Digging Into the Messy History of “Latinx” Helped Me Embrace My Complex Identity

The term is gaining steam, but plenty of people still despise it.

Illustration by Israel Vargas; Getty Images (13); Flowers: Rawpixel

In June 2016, a Muslim American man entered Orlando’s Pulse nightclub during its weekly Latin Night and gunned down 49 people, most of them gay or bisexual. In the dizzying aftermath of the tragedy, I was assigned to write an opinion piece for HuffPost about how then-­presidential candidate Donald Trump was using the incident to drum up Islamophobia. As I pored over news reports, a word leaped off the page: “Latinx,” pronounced la-TEEN-ex, a gender-­neutral way to describe people of Latin American heritage. As a gay Mexican American, I often write about LGBT or Latino issues. But this was the rare occasion that I needed to address both aspects of my identity at once. The word seemed clunky and mathematical, the “x” taking on the function of an algebraic placeholder, its presence chopping up the flow of the prose. I didn’t know how I felt about it.

I wasn’t alone in discovering “Latinx” because of Pulse. Google Trends shows a massive spike in searches for the term in the month following the massacre. Since then, the word has gained steam, especially among queer activists and student groups. In September, it earned a spot in the Merriam-Webster dictionary.

In a way, this is no surprise. Latinos are the largest minority group in the country, making up nearly a fifth of Americans. And they are identifying as LGBT in droves: A June 2018 survey found that Latino millennials are the least likely bracket in their generation to consider themselves straight. But the term “Latinx” is considered fraught, even reviled, by some. And at best, it has been unevenly adopted. A November story in the New York Times, for example, listed the eight books “reshaping Latinx literature.” A review in the same publication—about a book called Latinx—refers to the “Latino community” and “Latinos” and “Latina.” The newspaper uses the term on a case-by-case basis, according to editor Concepción de León, as conversations about the term and its usage continue to evolve. (Mother Jones does its best to honor an individual’s preference.)

To understand where “Latinx”—and the debate over it—came from, it helps to know a little history about the word “Latino.” Chicano writer David Bowles, who teaches literature at the University of Texas-Rio Grande Valley, laid it out in a thread on Twitter: The part of the Americas colonized by the Spanish Empire was known historically as the Monarquía Hispánica, or the Hispanic Monarchy, because the Latin word for Iberia (home of the Spaniards) was “Hispania.” When these territories eventually won their independence from the Spanish crown, they became home to distinct cultures shaped by mestizaje, the mixing of European, indigenous American, African, and other ethnicities. Scholars trace the term “América latina” to 1856, when it was used by Chilean writer Francisco Bilbao and Colombia’s José María Torres Caicedo. For these thinkers, the phrase helped unite the southern regions below the United States in anti-­imperialist sentiment.

In the 1980s, the US Census Bureau started counting an influx of Latin American immigrants using the new term “Hispanic,” connecting them by linguistic heritage. But the term didn’t do justice to Portuguese-speaking Brazilians, and it could include Spaniards. So in 2000, the word “Latino” appeared on the census, and it has since achieved widespread use as an umbrella term for people and communities south of the US border.

Because Spanish is one of many languages that ascribe a gender to nearly everything, “Latino” (male) was paired with “Latina” (female). At some point in the late 1990s, people who felt they didn’t fit into one of those two descriptors started searching for a more inclusive one. First came “Latin@”—a symbol that combines the “a” and the “o.” But how do you pronounce that? According to Google Trends, “Latinx” first appeared in 2004. Princeton University scholar Arlene Gamio, author of Latinx: A Brief Guidebook, said the word “died down in popularity shortly afterward” but reemerged about 10 years later.

These days, “Latinx” pops up most frequently in stories about the LGBT community, and it’s often to describe young people, says Brian Latimer, an associate producer at MSNBC who identifies as nonbinary. “I think it’s fascinating—it shows a generational divide in the Hispanic community,” Latimer says. And though it has lightly peppered conversations in Latin America, it has been most championed by people of Latin American descent living in the United States, a fact that has colored the pushback against it.

In November 2015, the Phoenix, Swarthmore College’s student newspaper, published a widely shared rebuke of the term. Student authors Gilbert Guerra and Gilbert Orbea described “Latinx” as a “blatant form of linguistic imperialism”—and claimed it was an attempt to force American ideals onto people living in Latin America because it wasn’t tailored to native Spanish speakers. Though the letter “x” in Spanish can take on a pronunciation similar to the English “x,” it can also take on an “s” sound, or an “h” sound, as with the Mexican state of Oaxaca. “By replacing o’s and a’s with x’s, the word ‘Latinx’ is rendered laughably incomprehensible to any Spanish speaker without some fluency in English,” they wrote. “It does not provide a gender-neutral alternative for Spanish-speaking non-binary individuals and thus excludes them.” (And even English speakers say everything from la-TEEN-ex to LAT-in-ex to la-TEENKS.)

Writer Hector Luis Alamo echoed the frustration in an opinion piece for the media outlet Latino Rebels titled “The X-ing of Language: The Case AGAINST ‘Latinx.’” Alamo, an Afro-Latino whose family hails from Honduras and who is the founder of Enclave magazine, argued that the term constitutes a “bulldozing of Spanish.” It’s “an academic word, and that group always thinks it knows what’s best for the rest of us,” Alamo told me via email. “Activists and people who want to appear liberal have adopted the word (and are calling out people for not using it).” It’s a critique that has also been leveled at terms like “cisgender” and “nonbinary”—all were devised and propagated by elite academic circles—but “Latinx” carries the added whiff of imperialism. “I want to caution everyone reading against the arrogant supposition that Latin Americans needed US Latinx folx to teach them that Spanish has sexist elements,” Bowles wrote in a Medium post in December. “They figured that shit out for themselves long before we did.”

Ed Morales, a lecturer at Columbia University’s Center for the Study of Ethnicity and Race and the author of the book Latinx: The New Force in American Politics and Culture, also resisted the word at first. But then he started to see it through a new lens. Queer scholar Gloria Anzaldúa, he notes, has written extensively on nepantla, a Nahuatl word that captures the concept of being caught between worlds. In her book Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza, Anzaldúa argues that the complex racial history of Latin America has created a unique mindset—a refusal to conform to racial and social binaries, and an identity based more on the mixing of cultures than on any one solid, static caste designation. “Latinx” is entirely in keeping with this tradition of mestizaje, Morales wrote in an email: “It occurred to me that refusal to conform to male/female gender binaries was parallel to the refusal to conform to a racial binary.”

María Scharrón-del Río, a professor at Brooklyn College who identifies as a genderqueer Puerto Rican, decided a few years ago to adopt the term. Whether it is loved or hated, Scharrón-del Río argues, the word at least makes readers think, and “thinking about something is the first step toward shifting anything that needs to be shifted.” When in doubt about whether to refer to someone as Latinx, just ask, suggests Princeton’s Gamio. That’s “the only way to know what to call someone or how to respect an individual’s identity.”

As the biracial son of Mexican immigrants, I have, at various stages of my life, described myself as Latino, Mexican American, Hispanic, and Chicano. None of these words ever felt quite right; none of them painted the whole picture of how I see myself or how I want to be seen. I felt I had inherited a chaotic identity with too many facets; language, race, geography—which one should win out? But mestizaje tells us it is precisely this struggle, the search for a cohesive identity, that defines us as a people. The “mixedness” is not a halfway state of being, but a complete state of being unto itself. I can think of no better extension of that sentiment than “Latinx,” a word that concedes to malleability, the “x” willing to become whatever it needs to be for the person who wears it.

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