February 26, 2022

"Latinx": A Brief History of Language

Maria Fernanda Martinez

Author's Note: This piece was written March 30, 2017 for a Linguistics 101 Course. The term "Latine" was not yet in common use, but it is what I gravitate towards now in informal spaces. I stand by the importance of the "x" regardless.


“La raza!/Méjicano!/Español!/Latino!/Chicano!/Or whatever I call myself,/I look the same/I feel the same/I cry/And/Sing the same/I am the masses of my people and/I refuse to be absorbed.”

-Corky Gonzales

"The x is a variable, a placeholder, it can mean whatever you want it to mean. Why are y'all so opposed to change?" In the fall of 2014 I sat in a room for over two hours with a group of peers debating whether our organization was due for a name change. The options at hand were the current Chicano Caucus, or two new options Chican@ and Chicanx. Those of us fighting for Chicano argued that there was too much weight and history to the word. Chicano recalled the 1970's push for better schools in California. Chicano tied us to the Brown Berets and the Third World Liberation Front. Chicano was familiar, strong, comforting. People pushing for Chicanx scoffed at the suggestion that we do something because it was comfortable. Weren't we a revolutionary group devoted to moving our community forward? Had we too much privilege to notice that it was only familiar and comforting to those of us whose gender expressions had always been represented? Chican@ was an attempt at compromise. They understood that as powerful as the word Chicano was, it also held strong connotations of a movement ladened with patriarchal standards; women were not included. More importantly they said, there was already a movement towards using the @ in words such as Chican@, Latin@, Mexican@s so it would not be too unfamiliar for new faces looking to join our space. Democracy ruled and we adopted the x.

The x moves away from the masculine-as-default narrative and prompts questions of gender equality and inclusivity. It answers the question, who matters? While the @ marked the equality of feminine and masculine, the x moved to include all identities on the gender spectrum. Latinx's validity as an ethnic identifier has been put in question by many, including myself at one point. Opponents range from those who don't believe there should be one single identity marker for a group composed of over twenty national identities (this group also opposes Latino and Hispanic), to those who believe that making certain words gender inclusive is an attack on the Spanish language. In fact, “Latinx” can be traced back to the word Hispanic, is significant in today's political context, and fits in with the evolution of the Spanish language.

It is important to first be explicit about the fact that Hispanic/Latino is a constructed category. There is no one "Latino" nation, or singular culture. In fact the word Hispanic arose because President Nixon tasked an Ad-Hoc committee on Racial and Ethnic Definitions with creating a term that neatly encompassed all of the nationalities and cultures that came with immigrants and their families from South America, Central America, and the Caribbean (Latin America).[1] Hispanic, was settled upon as the term that would make a single group out of a group riddled with different nationalities, religious beliefs, and cultural backgrounds. According to Grace Flores, a Hispanic member of Nixon's Ad-Hoc committee, this decision came about because of its connections to the Spanish language, but more importantly because it was better than the derogatory terms used up until then.[4]

Hispanic depends on the continued relationship to Spain through language. Progressive liberal communities and organizations pushback against the term Hispanic as it recalls a painful colonial past. Some like the author Sandra Cisneros, go as far as stating this new term is no better than the derogatory terms that existed before. She states for a New York Times interview, "To say Hispanic means you're so colonized you don't even know for yourself or someone who named you never bothered to ask what you call yourself. It's a repulsive slave name."[5] This quote addresses two major issues with the term Hispanic: it was created by a government that historically sought to oppress and control brown communities and it gives too much credit to Spain, an imperial colonizer of Latin America responsible for the destruction of resources and indigenous peoples all across the region. This umbrella term that Nixon created moved away from the former strategy of dividing our communities and instead erased our individual cultures in order to create one easily manipulated entity.

