This year, Fusion and MiTú each posted videos earnestly explaining to their millennial viewers why “Latinx” is the new term everyone should use to refer to people of Latin American descent.
The argument is that “Latinx” is a less determinist, more inclusive form of the words it replaces — “Latino” for males and “Latina” for females. These gendered identifiers, the thinking goes, impose a binary, give preference to the male over the female, and leave out those who don’t consider themselves either.
Although the target audiences for the MiTú and Fusion videos were mainstream consumers in their 20s — a demographic thought to be on board with “Latinx” — the comment sections of both videos were flooded with negative reactions, with some calling the term “ridiculous,” “stupid” and “offensive” to the Spanish language. “Please stop trying to force feed some millennials hipster buzzword,” one commenter said.
Not everyone is on board with the term. And yet “Latinx” — pronounced “La-teen-ex” in English — continues its march into more news outlets and magazines amid our growing public awareness of transgender and non-binary gender identities. The term is even used officially at some UC campuses and is being considered for inclusion in the Oxford English Dictionary.
In English, I’ve been calling myself 'Latin.' And it feels great.
Like many of its awkward predecessors, “Latinx” does not work. Its experimental “x” opens too many linguistic floodgates. And why is this kind of label necessary at all?
One of the most stubborn aspects of America’s racial imagination is the insistence on having a term to separate and identify people of Latin American descent.
It’s a minefield of geography, color and language since we can be of any race and have few things in common beyond some degree of adherence to the Spanish tongue. This is why U.S. Latinos generally prefer to self-identify by their family’s country of origin — Mexican, Colombian, Salvadoran, etc.
Non-Latinos, though, have always needed an umbrella term for labeling us as one. It was French colonists who first dubbed us “Latin” Americans, as a way of distinguishing their colonial project from Anglo colonization in the Western Hemisphere.
We were “Hispanic” for a while in the 20th century, but that sounded too much like it invoked Spain, so “Latino” became the word.
Although “Latino” was invented in English, it was, crucially, also usable in Spanish, which made it the norm in California, with our massive population of Spanish-dominant immigrants. “Latina” followed naturally.
Gendered nouns and adjectives are present in many languages, from Hindi to German. In Spanish, some nouns are male: el auto for “the car.” Some nouns are female: la playa for “the beach.” This is how we get “Latino” and “Latina.” Natural, like I said, but also a problem. To many feminist, transgender and my fellow queer people, the terms impose an unwelcome gender binary.
What’s more, for the plural form, when describing a group composed of different genders, the language generally defaults to the masculine. So if one male is driving to the beach with several female friends, together they are “Latinos.” Some consider this presumption — that a mixed group should default to the male — a reinforcement of patriarchy.
These objections are both intuitive and odd. “Latino” was invented in English, yet some dislike it based on the political implications of applying Spanish grammar.
Besides, the binary rule isn’t even applied strictly in Spanish. There are many exceptions to it. Radio ends in “o,” but the language considers it feminine and gives it the corresponding feminine article of la, so we say la radio. Likewise, mapa ends with “a” but is masculine and given the masculine article of el, so that it’s el mapa. The “o” and “a” suffixes are sometimes irrelevant.
By the logic of “Latinx,” moreover, speakers would need to replace the suffixes of other words with an “x” as well. “Amigos” would become “amigxs,” a construction that is unpronounceable. Imagine trying to speak this sentence: “The amigxs are hopping in their autxs to head to one of L.A.’s playxs”!
When I was in college, in the late 1990s and early 2000s, scholars started using the more neutral-seeming term “Latin@” — pronounced awkwardly as “Latina/Latino” in speech. The term never really caught on. “Latinx,” by contrast, is spreading fast. But it is functionally no better than “Latin@.”
Nor is “Latinx” an organic neologism. It did not emerge from L.A.’s bilingual FM stations. The term is used mostly by an educated minority, largely in the U.S. And although there is little to no research yet on its specific origins, “Latinx” is definitely not used by working-class immigrant adults, who probably have no idea that some of us brown folks are debating this at all.
It is crucial that we have these debates, of course. I’ve witnessed and engaged in heated discussion about the value of “Latinx,” online and in real life. I appreciate why the gendering of words is problematic. But we are years, decades or even centuries away from dropping the gender binary from the languages we speak. Maybe a future generation will invent a new letter. Or maybe concern over this question will dissipate and another language pretzel will arise.
In the meantime, I’ve taken up a different strategy: dropping the suffix altogether.
That’s right. In Spanish I’m still a “Latino” when need be, because I read to people as male. In English, at the risk of being accused of historic-linguistic colonialism, I’ve been calling myself “Latin.” And it feels great.
“Latin” to me does not conjure the Chiquita Banana lady, the Desi Arnaz stereotype or other crude caricatures of decades past. It simply evokes the increasing back-and-forth and growing connections between Latin Americans in the U.S. and their heritage countries in Latin America. It acknowledges that more and more of us, myself included, traverse the boundary between the U.S. and Latin America in our speech, culture and concerns. And do so regardless of gender and sexuality.
So for now, if you must, I’m Latin. She is Latin. He is too. And so are they.
Daniel Hernandez is a writer based in Los Angeles.
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