By Mariano Castillo and Moni Basu, CNN
(CNN) - Public debate is raging over how to describe George Zimmerman, the man who admitted shooting unarmed teenager Trayvon Martin. Is he Hispanic? Or white? Or both? Should his identity even be raised in the news?
Amid the whirlwind of controversy comes a new survey about why the label “Hispanic” doesn’t always fit those it attempts to describe.
A majority of Hispanics or Latinos don’t fully embrace those terms; instead, they most often identify themselves by their family’s country of origin, said a Pew Hispanic Center study released Wednesday.
The report used the two terms Hispanic and Latino interchangeably, but Latino is often preferred by many because it is more inclusive, said Allert Brown-Gort, associate director of the Institute for Latino Studies at Notre Dame University. Latino includes everyone from Latin America while Hispanic - descended from a Spanish-speaking land or culture - may not.
It has been almost four decades since Hispanic and Latino surfaced in the cultural language of the United States. The federal government mandated them to categorize Americans who traced their roots to Spanish-speaking countries.
But the Pew survey found that only 24% of Hispanics prefer a pan-ethnic label like Hispanic or Latino. A majority - 51% - said they use national identity.
Carmen George, a business owner in Marietta, Georgia, who emigrated from Mexico 26 years ago, accepts the usage of “Hispanic.” But she doesn’t like it.
“I do not consider myself Hispanic,” she said, explaining that the term does not exist where she’s from.
“In Mexico, there are no Hispanics. In the Dominican Republic, there are no Hispanics. In Chile, there are no Hispanics. In Mexico, there are Mexicans; in the Dominican Republic, Dominicans; and in Chile, Chileans,” she said.
George is among the 51% of Latinos who, when filling out official forms that ask about race, answer “other.”
She has almost lived equal amounts of time in Mexico and the United States and feels a strong loyalty to both, she said.
The Pew survey found that 95% of Hispanics found it very important or somewhat important for future generations to be able to speak Spanish.
George’s business, De Colors Spanish Bookstore, offers Spanish classes to all ages, though she has a different reason for advocating Spanish. She teaches Spanish for the intellectual benefits of speaking two languages more than for cultural purposes, she said.
Of the 1,220 Latino adults surveyed in all 50 states and Washington, D.C., 82% said they speak Spanish. Language was one of their strong shared connections.
Culture, on the other hand, was not.
By a ratio of more than two-to-one (69% versus 29%), those surveyed said Latinos in the United States have many different cultures rather than a common culture.
“It took me 10 years to understand that I was Hispanic,” said Brown-Gort, who grew up in Mexico and didn’t understand the U.S. categorization.
“The reality is we as human beings have multiple identities,” he said.
Sometimes Brown-Gort identifies himself as Latino. Other times, the native Mexican who has lived in Indiana for 13 years says he’s a Hoosier. When he travels abroad, he might call himself an American.
The U.S. Census Bureau introduced the question about Hispanic origin in 1970. A version of it has been asked ever since, and the responses are based on an individual’s self-identification.
The latest census in 2010 counted 50 million of America’s 300 million people as Hispanic. Mexicans are the largest group, at almost 21 million people, followed by Puerto Ricans with nearly 5 million and Cubans with more than 1 million.
About half of those in the Pew poll considered themselves to be very different from the typical American. Only 21% said they use the term American most often to describe their identity.
U.S.-born Hispanics expressed a stronger sense of affinity with other Americans than with immigrant Hispanics, a trait that is perhaps true of all ethnic groups.
Questions of identity are most salient in regions near the U.S.-Mexico border, where two cultures, languages and customs blend.
In the border city of Laredo, Texas, a passerby or drive-thru operator is more likely to greet a stranger in Spanish than English.
Border residents here don’t equivocate when it comes to how they identify themselves, said Xochitl Mora, a Laredo resident who works for the city.
She didn’t grow up in Laredo and prefers to identify as a Mexican-American, “but most around here say just Mexican.”
“Here it’s different, because people identify absolutely with their Mexican roots,” she said.
But most are very proud to be American, too.
The city holds one of the largest and most festive Washington’s Birthday celebrations in the country.
“It’s a very interesting dynamic because people here almost have two psyches - their Mexican half and their American half,” Mora said.
As for Zimmerman’s identity, many Americans said that his race was raised simply to frame the story of Trayvon Martin’s shooting in racial terms. Zimmerman’s mother is from Peru, and he identifies himself as Hispanic, which says nothing about a person’s race, but he was at first labeled a white Hispanic by some media outlets, including CNN.
Most Hispanics in the Pew survey did not see themselves fitting into the standard racial categories used by the U.S. Census Bureau. Just more than half - 51% - of Latinos identified themselves as “some other race” or volunteered “Hispanic/Latino.” Another 36% said they were white, and 3% said they were black.
“I’ve written about the thorny subjects of race and ethnicity for nearly a quarter century, and I rarely hear this term,” columnist Ruben Navarrette Jr. wrote on CNN.com about referring to Zimmerman as a white Hispanic.
“We might have been able to see this coming given that there is no Hispanic race and Hispanics come in all colors.”