Hispanic is too vague and too broad a term. By the criteria for Hispanic, anyone of Spanish-speaking origin or descent, a Filipino individual might be considered Hispanic but a Brazilian person would not. Groups that questioned the validity of a term imposed upon a people by the government began to propose alternatives. Amongst these was the term Latinos as it brings people from Brazil and other non-Spanish speaking communities in Latin America under the umbrella, creating stronger ties amongst our communities in the United States.[7]

Latino was both community-approved and a way of unifying with all of Latin America including Brazil and Indigenous communities, not just the Spanish speaking world. However, it is a word that still operates within the confines of the patriarchal grammatical norms of Spanish. An individual could identify themselves as Latino or Latina, a group of men are Latinos, a group of women Latinas, and a mixed group even if there is only one man in the space is Latinos. Gloria Anzaldua, a queer Chicana feminist author, writes about this phenomenon in her essay How to Tame a Wild Tongue, "The first time I heard two women, a Puerto Rican and a Cuban, say the word "nosotras," I was shocked. I had not known the word existed...We are robbed of our female being by the masculine plural. Language is a male discourse."[8] Spanish is a gendered language that always defaults to the masculine. The uttering of such a term as Latinas or nosotras was revolutionary. It was a reclamation of the female being Anzaldua describes, that broke away from the patriarchal norms that prevailed throughout so much of Latin American countries and cultures.

The term is generational, older people tend to prefer Hispanic as that is what they grew up being labeled, while younger generations have grown up with Latino, largely thanks to the selective use of the terms by the government and the media establishment.[10] Hispanic continues as the norm for official documents and records, and Latino as the trendy term used to describe celebrities, art, and media production. Whereas older generations have grown accustomed to checking the Hispanic box on official documents, younger individuals have only ever heard themselves referred to as Latinos on the television. My parents may never call themselves Latinx, because the idea of gender extending beyond the feminine and masculine baffles older generations, but they can understand a desire to grow and change. When they hear that a mobilization is happening, they understand that their community belongs to this umbrella of people that have all been oppressed by similar forces, that message has been successfully communicated regardless of what the official word is.

However, youth continued to be displeased with the term Latino, especially young women. Why must we continue to default to the masculine plural? Didn't Gloria Anzaldúa address this in the 1980s already? Out of this discourse came Latin@. The @ is pronounced (ahoh) and serves to place the letter a and the letter o on equal grounds. This creates a gender-neutral term for groups so that they don't have to default to masculinity, or heaven forbid femininity. Latin@ gained visibility in spaces such as non-profits and the realm of reproductive justice, but it has not been claimed by the mainstream yet, and may never get a chance to as the term Latinx is quickly gaining ground. If Latin@ offers a gender-neutral alternative to Latino, Latinx is the older sibling who has recognized that gender is a spectrum and not a binary. The x has often been referred to as gender inclusive, meaning it creates space for any range of genders to exist within it, not just the two genders we are accustomed to. It allows an individual the freedom to insert whatever ending or meaning they want in that space. I can identify as a Latina if I choose, but Latinx provides me with a gender-inclusive term I can use in group spaces to include as many people as possible. Latinos brought unity amongst communities, Latinx is the next step in promoting intra-community relationships.

The usage of Latinx spiked in 2014 according to google trends, and has still only been adopted amongst young, liberal communities in the United States.[11] It is not a term that can be easily found in Latin America, and it is by no means something that appeals to an older generation who is still battling with the switch from Hispanic to Latino. However for gender-nonconforming individuals who have traditionally been excluded from any of the terms offered, the x is a leap forward. Many explain why this step is important to them by noting issues such as the disruption of normative masculinity, the freedom from binary gender expressions, and a rejection of traditional gender roles for male and female identifying folk.[12] A student organization in Princeton explains on their website why they changed their name from Latinos to Latinx, expressing that although changing one letter may not seem like a big change in the grand scheme of things, when a large portion of our community has felt excluded and this one letter can highlight gender equity and freedom of expression, it is a giant step in the process of continuing to unite our communities.

Nixon did not conceive that "Hispanics" would eventually learn to capitalize on our collective numbers as a political and economic force. Latinx takes the momentum to unprecedented levels because it brings in all the communities--LGBTQ, indigenous, Muslim, black-- that have not been included previously. With a new word comes a new definition that we get to create for ourselves, and we have not taken that for granted.  As the youngest voting generation that overwhelmingly united to vote against President-Elect Trump we are learning from the mistakes that generations above us made. We see how divisions have affected our governing structures and our political power. With Latinx we have a perfect opportunity to redefine who joins our resistance movements.

