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By 2040, Hispanics, or Latinos - at NPR we use the terms interchangeably - will be the largest ethnic minority in the United States. But it is at best imprecise to reduce such a diverse group to just one name. To better understand the views and experiences of Latino Americans, NPR conducted a poll with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard School of Public Health. All this week, we'll be sharing stories we found in the results.

Now, here's NPR's Karen Grigsby Bates with the Hispanic versus Latino debate and that old question: What's in a name?

KAREN GRIGSBY BATES, BYLINE: Born in Honduras and raised in East Los Angeles, comedian Carlos Mencia's work is filtered through the prisms of race and ethnicity. But in an interview with TV's Katie Couric, Mencia said the issue of what to call the mostly Latino audiences he drew early in his career got him in trouble.

CARLOS MENCIA: I said Latinos and they said: We're not Latin. And then I said Chicano and they said: Well, we're not of Mexican descent. And I said I don't know what to say. Hispanic? And they're: There's no such country as Hispania.

(LAUGHTER)

MENCIA: And I was like, well, how am I supposed to describe us?

BATES: He's not alone in that frustration. In the 1980s, the Census Bureau decided to switch from asking people who identified as Spanish-speaking to describe themselves as Hispanic or Latino. Since then, some public figures have gotten in the habit of using both terms, sometimes in the same sentence, like this guy.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: That determination has made the Latino community a driving force behind our national recovery. It's led Hispanic Americans to start small businesses at three times the national average.

BATES: Yep, that was President Barack Obama in 2012, urging a specific demographic to vote for cambio, or change. Many Spanish-language journalists use both terms, too. Here's Univision news anchor Maria Elena Salinas.

MARIA ELENA SALINAS: Hispanics were here before the Mayflower. Hispanics were here before Jamestown. You know, Latinos have roots, very deep roots in this country and they have had for a long time.

BATES: NPR's poll says of the almost 1,500 people surveyed, there was a very slight preference for Hispanic over Latino but not by much. And says Mark Hugo Lopez, of the Pew Research Center, there's a reason for that.

MARK HUGO LOPEZ: We are the country that's created this notion of a Pan-Hispanic or a Pan-Latino identity. That's really something that in many respects is unique to the United States.

BATES: Lopez coordinates Pew's annual Hispanic Trends Project's survey of Latino Communities. Pew also uses Hispanic and Latino interchangeably. Like the NPR poll, Lopez says the latest Pew Latino survey shows Latinos identify more readily by country of origin - or their parents' or grandparents' - than they do the terms used by the U.S. government.

LOPEZ: And if you travel in other parts of Latin America, you'll find, for example, people aren't necessarily calling themselves s Hispanic first. They're saying that they are Salvadoran or that they are Peruvian when you go to those countries.

BATES: But it's important to point out that not everybody prefers to identify by nationality.

MANDO RAYO: I'm part Mexican, part American, 100 percent Tejano.

BATES: In Austin, Texas, Mando Rayo helps nonprofits, businesses and politicians connect to Latino communities. He says if forced to choose, he prefers to use Latino. He believes it connects him more to his Latin American roots. But, Rayo warns clients, it's not the same for everyone.

RAYO: When you're thinking about, you know, you're trying to sell something to the Latino community, and whoa, I always say well, which one?

BATES: Good question. A lot of variables like age, whether one is U.S.-born or born elsewhere, level of education, mean a one-size-fits-all marketing strategy can easily flop. Then Rayo says there are regional differences. Mexican-Americans in Texas might respond far differently to a pitch designed for Mexican-Americans in California.

RAYO: Once you start going more into that localization of understanding communities, understanding Latinos, then you kind of have to dig deeper into those layers.

BATES: Confusing, right?

ANGELO FALCON: Welcome to multicultural America. Reality is a very complex thing for everybody, including Hispanics.

BATES: Angelo Falcon is executive director of the National Institute for Latino Policy. Falcon, who has Puerto Rican roots, says in the '90s, black leaders like Jesse Jackson had an easier job convincing many black Americans to begin to identify as African-American.

FALCON: They thought African-American was a more culturally based, ethnic term and would also identify more with the American experience.

BATES: The critical difference between using African-American and Latino-Hispanic, Falcon says, is that African-American was a term chosen by that community; where Hispanic-Latino was the government's choice. Demographers and sociologists say that as time goes on, the designation of Hispanic-Latino will begin to matter less and less. Younger generations will acknowledge their roots while proclaiming themselves American, just as most other ethnic groups have done before them. And that's very much in keeping with the evolution of American identity.

Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News.

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