Did you know that the US observes Hispanic Heritage Month every year from Sep 15-Oct 15? As a form of literary resistance to the current atrocious political climate (the ending of DACA, the near-endorsement of White Supremacy by our very own president, etc.) I’m writing a series of articles in honor of this period celebrating the contributions of Latinxs. You read that correctly. It wasn’t a typo. If you’re wondering why I deliberately wrote the word with an “x,” fret no more. Today, an illuminating piece explaining the origins and meaning of this modern term.
What should we call us?
Hispanic, Latino, Latinx… seems the community I belong to is facing an identity crisis, but that’s not really the case. Rather, the term(s) used to refer to the ethnicity of this group is undergoing an evolution. I’ve written before about Hispanic vs. Latino, and for the sake of this piece, I’ll simply summarize the differences of these words. ‘Hispanic’ refers to people with ties to a Spanish-speaking country including Spain, while ‘Latino’ denotes geography—people of Latin American descent. One label is about Spanish, the other about geography.
‘Latinx, ’pronounced “Latin-ex,” is the latest iteration of ‘Latino/a.’ Latinx is the gender-inclusive way of referring to folk of Latin American descent. This new kid on the block is modernizing the notion of a pan-Latin American experience—or Latin-ness—to reflect what it means to belong to this community today.
One little letter
Spanish, like all the other Romance tongues, is a gendered language—one in which nouns and adjectives provide a feminine or masculine descriptor. Almost always, words ending with “o” indicate a masculine nature, while those ending with “a” denote a feminine character. For example, la silla (the chair) y el teléfono (the telephone). The word chair is feminine and the word telephone is masculine. Interestingly, the default for words is always masculine. Let’s say there is a group of female doctors in a room, so we’ll refer to them as ‘las doctoras’ but as soon as a single man joins the gathering, the proper name changes to ‘los doctores.’ The group becomes masculine (even though the default to denote gender neutrality in a group goes to the masculine descriptor) despite the majority.
Through doing research for this article, I realized just how inherently patriarchal Latinx culture is, always handing more power to men, even through language. Surely this is a basic grammar concept but the wider implications are profound.
Latinx comes in to reflect the fact that we live in the 21st century. The term is inclusive of those that don’t identify with gender binaries and better reflects the intersecting identities of people with Latin American roots. The word acknowledges different forms of oppression such as sexism, racism, classism, and heterosexism.
Changing one letter gives people the language necessary to better represent their identities and advocates for their equality. Latinx is more inclusive, encompassing and empowering.
To Latinx or not to Latinx?
Sounds great, right? Although the term has become very popular, not everyone is on board. There are a few arguments opposing the adoption of Latinx. One of them is that the word is disrespectful to Spanish because it aims to change the very foundation on which the language is built—genderization. This argument posits that Spanish speakers would find it ludicrous to exchange a’s and o’s with x’s, which I agree with. But, I think this point is taken too far. The users of Latinx aren’t advocating to change the Spanish language entirely, just one word that would mostly be used in the US by younger people that may or may not speak Spanish.
Others criticize using an umbrella term to create a single Latin American identity because it undermines diversity and can lead to the erasure of marginalized identities such as indigenous people. This is a valid point, but not a new one. The naysayers resist any other label (Hispanic, Latino/a, Latin@), and I understand why, but we live in the US, the land of categorization. There’s no escaping it. These labels were created by the government as a means of convenience, and to me, Latinx is a form of reclaiming a word the community never asked for.
Words are important because how we communicate shapes our lives. The younger generation is working with what they got because changing or establishing new language is painful and difficult. While some resist Latinx, others recognize it as the best option for the time being.
Good enough for now
Latinx is not the perfect identifier for those of a Latin American background, but it does acknowledge that people’s individual identity is complex, nuanced and worthy of being recognized and respected. As Connie Chavez, video editor at Latina Magazine, says, “When I use [Latinx], I’m acknowledging people who have been marginalized for a long time. If we can all check our privilege and embrace the term, it’s a way of saying ‘We see you, and you matter.’” The truth is that figuring out one’s identity matters and ‘Latinx’ strengthens the sense of community made up of incredibly diverse individuals.
Personally, I settle for a middle ground. While speaking, I refer to myself as Latina and to my friends and family as Latinos. It’s habit and sounds more natural. However, while writing I make a point of using Latinx because its usage is an important step towards progress. The future of the word is uncertain, as are most things in life, but the fact is that this term is mostly accepted and used by the younger generation. This is because the rise of ‘Latinx’ is a linguistic movement led by the youth.
This was the first of three essays in honor of Hispanic Heritage Month. Sign up below to receive the updates!
What are your thoughts on this ‘linguistic movement’?