Costa Rican 190,000 0.3 44
    Chilean 190,000 0.3 35
    Bolivian 130,000 0.2 15
    Uruguayan 65,000 0.1 9
    Paraguayan 30,000 0.0 42
    Other South American 40,0000 0.1 62
    Other Central American 30,0000 0.0 1
    All other Latinos 3,050,000 4.9 96

    Table 2.1.1:Hispanic origin groups in the U.S., 2021,” Pew Research Center, Washington D.C. (September 22, 2022). Permissions: Pew Research Center Terms of Use.

    California is the state with the largest Hispanic population in the United States.4 Hispanics became the largest racial or ethnic group in the state in 2014, surpassing the non-Hispanic white population, whose numbers have been on the decline, reflecting a broader national trend.5 In 2021 there were about 15.8 million Hispanics in California, accounting for 40% of the total population, which was up from 14.0 million in 2010. Figure 2.1.1 displays the numbers of Latinos in each of the 50 states, with Texas at more than 10 million, Washington, Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, Florida, New York, and others reporting 1 to 10 million, Oregon, Nevada, Michigan, and others reporting 500,000 to 1 million, Utah, Idaho, and many states in the South and Midwest reporting 100,000 to 149,000, and North and South Dakota, Maine, Vermont, and others reporting less than 100,000. 


    A map of the United States color-coded to represent the numbers of Latinos in each of the 50 states. Details in text

    ​​​​​Figure 2.1.1: California and Texas had the nation’s largest Hispanic populations in 2021,” Pew Research Center, Washington D.C. (September 22, 2022). Permissions: Pew Research Center Terms of Use

    The demographic information that follows is largely based on data gathered by The United States Census Bureau (USCB) through their decennial census. To determine the racial and ethnic composition of the nation in 2020, the census included two separate questions––one for Hispanic, Latino, or Spanish origin and one for race. According to USCB, Hispanic, Latino, or Spanish origin is defined as a person of Cuban, Mexican, Puerto Rican, South or Central American, or other Spanish culture or origin, regardless of race.6 In other words, USCB does not consider Hispanic or Latino to be a race, asserting that the categories “generally reflected social definitions in the U.S. and were not an attempt to define race biologically, anthropologically, or genetically. We recognize that the race categories include racial and national origins and sociocultural groups.”7 In 2020 the census options for race included White, Black or African American, American Indian or Alaska Native, Asian, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander, and Some Other Race.8 All census respondents, including those who check Hispanic, Latino, or Spanish origin, are given the option to select one or more races to define themselves.

    Pause and Reflect: How do You Identify?

    Figure 2.1.2 features two census questions used to ask about race and ethnicity. Number 6 asks “Are you of Hispanic, Latino, or Spanish origin?” The options for responses are:

    Question 7 asks “What is your race?” with options to mark one or more boxes to identify your race and to fill in origin information within each category. The options for responses are:

    Take a few moments to review and respond to questions 6 and 7. When you are finished, think about why you made the selections you did. Do the options provided reflect how you self-identify? Would you change anything about the categorizations or the labels? How does this form compare to others that have asked for your race and ethnicity, such as school documents, employment applications, and medical forms? 

    Questions 6 and 7 on the 2020 census asked for a person’s ethnicity and race. Details in text

    Figure 2.1.2:How the 2020 census asked about Hispanic origin and race,” Pew Research Center, Washington D.C. (May 13, 2021). Permissions: Pew Research Center Terms of Use.

    The results of the 2020 census indicated that 15.1% of the total population (about 49.9 million people) selected the Some Other Race box alone or in combination, making it the second-largest race group. Interestingly, 

    [a]pproximately 45.3 million people of Hispanic or Latino origin were classified as Some Other Race either alone or in combination, compared with only 4.6 million people who were not of Hispanic or Latino origin. Nearly all of those who were classified as Some Other Race alone were of Hispanic or Latino origin (26.2 million out of 27.9 million, or 93.9%).9

    According to USCB, “many Hispanic or Latino respondents answered the separate question on race by reporting their race as ‘Mexican,’ ‘Hispanic,’ ‘Latin American,’ ‘Puerto Rican,’ etc.,” similar to the 2010 Census.10 Moreover, “[t]he number of Latinos who say they are multiracial has increased dramatically. Almost 28 million Latinos identified with more than one race in 2020, up from just 3 million in 2010.”11 A January 2020 Pew Research Center survey revealed that “only about half of Americans said the census reflects how they see their own race and origin ‘very well.’” When comparing Hispanic, Black, and white respondents, Hispanics were more likely to say the questions described them “not too well” or “not well at all,” suggesting they found the categories as not providing relevant options.12 In fact, a 2015 Pew Research Center survey found “…for two-thirds of Hispanics, their Hispanic background is a part of their racial background––not something separate. This suggests that Hispanics have a unique view of race that doesn’t necessarily fit within the official U.S. definitions.”13

