Technically speaking, the terms Hispanic and Latino aren’t synonyms: Hispanic means someone whose family is originally from a Spanish-speaking country, while Latino means someone whose family is from Mexico, or Central or South America.
But there’s another more important way in which the terms are different: “Hispanic” sounds more racially neutral, while Latino more overtly implicates the notion of non-whiteness. In other words, the concept of Hispanic white people — a formal census category — is less jarring than that of white Latinos, which tends to sound, at least to white ears, more oxymoronic.
Here’s an essay about Mauricio Garcia, the Latino white supremacist who murdered eight people in Texas earlier this month:
We don’t know a lot about Garcia, but the diary he kept in the years leading up to the shooting made clear his growing persuasion by white-power ideology. He wrote about the superiority of non-Latino white people and claimed they would lose their edge if they continued to let nonwhite immigrants into the country. Reports on Garcia’s self-presentation have focussed on his misogyny, Nazi tattoos, racist statements against pretty much every group, and the patch on his vest that read “RWDS.” The patch, which stands for Right-Wing Death Squad and refers to anti-Communist and anti-Indigenous paramilitary groups in Central and South America during the nineteen-seventies and eighties, has become popular among right-wing groups in the United States today, particularly the ultranationalist Proud Boys.
But Garcia continued to see himself as Latino, which he never equated with whiteness, and at moments he manifested pride in his nonwhite Latino identity. It is a confusing set of ideas that nevertheless has a long history among Latinos, in part because the category “Latino” itself has been fiercely contested—with some arguing, for example, that it should be classified as a race rather than an ethnicity. A New York Times Op-Ed by the historian Cecilia Márquez focussed on the lineage of Latino white supremacists before Mauricio Garcia, including Pete Garcia, a Mexican American segregationist in Dallas in the nineteen-fifties; George Zimmerman, who killed Trayvon Martin, in Florida, in 2012; Alex Michael Ramos, who beat a Black protester at the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville; Enrique Tarrio, the Proud Boys leader recently convicted of seditious conspiracy; and Nick Fuentes, a white-nationalist live streamer. Most of these Latinos said they were nonwhite, even though the protests they joined, the groups they belonged to, and the violence they committed defended whiteness and white-power ideology.
Part of what’s going on here is the phenomenon of “aspirational whiteness:”
Scholars and journalists have described these Latino white supremacists in different ways. Some Latinos, they’ve argued, are also afflicted by “aspirational whiteness,” or the desire to be white in order to fit into the racial and capitalist order of the United States, to avoid the discrimination that Black Americans experience, or to justify the pursuit of individual wealth and belonging.
“Whiteness” in this sense should be understood as an ideologically-driven identity, rather than some sort of (mythical) biological “fact.”
The white supremacist Latino is no more mysterious than the white supremacist Italian or Irish American, or the white supremacist Jew: All these groups were once non-white in America, and now they’re all white (more or less), because whiteness has no biological component: It merely means you are a Regular Person, as opposed to an Other, and what makes you the former rather than the latter is nothing but the society’s recognition of you as such.
That the borders of that kind of recognition are always shifting and contingent merely emphasizes why a just society would not include the concept of a “white person” at all.