How ‘Latinx’ united — and divided — a community seeking to redefine itself
“They looked at me like ‘What? What is that? And why would you ever want to be called that’?” said Ramos, 22, who graduated from UCLA last spring.
Her mother asked how she could prefer “Latinx” to “Mexican” or “mestizo” — used in Latin America to describe someone of mixed Indigenous and European descent. “I felt embarrassed because they would not understand why I would use it, and that stuck in my mind,” said Ramos.
Latinx — a term born of a desire to provide a gender-neutral alternative to “Latina” or “Latino” — is one of the latest points of contention in the culture wars, and, sometimes, a source of intense family debate.
Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders (R) recently signed an executive order banning the use of the word in government documents. Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-Ariz.) has told his staff not to use the term, which he said was being employed as an effort to “appease white rich progressives.” This month, Rep. Monica De La Cruz (R-Tex.) scorned the word on Twitter, arguing it was invented by “woke liberals” who want to make Hispanics “feel like victims.”
Ramos says she decided to stay away from the trendy label after her parents rebuffed it and in light of the recent political debate. She says she supports others using it but says that for her, it’s become “too politicized.”
For now, Ramos is sticking with “Latina,” a label she finds less controversial. “White people see me and immediately think I am something different, so if I say I am Latina, it’s easier for them to accept and understand me,” she said. “‘Latina’ feels like a safer word right now.”
“Latinx” is taking criticism not just in conservative circles but also from some of the 62 million people in the United States it is supposed to represent. The term, inclusive to many but bothersome to others, illuminates the diversity of the largest and fastest-growing minority in the United States — at a time when Latino influence in politics, culture and arts is reaching new heights.
“We are seeing a moment in any ethnic community life span where members have to reconsider what it means to be part of the group, what the content of the identity means, and how to be a good member of this community,” said Efrén Pérez, a professor of political science and psychology at UCLA, where he directs the Race, Ethnicity, Politics and Society Lab.
The debate over the term reflects an “ethnic group renewal” and the growing pains of a large and vast community redefining itself, he said.
In Connecticut, where about 18 percent of the population is Hispanic, six Democratic lawmakers of Puerto Rican descent recently introduced legislation to ban the term from all official government documents, arguing that it is offensive to the state’s large Puerto Rican population and bastardizes the Spanish language.
It’s “unnecessary,” said state Rep. Geraldo Reyes Jr., who introduced the measure. In Spanish, “Latino” is inclusive of everyone, he said. It is “unacceptable” for a “woke community” to impose the use of a “made-up word meant to sound inclusive,” Reyes said.
Reyes’s bill has not been voted on in the Connecticut Capitol but has helped spark a national debate. It also has made the Democratic lawmakers strange bedfellows with the conservative Sanders in Arkansas, who said the word is “culturally insensitive” to many Latinos. The government has a responsibility to use “ethnically appropriate language when referring to ethnic minorities,” a spokesperson for Sanders previously told The Washington Post.
“Latinx” is a gender-neutral term that covers the roughly 19 percent of the American population that has cultural roots in more than 20 countries where Spanish or Portuguese are predominant. For decades, it was a population described as Hispanic, derived from the word “Hispania,” the Latin name for the Iberian Peninsula, which is occupied by Spain and Portugal. But some felt that word was Eurocentric and did not reflect people with Latin American roots. Next came “Latino,” the masculine form of the word in Spanish, and “Latina,” the feminine form.
In the early 2000s, “Latinx” began to emerge in online forums and among LGBTQ groups seeking to counter what they called the machismo of Latino culture ingrained in Spanish grammar.
“Latinx” is virtually nonexistent in predominantly Spanish-speaking countries but appears broadly in books and in advertising and academia in the United States. Harvard University has a Latinx studies program. UCLA conducts a Latinx graduation ceremony. New York University will launch a research institute for Latinx studies called the Latinx Project.