    Many people are confused by or dissatisfied with the census race and ethnicity questions, which have been solicited since the first census in 1790. This can be attributed to, at least in part, the questions, categories, and labels changing from one decade to the next, reflecting current politics, scholarship, public attitudes, cultural norms, and community advocacy, demonstrating the malleability of race in the U.S. Figure 2.1.3 displays the different race, ethnicity, and origin categories used in the census from 1790 to 2020 and the subsequent list points to the changing ways Hispanics have been identified over the years. It should be noted that “[t]hrough 1950, census-takers commonly determined the race of the people they counted. From 1960 on, Americans could choose their own race.”14

    A graphic showing the different race, ethnicity, and origin categories used in each decennial census from 1790 to 2020.

    Figure 2.1.3:What the Census Calls Us - A Historical Timeline,” Pew Research Center, Washington D.C. (February 6, 2020). Permissions: Pew Research Center Terms of Use

    The text in Figure 2.1.3 reads, “This graphic displays the different race, ethnicity, and origin categories used in the U.S. decennial census, from the first one in 1790 to the latest count in 2020. The category names often changed from one decade to the next, in a reflection of the current politics, science, and public attitudes. For example, “colored” became “black,” with “Negro” and “African American” added later and Starting in 2000, Americans could include themselves in more than one racial category. Before that, many multiracial people were counted in only one racial category.”

    The timeline from 1790 to 2020 shows the ten-year cycle of Census dates and includes seven layers corresponding to six racial categories (White, Black or African American, American Indian or Alaskan Native, Asian, Pacific Islander, and some other race), and one ethnic category (Hispanic, Latino, or Spanish origin). The categories in each group are listed here by the year they were first collected, with a note if they replaced a previously used category or were newly added.

    The events summarized in the section on Hispanic, Latino, and Spanish origin ethnicity are detailed in the following section.

    The image also includes a rendering of a historical Census count from South Carolina with each group tabulated by state in hand-printed script. This is accompanied by the following explanatory note: “The nation’s first census was a count of the U.S. population as of Aug. 2, 1790. U.S. marshals and their assistants were supposed to visit each U.S. household and record the name of the head of the household and the number of people in each household in the following categories: Free white males ages 16 and older, free white males younger than 16, free white females, other free persons, and slaves. This is the first page of the publication containing the results.

    Note: The U.S. Census Bureau does not consider Hispanic/Latino ethnicity to be a race. Hispanics also are asked to select one or more races to define themselves.” The categorization of Hispanics and Latinos is described in the following detailed timeline:

    • 1930 - Mexicans were counted as a separate race (not an ethnicity or nationality) for the first and only time. Prior to this, they were categorized racially as white, dating back to the first time they were included in the census in 1850. 
    • 1940 - The Mexican racial category was removed and “persons of Mexican birth or ancestry who were not defined as Indian or some other nonwhite race” were once again deemed white, and marked as a Spanish-speaking population.15
    • 1950 and 1960 - Mexicans were counted as “white persons of Spanish surname.” 
    • 1970 - A question on “Origin or Descent” was added with an option to choose one of the following: Mexican; Puerto Rican; Cuban; Central or South American; Other Spanish. Mexican, Puerto Rican, and Cuban origins were separately identified due to these groups being the largest estimated Hispanic populations in the U.S. at the time. 
    • 1980 - “Hispanic” and “not Hispanic” were deemed distinct and separated from race. According to the Census, individuals who are Hispanic may be of any race. The Mexican category was expanded to include “Mexican, Mexican-Amer[ican], Chicano.”
    • 1990 - For the Hispanic origin question, a list of examples and a write-in line were introduced that read, “Print one group, for example, Argentinean, Colombian, Dominican, Nicaraguan, Salvadoran, Spaniard, and so on.”
    • 2000 - People could report more than one race for the first time. “Other Spanish/Hispanic” was changed to “Another Hispanic, Latino, Spanish origin,” which introduced the Latino label.
    • 2010 - “Another Hispanic, Latino, or Spanish origin” category now provided examples of six Hispanic origin groups “(Argentinean, Colombian, Dominican, Nicaraguan, Salvadoran, Spaniard, and so on)” and instructed respondents to “print origin.”
    • 2020 - The example Hispanic groups were revised to represent the largest Hispanic population groups and the geographic diversity of the Hispanic or Latino category.16

    Despite the Census questions, categories, and labels changing over time, many Latinxs have clear opinions about their identities. According to studies from the Pew Research Center:

