Are you writing a Latin@ character? Or are you writing a Hispanic character? Maybe both? Or maybe you're writing a Chican@ character? A Mexican-American? "Just" a Mexican?
How do you know?
And, you may be asking, what is up with that @ symbol?
Nota bene: I am not a linguist. This is the quick and dirty version.
I'll start by explaining my use of the @ symbol. In Spanish, nouns are assigned masculinity or femininity (la mesa, la mano, el sol, el gato, la canción). Traditionally, a mixed group of nouns, say students in a classroom, are referred to with the masculine form, whatever the actual gender distribution. Los estudiantes. Los hijos del maíz. Why should this be the case?
Some folks write Latino/a (or Chicano/a), but the masculine suffix is still given priority. If we flip it to Latina/o, it's still typographically awkward, but more important, like its predecessor, it implies that there are only two genders. The @ disrupts the tendency to erase or subordinate the feminine, but it also complicates gender binarism (is this noun male, female, both, neither, more, does it matter and why?).
Okay, so back to labels for me and my peeps. Please understand that the labels I discuss in this essay are US-centric and some have been popularized, fairly recently, by the US Census for its own purposes.
Generally speaking, a Hispanic person is a person living in America who hails from a Spanish-speaking country, or whose family does/did, or some of whose family does/did. Here's a map highlighting those regions. Your character could be from any one of these places, or their family may hail from one or more.
A Latin@ hails from Latin America, which includes Mexico, Central America, parts of the Caribbean, and much of South America. Here's a map of those regions.
Latin@ is a broader term than Hispanic. Most countries in Latin America are Spanish-speaking, but not all of them! Brazil's official language is Portuguese, for example, so people with Brazilian heritage may be referred to as Latino but usually not as Hispanic.
The terms Hispanic and Latin@ owe much of their popularity in the US to their synonymous usage by the US Census. The former was first used on the Census in 1980, the latter in 2000.
Now for Chican@. There's a lot of disagreement regarding the origin of the term, and hence a lot of dispute as to whether it's pejorative, but Chican@ has been reclaimed by many folks since the 1960s, i.e., the Chicano Movement in the US. The etymology that makes most sense to me has been laid out by Mateo Montoya in much greater detail than I will use here. (Here is the specific link, although I will note that the text seems to use the word "invincible" when "invisible" is meant.)
Nahuatl is an indigenous language of Mexico that was used by the Aztecs. It was not a written language. When the Spanish colonized the region, they named the region after the Mexica tribe, the x being pronounced "sh". Mexicanos got shortened to Xicanos, which was transliterated to Chicanos in an attempt to convey the "sh" sound. More recently, the spelling has reverted to Xicano (or Xican@) to proudly indicate the word's pre-colonial origin.
To further complicate matters, I should point out that many of us prefer to identify with our (or our family's) country of origin, rather than use Latin@ or Hispanic. So, for example, my husband and I sometimes badger each other and our daughter with the rhetorical question, "Are you a MexiCAN or a MexiCAN'T?" (Answer: Always a MexiCAN.) And when my husband makes up voices for animals or inanimate objects, they always have the same accent because, as he says, "I'm a Mexican, so all my voices are Mexican."
But that's in Iowa. Back home in Texas, I'm likely to hear my extended family mutter "stupid Mexicans" about bad drivers, and it's understood that they mean "Mexican nationals" not ethnic Mexicans, not one of "Us." In fact, some people who share my heritage get very indignant about being called Mexicans and will insist they are Americans first and foremost. Discussions can get very heated, very fast.
There are also terms to indicate biracial and multiracial heritage. For instance, Afro-Latin@ refers to a Latin@ with black African ancestry. Black Latin@ and Afro-Hispanic are also used. More specific labels include Afro-Dominican(@), Afro-Peruvian, Afro-Uruguayan… I believe the "Afro" prefix can be set in front of any Latino or Hispanic nationality to indicate that mixed heritage. Sadly, I have only recently started learning about the Afro-Latin@ community. Partly because of where I come from, partly because…racism. There are also Asian-Latin@s or Asian Hispanics. Basically, we're everywhere. We are and contain multitudes.
When writing, consider what label your character would self-select, not the term you, personally, feel most comfortable using. Whether the character uses Hispanic, Latin@, Xican@, Cubano or some other label will depend on a constellation of factors including but not limited to: age, country of origin, context, immigration/citizenship status, Census labels, common knowledge, class, and education.
For instance, my parents and all my grandparents were American citizens, but my mother's family came from Mexico at some point (probably around the time of the Mexican Revolution). I grew up in the 1980s and '90s in the lower Rio Grande Valley, which is only a few miles away from the US-Mexico border. I learned to refer to myself and my cohorts as Hispanic. We did not consider ourselves "White" although we were instructed to fill in the "White-Hispanic" bubbles on our scantronic forms. The population of the RGV was heavily ethnic Mexican (with ancestry in Mexico, regardless of current citizenship status) and most everyone spoke Spanish—I did not, but that's another story.
Now that I live in Iowa, I find more connections if I use the term Latin@ than Hispanic. Also, it feels more accurate, since I don't actually speak Spanish. It's rare that anyone uses Chicana with me, but maybe if I lived in a different part of the country, I'd hear it more often. In any case, I won't be offended if you use any of those terms.
In contrast, I had relatives who would be offended if called Chicano. One in-law would NEVER accept the term Chicano because he believed it to be a slur comparing Mexicans to chickens: they scatter when you stomp. He thought the nastiness of the term was common knowledge, and when I reacted to this (folk) etymology with surprise, he told me stories about race-related labor disputes in which ethnic Mexicans were run out of town with that pejorative hanging in the air. Other Latin@s won't use the term because they think it's a diminutive meaning "the little people."
The point is not which etymology is accurate. The point (here) is how beliefs about etymology can affect which labels people choose to use. It's complicated, and sometimes ugly. But when you're writing realistic characters, you must work on a number of axes simultaneously. It's not just labels, but language and culture and race and racism, systemic and personal.
So, as a reader, I am not expecting a writer to pinpoint the "correct" terms. I am expecting the writer to be aware of the complex array of terms out there and how many, many factors come together, in degrees varying from individual to individual, to determine how people like me self-identify. If you, as a non-Latin@ writer, create a character who is just a version of you, but with brown skin and a different surname, it's not going to work. It won't feel authentic, because, to paraphrase Sherman Alexie, "We know a lot more about being white than you know about being us." And readers (even white ones) will know the difference. They will feel the difference.
Your character may be literally Mexican-American (an American-born citizen with parents who were Mexican citizens) but call herself a Xicana. He might be an older man (or a slightly old-fashioned one) who uses the label Hispanic because it's what he grew up with. Ey might speak of La Raza, or call everyone with brown skin Mexicans because they are, or once were, in that region. Possibly the character doesn't explicitly identify as anything but American—but chances are, other people see them differently.
But that's yet another story. And another post. :)