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Ethnic labels a delicate issue

Keeping up with the evolution of names preferred by ethnic groups requires focussed attention. But it's a courtesy that citizens should be willing to extend to each other.

And though no one can claim a corner on knowing the will and wishes on an entire group of people, those in the nation's ethnic communities should be allowed to choose their own designation.

The most recent "shift" in language comes with the word "Hispanic." Once considered a legitimate catch-all term for people from all Spanish-speaking countries, today more and more people from Latin American prefer to be called "Latino" (male) or "Latina" (female) to distinguish them from those who trace their heritage to Spain. Sandra Cisneros, the celebrated Latina writer, insisted on wearing a temporary tatoo that read "Pura Latina" when she appeared on the cover of "Hispanic Magazine," for instance, in order to mark the differences.

Any "label," of course, needs to be discarded from time to time, especially those that carry negative overtones. For many years people from Latin America were known as "Latins," until the term took on an unflattering shade in expressions such as "Latin temper" and "Latin lover." The name "Chicano" surfaced in the 1960s. It was a politically charged word used by militants to show their roots and solidarity with their Aztec ancestors, who pronounced "Mexico" as "Mechico."

For many years, employers in the United States used ugly terms or simply called all brown-skinned immigrants "Mexicans" or "Spanish" without making any distinctions about nationality.

A similar evolution of terms can be seen in the Asian community, where people were once called Orientals. The African American community has gone through several names over the decades in an attempt to shatter simple-minded generalizations about them and try to get people to look at the culture with new eyes.

Breaking down broad stereotypes is never easy, of course. And seeing each member of a community as a unique individual is even more difficult. But it is worth the effort.

And it all begins with wanting to treat others with civility.

Eventually, "Latino" may give way to more specific terms, such as "Peruvian," "Chilean" and "Costa Rican."

When that happens, it will mark another step forward in human relationships.