The growing use of “Latinx” is a stand against exclusion and a celebration of the community’s ethnic, ideological and even racial diversity, say supporters of the word, who call it an imperfect umbrella label meant to encompass Black Latinos, transgender Latinos, queer Latinos, Indigenous Latinos and Spanish-speaking Cuban Americans in Florida as well as Peruvians who speak Quechua.
The controversy over its use also reflects a generational divide in a community in which nearly one-third are younger than 18 years old.
Leonardo Ruiz, 21, says his relationship with the word has evolved alongside his gender identity.
During high school, he identified as a trans man and considered himself a Latino. But the label soon felt “too rigid,” Ruiz said. During college, as he began to feel more at ease with his identity, Ruiz began describing himself as nonbinary and using the Latinx label.
“For someone like me, who is Puerto Rican, Black and whose sense of femininity and masculinity is disassociated with modern perspectives, Latinx just feels right,” said Ruiz, a student at Boston University.
His family, which has a strong Catholic background, has struggled to accept both the term and his gender identity, Ruiz says. Family members refer to him as a Latina, he says.
Isabella Blanco Meléndez, who is of Puerto Rican, Cuban, Spanish and Caribbean descent, discovered the term a few years ago and began using it, in part, she said, “to challenge the patriarchal default embedded in the Spanish language.”
The entire community is commonly referred to as Latinos, said Meléndez, 20, a sophomore at Barnard College of Columbia University. “Male is the default, and I don’t think it’s fair for the amazing women in my family tree, for my primas [cousins], tias [aunts] and abuelas [grandmothers] to be called that,” she said. “Latinx is a unifying label that encapsulates the diversity and experience of the community. That’s why I am really fond of using it for myself and for my community, which I am so proud to be a part of.”
But its critics have called “Latinx” an example of reverse linguistic colonialism — U.S. speakers of English trying to impose new norms on another community. It also has been disparaged as a White liberal creation used mostly in academic settings and detached from the lives of the vast majority of working-class Latinos or Hispanics who don’t know about it or simply don’t care about it.
A 2019 poll conducted by the Pew Research Center found that just about 1 in 4 Hispanics were familiar with the term “Latinx.” The same survey found that young people were more likely to use it to refer to themselves — with 7 percent among those ages 18 to 29 using it, in comparison with 3 percent overall using it.
The League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), the oldest Hispanic civil rights group in the United States, began using the term during conferences across the country. But it “fell flat” among the majority of the group’s more than 300,000 members, who prefer “Latino” and “Latina,” said the organization’s president, Domingo Garcia. LULAC dropped the word last year.
“It’s an English word that most Latinos in America don’t identify with, and it seems like it’s trying to be imposed by people that we would describe [as] in the far left and not really in touch with mainstream Marías and Josés in America,” he said.
Juana Valle says that when she arrived in Connecticut from central Mexico 25 years ago, she started out identifying herself as Hispanic and then later opted for Latina. But above all, she says, she identifies as Mexican.
The word “Latinx” felt strange and hard to pronounce, said Valle, 48, who is a housewife. She understands why some people use it, she said, describing it as “harmless.” But she’s sticking with “Latina.”
Although “Latinx” is a more inclusive word, said Maia Gil’Adí, an assistant professor of Latinx literature at Boston University, it has limitations. “What do we do with Haiti, Guyana and Brazil?” she said, referring to countries in Latin America whose primary language is not Spanish. “Can we come up with a more capacious idea of Latinidad?”
Still, adding an “x” to a word or name can have special meaning, supporters of “Latinx” say. The civil rights activist Malcolm X adopted “X” to replace the White enslaver’s last name imposed on his family. Chicano civil rights activists commonly replaced “ch” with “x” — making Xicano instead of Chicano — as a nod to the Indigenous language Nahuatl in Mexico.
And the use of an “x” has spread to other communities, including Filipinos, some of whom are now using the gender-inclusive Filipinx.
“Part of the X is so enticing because it has this mathematical designation for ... the thing that has to be solved,” Gil’Adí said. “It does not refer solely to gender, but to all these other things.”
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