But what about Latinx as a change in language? Critics have argued that "un-gendering" Spanish blemishes and brings shame upon those of us who still consider this new way of writing Spanish. There are also those who claim that by embracing gender-inclusivity we are perpetuating the influence and imposition of American values upon our culture. Specifically the fact that English allows for gender neutral pronouns, they/them, theirs, and there has been a successful push within the LGBTQ community to adopt these as singular pronouns over the past decade. But the switch to a more gender inclusive language does not destroy Spanish and is in fact a smart move if we are concerned with the imposition of American values upon our culture(s).

Firstly, the Spanish most people in Latin America and the United States speak, is not the version of Spanish that arrived with the first colonizers. The language has miscegenated with indigenous and African languages all across Latin America and the Caribbean and borrowed vocabulary, sounds and even created hybrids. Some examples from northern Mexican Spanish include aguacate (Nahuatl awakatl), cacao (Nahuatl) and tomate (Nahuatl tómatl).[14] These are words we use in everyday speech, without blinking an eye and questioning the legitimacy of the Spanish language. Moreover, to attempt to defend Spanish as "ours" contributes to the erasure of our colonial history and ignores the fact that it was imposed onto our communities, just as English has been imposed on groups in the United States. In the United States the language has been mixing with English for decades to create another hybrid, Spanglish. This is less accepted as Spanish than the Indigenous-Castilian combination is, but no one has argued that we are creating a completely new language. Why is gender the last line of defense for Spanish purists? Perhaps it is because of the effort required to completely restructure the way we think of Spanish grammar.

Language is dynamic. It's primary function is to allow us to communicate with each other fluently and coherently, and for many removing gender creates a new set of necessary vocabulary to express ideas in the most influential way. Using the word Latinx lets other people know that you stand for gender equity, and forward movement, without having to ever explicitly state it. It normalizes the fact that LGBTQ individuals are members of our communities. It forces individuals to think twice before saying something homophobic in a space where the x is proudly used and displayed. All of this is communicated with one letter, and this is what is beautiful about language. Change can happen quickly and efficiently with little more than our ability to spread the knowledge to our networks either through the written or spoken language.

This brings us to another issue that is brought up by those who pushback against the x, which is that the x could never be a change in spoken Spanish. "It is impossible to pronounce!"they say. And, for the most part they are right. Here's an example of a sentence written in "ungendered" Spanish.

Ungendered: Por favor, les pido a ustedes compas que, si tienen unx o mas de unx compañerx, amigx, conocidx, familiar que podemos honrar en nuestra ofrenda, me manden por mensaje su nombre, una foto de su cara, información biográfica y otras fotos que quieran incluir.

Gendered: Por favor, les pido a ustedes compas que, si tienen uno o más de un compañero, amigo, conocido, familiar que podemos honrar en nuestra ofrenda, me manden por mensaje su nombre, una foto de su cara, información biográfica y otras fotos que quieran incluir.

There are a few things important to note. The first is that only pronouns addressing human beings, both singular and plural, are ungendered. The offering "nuestra ofrenda" and the photograph "una foto" are still feminine. The second is that particularly when the x happens in two or more consecutive words, as in "unx compañerx" the spoken version "unehx compañerehx" forces even fluent speakers to stumble. But again, this is not the first time the way our language is pronounced has evolved and required adjustment. How many Latinx individuals still pronounce their Spanish names with the correct pronunciation? How many times are our ears berated by the shrill white voices saying "pehroh" instead of perro, or "hoh-lah" instead of hola? By mere nature of being in the United States we have dropped the accentós in many of our words, we soften the rolling r, we anglicize our vowels.[15] Unlike anglicizing Spanish, moving towards a more gender-inclusive language isn't assimilating; it is reclaiming a language that has been edited for the convenience of outsiders for too long.

Latinx is like a gate on a private property ensuring that only those who are truly engaged with the progress of our community have access. It is harder for English speakers to pronounce. It forces them to ask how to say it, and it gives us the opportunity to present our terms of engagement. It allows those who understand the code to get in, while forcing those who don't to either learn or keep out. It gives us a new measure for allyship, and a marker to know who is on our side. This may seem alienating and in direct opposition to the argument that Latinx is inclusive, but it actually promotes a space for those communities that have been rejected and ostracized for so long, allowing them to finally feel like they belong and have a space where their voice can be heard.