    As you learned in this section, race, ethnicity, and different subgroups have been reclassified and redefined in the census. In “Gateway to Whiteness: The Census and Hispanic/Latino Identity,” Gustavo Chacon Mendoza argues that the census is significant because it shapes national, group, and individual identity through its official classification system. He argues, “by narrowly defining ethnicity and restricting its availability as a census answer, the census will force people to identify themselves in groupings that do not match their social perception and standing.”22 However, the number of Hispanics/Latinos that selected “Some Other Race” swelled in the 2020 census––a selection that can be read as a protest to the current racial categorizations. The census, however, interprets this occurrence as confusion or failure to understand the race question, denying respondents agency. Caribbean scholar Jorge Duany notes, “The existence of a large and growing segment of the U.S. population that perceived itself ethnically as Hispanic or Latino, while avoiding the major accepted racial designations, is a politically explosive phenomenon.”23 In sum, there are major limitations with a government entity attempting to categorize a diverse group of people and impose meanings “from above.” While census data can provide a glimpse into understanding Latinx communities, it is important to also examine the perspectives, stories, and contexts that surround the numbers, which is the goal of the following sections.   


    2 Jens Manuel Krogstad, Jeffrey S. Passel, and Luis Noe-Bustamante, “Key Facts About U.S. Latinos For National Hispanic Heritage Month,” Pew Research Center, Washington D.C., September 23, 2022. The term Hispanic is used to describe this population because this is the terminology used by the Census. An explanation of the differences between Hispanic and Latina/o/x/e will be explored in the following section.

    3 Krogstad et al., “Key Facts.”

    4 Krogstad et al., “Key Facts.”

    5 Javier Panzar, “It’s official: Latinos now outnumber whites in California,” Los Angeles Times, July 8, 2015.

    6 U.S. Census, “Additional Instructions for Respondents.”

    7 U.S. Census, “Additional Instructions for Respondents.”

    8 For a detailed explanation of each category review “Additional Instructions.”

    9 Nicholas Jones, Rachel Marks, Roberto Ramirez, and Merarys Ríos-Vargas, “2020 Census Illuminates Racial and Ethnic Composition of the Country,” U.S. Census, August 12, 2021.

    10 Jones et al., “2020 Census Illuminates.”

    11 Krogstad et al., “Key Facts.”

    12 D’vera Cohn, Anna Brown And Mark Hugo Lopez, “Black and Hispanic Americans See Their Origins as Central to Who They Are, Less So for White Adults,” Pew Research Center, Washington D.C., May 14, 2021.

    13 Ana Gonzalez-Barrera and Mark Hugo Lopez, “Is being Hispanic a matter of race, ethnicity or both?,” Pew Research Center, Washington D.C., June 15, 2015.

    14 “What the Census Calls Us,” Pew Research Center, Washington D.C., February 6, 2020.

    15 Tomás Almaguer, “Race, Racialization, and the Latino Populations in the United States,” in The New Latino Studies Reader: A Twenty-First-Century Perspective, eds. Ramón A. Gutiérrez and Tomás Almaguer (Oakland: University of California Press, 2016), 213.

    16 This list was compiled from “What the Census Calls Us” and  “U.S. Decennial Census Measurement of Race and Ethnicity Across the Decades: 1790–2020.” Additional details regarding historical racial formations will be explored in subsequent sections.

    17 Mark Hugo Lopez, Jens Manuel Krogstad And Jeffrey S. Passel, “Who is Hispanic?,” Pew Research Center, Washington D.C., September 15, 2022.

    18 Paul Taylor, Mark Hugo Lopez, Jessica Martínez, and Gabriel Velasco, “When Labels Don’t Fit: Hispanics and Their Views of Identity,”Pew Research Center, Washington D.C., April 4, 2012.

    19 Lopez et al., “Who is Hispanic?”

    20 Lopez et al., “Who is Hispanic?”

    21 Ana Gonzalez-Barrera, “About 6 million U.S. adults identify as Afro-Latino,” Pew Research Center, Washington D.C.,  May 2, 2022.

    22 Gustavo Chacon Mendoza, “Gateway to Whiteness: The Census and Hispanic/Latino Identity,” in The Latin@ Condition, 2nd ed. (New York: New York University Press, 1998), 48-49.

    23 Jorge Duany, “Neither Black nor White,” in The New Latino Studies Reader: A Twenty-First-Century Perspective, eds. Ramón A. Gutiérrez and Tomás Almaguer (Oakland: University of California Press, 2016), 158.

    This page titled 2.1: Defining Latinx Demographics is shared under a CC BY-NC 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Amber Rose González (ASCCC Open Educational Resources Initiative (OERI)) .