In honor of Hispanic Heritage Month, the Pleiad is publishing an opinion article each week that explores topics related to Hispanic and Latinx identity and culture. This week’s article is the second of four articles. Last week’s installment can be read here.
I was born into a Mexican household that only knew Spanish. Everyone there, from my grandparents to my uncles and aunts to my own parents, knew the mother tongue as well as a family from the Mexican peasantry could. At a young age, I learned that I’d have to juggle the tongue of my family with that of the country that I was born in. As someone who navigated two different worlds, translating a sentence for a family member isn’t about the words you use, but rather the message being conveyed.
It wasn’t until I associated myself with individuals who identified as queer that I began to see beyond my singular perspective of a Latino male. The world that surrounded me was one painted in colors I had yet to grow familiar with, ideas I had just barely become accustomed to.
In time, I would learn the names of these colors, to be able to identify different genders and sexualities beyond my initial understanding of the restrictive gender binary. A gentle breeze had carried me away from what I had known and thrust me out into the great unknown. When the wind died down, I was forced to come to terms with the new reality that I had stumbled into, and learn how to navigate it to the best of my abilities.
The term Latinx is the product of intersectionality, of wanting to include Latinos outside the gender binary. Spanish is a heavily gendered language, as many Spanish-speakers will attest to. The use of “Latinos” as a gender-neutral term is debated, with many individuals pushing against the inherent masculinity that the word is associated with. Those who identify as the gender they were assigned at birth, such as myself, never really have to give a second thought to how the gender binary was built into the very words we use in Spanish. Backpacks (las mochilas) are feminine and books (los libros) are masculine, and that’s just a simple reality of the Spanish language.
In more recent years, there has been an attempt to modify the commonly used term “Latino” to be more inclusive of others. According to an article published in Mother Jones, Latine individuals in the 1990s began using the term “latin@” because the symbol combines both “-a” and “-o”. It fell out of use due to difficulties in pronunciation.
In the aftermath of the Pulse nightclub shooting in 2016, the shift towards Latinx has become more common, so much so that as of 2018 it has seen widespread use. According to a national survey of Latines done by the Pew Research Center in Aug. of 2020, its usage within the Latin American community comes from individuals between the ages of 18 to 29. In that same study, it notes that only 3% of individuals surveyed use the given term, and only 23% of adults have heard of the term.
Practicing the term is a challenge amongst the Latine or Latinx community. Debates around the usage of the term Latinx are specific to the issue it is trying to address. For example, the Royal Spanish Academy, which was founded in order to preserve the Spanish language, rejected the usage of both “-x” and “-e” with regards to gender neutrality, favoring the traditional masculine “-o”. The term Latinx, being born of a need to address a linguistic issue, has been seen as a solution to a problem that only academics and the intelligentsia would concern themselves with, as opposed to the issues that affect more directly the Latine working class.
There is also the idea of linguistic imperialism, or the idea that the Spanish tongue prevalent in Latin America is bulldozed by US activists in an attempt to advance the supposition that Latin Americans need to be educated by foreigners with regards to their own language. When one pairs the knowledge of US-backed coups in Latin America with this concept, one gets the impression that maybe we should just stop meddling.
All this debate distracts from the intended purpose of the term in the first place. It’s a common occurrence in political circles to debate theory more than actually apply it. In order to break that cycle, we should take a moment and, rather than consider alternatives, ask Latin American individuals outside the gender binary what they’d like to be called.
No demographic is ever truly a monolith. There may be shared threads that run through everyone’s life story, but at the end of the day, they will all interpret the story differently. If an individual wishes to identify as Latino or Latinx or Latine, then who are we to arbitrate their usage? All we can do is accept that people will use a term that they feel comfortable with, and if they are uncomfortable with a term, then we must take it upon ourselves to respect their decision and leave them be.