At the end of the day, the term Latinx moves us in a positive direction towards change. Latino/a united people across national identities and creates "a new kind of comunidad Latina"[18]; Latinx offers us the ability to extend this unity to LGBTQ individuals that have existed as disenfranchised members of the Latino community both in our home countries and in the United States. Changing a language does not change a culture or in this case cultures, as Sandra Cisneros said, "Language is a smokescreen for other fundamental underlying problems...wave away the smoke and there remains an issue at once simple and complex. And yes, political." The problems of transphobia and homophobia and patriarchy in our communities do not disappear when we embrace the x, but by changing our language we are giving ourselves the tools and vocabulary to speak about these issues without continuing to perpetuate violence by misgendering individuals or addressing them with hurtful words. We are creating spaces in which these conversations can happen with all voices present.

Latinx is for us, by us. It came about thanks to the collective force of youth that have pushed for it. Similar to Latino it came from the working and middle class. Most importantly, it is intentional. It requires thought to write with an x, and it takes time and attention to read with an x. Using the word Latinx and the pronouns that go along with it, forces people to pay attention to what is being said and what remains unspoken. It reminds us that we do not only exist in a masculine-feminine binary, and that just as we can move away from gender restrictions we have the power as a collective to break from other forces to which we have confined ourselves.

This is not to say that our quest for the perfect term is over. Perhaps we will never be able to find one term to describe such a diverse group of people, and there are still problems with Latinx. It credits the colonizer by referencing our shift towards Roman constitutional law and the connection to Romance languages. It continues to minimize Indigenous and African ancestry. It is still confused for a racial category. We have yet to address the issues of pronunciation and how this language will continue to evolve, and how far we are willing to take this. However as a member of this community myself, I have seen the positive effects firsthand of something as "small" as changing the way we write and the way we speak. Individuals feel more comfortable to join our organizations and proudly express their gender identities within our spaces. They force us to rethink how we perceive and respond to gender. Latinx is not, and should not, be considered the final term, but it is a leap forward. It is a term that we should continue to embrace and challenge if we are to move forward as a united political and economic force that is inclusive of all people, and not just those of us who fit neatly into pre-existing notions of gender.

[1] "How Richard Nixon Invented Hispanics," The Future Uncertain, September 26, 2005, , accessed November 12, 2016, http://futureuncertain.blogspot.com/2005/09/how-richard-nixon-invented-hispanics.html

[2] Future Uncertain, 2005

[3] Himilce Novas, Everything You Need To Know About Latino History (New York, NY: Plume, 1994).

[4] Fears, Darryl. "The Roots of 'Hispanic'" Washington Post, October 15, 2003. Accessed November 20, 2016. http://www.azbilingualed.org/AABE Site/AABE NEWS 2003/roots_of.htm.

[5] Gonzalez, David. "What's the Problem with Hispanic? Just Ask a 'Latino'" New York Times, November 15, 1992. Accessed November 20, 2016.

[6] Fears, "The Roots of Hispanic"

[7] Gonzalez, "What's the Problem with Hispanic? Just Ask a 'Latino'"

[8] Gloria Anzaldúa, Borderlands, La Frontera: The New Mestiza(San Francisco: Aunt Lute, 1987).

[9] Ilan Stavans, The Hispanic Condition: The Power of a People(New York: Rayo, 2001).

[10] Stavans, Hispanic Condition, 23

[11]Paulus Van Horne, "Writer Jack Quémi Explains the Meaning of 'Latinx'" PRI, June 21, 2016, , accessed December 1, 201.

[12] Raquel Reichard, "Why We Say Latinx: Trans & Gender Nonconforming People Explain," Latina Magazine, August 29, 2015.

[13] Fears, "The Roots of Hispanic"

[14] "List of Spanish Words of Indigenous American Indian Origin," Wikipedia, , accessed December 12, 2016, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Spanish_words_of_Indigenous_American_Indian_origin.

[15] Stavans, Hispanic Condition, 8

[16] http://aplus.com/a/projectbronx-pronounce-ethnic-students-names?no_monetization=true

[17] Stavans, Hispanic Condition, 25

[18] Gonzalez, "What's the Problem with Hispanic? Just Ask a 'Latino'"

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