Latino/a or Latinx or Latine: Spanish Trying To Solve The Gender Problem
Latino/a or Latinx or Latine: Spanish Trying To Solve The Gender Problem
This article originally appeared in Latina magazine’s February 2017 issue.
Whether scrolling through a Facebook news feed or skimming a Latino news site, chances are you’ve come across the word “Latinx” on the Internet. The term, despite your initial thoughts, is not a typo—far from it. That “x” is very intentional. It’s an effort to make Latino, a masculine identifier used to characterize people of Latin American descent, gender-inclusive.
Spanish is a gendered language, with nouns ending in an “a” generally regarded as feminine and those ending in an “o” considered masculine. The tongue, it has been argued, is also a sexist one, giving superiority to male plurals. For instance, a crowd of nine women is referred to as Latinas. However, the moment one man joins the flock, they now become a group of Latinos.
For decades, people have resisted this linguistic male dominance by replacing the final “o” in the word with “o/a” or “@.” But even these variations fall short, as they exclude the countless people of Latin American descent whose genders fall outside the woman-man binary—those identifying as agender (without a gender), nonbinary (beyond the traditional binary), or gender-fluid (fluctuating genders), among a spectrum of other identities.
Enter “Latinx.” The term, pronounced lah-teen-ex, aims to ensure that everyone is represented.
“‘Latinx’ is about our self-determination: the way we understand ourselves and how we want others to understand us in our own terms,” says Aldo Gallardo, a trans Peruvian based in Oakland, Calif. “[It] is an explicit recognition of nonbinary and gender-nonconforming folks from the Latin American diaspora, like me, moving us toward trans liberation and collective freedom.”
“Latinx” emerged within queer spaces of the Internet in 2004, but its usage didn’t take off until a decade later. By 2015, most academics as well as LGBTQ and Latino rights groups were familiar with the word, and many made it a part of their lexicon.
Nicole Castillo co-founded BeVisible Latinx, a career-focused social media platform, in 2014. Then the network was called BeVisible Latina, a name the group decided to change in 2016 after realizing that much of its team is LGBTQ and identified as Latinx.
“By embracing the term ‘Latinx,’ we as a community are saying, ‘You are welcome—and not just part of you, all of you is welcome,’” says Castillo, a queer mexicana based in Boston. “I want BeVisible to be a place where you know you will be accepted, so you can just get along with pursuing your dreams.”
When the national organization Mijente launched in 2015, it immediately embraced the term, describing itself as a “political home for Latinx & Chicanx organizing.”
“Using the ‘x’ was important to publicly signal our recognition of the diversity inside of our communities,” says Mijente co-founder Marisa Franco. “We can no longer afford to exile whole parts of our community and whole parts of ourselves.”
Still, the Arizona-based Chicana concedes that “Latinx” has its flaws. It can be difficult to apply an “x” after every gendered noun when speaking. For example, while “lxs niñxs fueron a protestar en sus escuela” may be understandable on paper, it’s not easy to pronounce or comprehend when said aloud. Even more, Franco recognizes a disconnect between young people using gender-neutral Spanish in the U.S. and those across Latin America who haven’t adopted it.
For Jack Qu’emi Gutiérrez, a nonbinary femme who identifies as Afro-Latinx, the term is “ingenious.” The Puerto Rican author, who first learned of the word on Tumblr, has spoken at universities across the country about “Latinx,” expressing the need for queer people of color’s self-determination. Still, even Gutiérrez acknowledges that making all of the Spanish language gender-inclusive with the letter “x” isn’t ideal.
“The main issue is with flow. You have one term made gender-neutral, but the rest of Spanish’s conjugation isn’t. I try to stick to neutralizing words that refer to people but also am not personally pressed to change all of Spanish’s structure,” she says.
Other criticisms of “Latinx” have appeared alongside the growing use of the word. In 2015, two students at Swarthmore College wrote an article for their campus newspaper arguing against the term, describing it as a form of “reverse appropriation.”
According to Gilbert Orbea, a Cuban American who co-wrote the op-ed with his roommate and fellow political science student Gilbert Guerra, “the basic idea is that there is something called cultural appropriation, where one person or group appropriates some aspect or tradition from another culture. A lot of people will, rightfully, call out a white person wearing a sombrero or dressing in Native American garments as insensitive and careless because they’re defacing that culture’s practices and beliefs. In regards to Spanish, however, these same people then take aspects of one culture and inject it into Spanish.”
“So instead of taking something from Spanish,” Orbea continued, “they are putting a distinctively American—and really, it’s mostly found at elite college institutions—viewpoint into a language without appreciation or reverence for it. That’s reverse appropriation, where we blatantly force our worldview into another culture.”
For the student authors, the issue is solely one of language. They say they’re committed to the fight for equality and encourage gender-inclusive identifiers, but they believe “Latinx” is a flawed solution.
“My prediction is that we will soon have ‘Latino’ for males, ‘Latina’ for females, ‘Latinx’ for nonbinary people, and ‘Latine’ as the gender-inclusive umbrella term,” says Guerra, who is mexicano. “The ‘e’ is a vowel that is already used in genderless words, such as ‘estudiante,’ and brings much fewer problems than the ‘x’ does.”
Clearly, new identifiers will arise. “Labels to refer to people of Latin American descent shift throughout history,” says Jillian Báez, assistant professor of media culture at the College of Staten Island-CUNY.
In the early 20th century, “Mexican” was used as a catchall descriptor for Latinos in the Southwest. During the same time in New York, Puerto Rican, Cuban, and Salvadoran migrants used the term “Hispanos” to identify themselves, linking their cultural identity to their language. By 1970, the U.S. Census Bureau introduced “Hispanic.” These days, Báez, who is Puerto Rican, says U.S.-based people of Latin American descent prefer “Latino” over “Hispanic,” as the latter ties to Spain and disregards linkages to indigenous and African histories.
As for “Latinx,” Arlene Dávila, an anthropology professor at New York University, doesn’t believe the term will completely replace the common “Latino/a,” though she does think it will grow in use. “My hunch is that ‘Latinx’ will become a popular option, especially among the youth,” she says, “but I see it becoming another term, not necessarily replacing ‘Latino/a.’ ”
More of Dávila’s students are swapping “Latino/a” for “Latinx” and other gender-inclusive language, and the shift isn’t exclusive to her classes.
In 2016, New York University held a “Latinx Graduation,” Central Washington University had a “Latinx Alumni Association Reception,” and Oberlin College celebrated “Latinx Heritage Month.” Even Swarthmore’s campus paper, where Guerra and Orbea published their op-ed against “Latinx,” has started to use the term.
“Latinx” is also becoming more common in journalism, with usage spotted in The New York Times, NBC News, Elle, and NPR, among other outlets. While the Associated Press has not recognized “Latinx,” both the Oxford University Press and Merriam-Webster, Inc. have noticed the increasing use of the word and have added it to their “watch lists.”
Whether “Latinx” sticks or “Latine” arises, “the evolution of these labels,” Báez says, “suggests we are trying to become more inclusive of everyone in the community”—and that’s worth applauding regardless of our word preference.