Where Did "Latinx" Come From?
For the second entry in our monthly glossary of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) terms, we're going to focus on Latinx. We'll cover common questions like "What's Latinx mean?", "Where did Latinx come from?", and "What's the difference between Latinx and Latino?"
If you didn't read our first entry on the term BIPOC, you can check it out here. And as always, our goal in this series, along with all of our blog pieces, is to provide resources and support to make all workplaces more inclusive of all talent. We know that the DEI landscape is always evolving and that we're all continuously learning to be better allies and advocates. If there are other terms you have questions about, feel free to let us know at email@example.com!
What does the term Latinx mean?
Latinx, pronounced as lah-TEEN-ex, is a gender-neutral way to describe people of Latin American heritage.
What's the difference between Latinx and Latino?
Spanish, like many other languages, is gendered. Nouns are either masculine or feminine, and when a group of people includes both men and women, words describing them default to the masculine. For example, a woman from Latin America is a Latina, a man is a Latino, and a group made up of nine women and one man is a group of Latinos.
People who fall outside of the gender binary and aren't represented by that divide often find Latinx to be more inclusive than Latino. Similarly, some women prefer Latinx to "Latinos" because they feel that using masculine terms as an inclusive default reflects problematic social norms and actually isn't very inclusive at all. The trend of expanding inclusion with an "x" is found in English, too; perhaps you've seen people using "folx" instead of "folks." They do that not because "folks" is gendered, but because the "x" expressly welcomes people with non-normative sexual orientations or gender identities, explains DEI podcast For Folx Sake.
Latinx is related to other attempts to make the Spanish language more inclusive, like "lenguaje para todes," a movement in Argentina and other Spanish-speaking countries to eliminate gender in language covered by the Washington Post. The word "Latino" has been a particular sticking point for decades; a popular permutation in the early 2000s was "Latin@," which combined the "a" and the "o" for a neutral alternative that worked online, but it reinforced the gender binary and wasn't quite pronounceable. (In fairness, a similar criticism has been lobbed at Latinx, which has a generally anglicized and hotly debated pronunciation.)
Latinx, Latino, and Latin@ all mean the same thing—they describe people hailing from Latin America—but Latinx has come to be an especially inclusive version of it that embraces the diverse set of experiences shared by that community. As writer John Paul Brammer wrote in an incredible essay for Mother Jones: "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…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…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."
Latinx vs. Hispanic: Latinidad, language, geography, and race
In the 1970s, when the U.S. Census Bureau was trying to figure out how to identify and count the growing group of U.S. citizens and residents who were from places like Puerto Rico, Mexico, and Cuba, they came up with the term "Hispanic," reports the History Channel. Hispanic refers to anyone who speaks Spanish, which includes Spaniards and excludes those with roots in non-Spanish-speaking Latin American countries like Brazil.
But some people who fell under the Hispanic banner didn't like the fact that the word used to describe their cultural background was so linked to that of their colonizer, Spain, and preferred a different descriptor: "Latino," referring to people residing in Latin America or descended from people who resided there.
A 1992 New York Times headline sums it up well: "What's the Problem with 'Hispanic'? Just Ask a 'Latino.'" Sandra Cisneros, author of the much-acclaimed The House on Mango Street, told the writer of that article, "To say Latino is to say you come to my culture in a manner of respect…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." That's Cisneros's view, but there's no clear consensus on which term is preferred; a 2013 Pew Research Center study found that half of the Americans who identify as either Hispanic or Latino had no preference over terms, and that when they did, it varied by geography.
But neither term—not Hispanic and not Latinx—refers to race. Remember: Hispanic refers to language spoken and Latinx refers to geography. For example, a white woman from Spain might identify as Hispanic. So might a white man with roots in Chile, though he might also identify as Latinx or Latino. A Black woman whose family came from Brazil might identify as a non-Hispanic Latina or Latinx. A Zapotec man from what is today Oaxaca, Mexico might identify as Latino or Latinx along with Zapotec or Mexican; if he speaks Spanish as well as one or more of the 58 languages spoken by the Zapotec people, he might also consider himself Hispanic. There's no one racial background shared by all Latinxs; Latinx could refer to someone white, Afro-Latinx, Asian-Latinx, or mestizo, which usually refers to mixed-race people with both Indigenous and European ancestry.
Where did Latinx come from?
Brammer's Mother Jones piece traced the origins of Latinx to its first appearance on Google Trends in 2004. Journalist Yara Simón, in her History Channel piece, quoted David Bowles, a Mexican-American linguist and professor, who suggested that it was inspired by Latin American feminist protests in the 1970s, where protesters Xed-out words ending in "os" to signify a rejection of the masculine as default. Both agree that it became more popular in the 2010s when it was adopted by the LGBTQ community and that it's more used by people of Latin American descent currently living in the United States than it is by people living in Latin America itself.
Linguist John McWhorter wrote in The Atlantic that Latinx "can't catch on" because the gender issue in Spanish is "largely discussed among the intelligentsia," rather than a problem—and Latinx a solution—identified by everyday people. But that's changing, as more and more native Spanish speakers confront the gender bias in their language.
We're also very sensitive to the not uncommon criticism that the term anglicizes the words "Latina" and "Latino.' In his piece "Why I Won't Use Latinx," writer Josh Inocéncio explains:
"While some folks do say 'Latin-equis,' which is the Spanish sound for the letter x, the most popular pronunciation is currently the English way. Thus, Latino and Latina, which are easily pronounced with U.S. American and Latin American accents, are losing traction to the more Anglicized Latinx. Instead, I'm not sure why we don't use 'Latine,' which is more consistent with Spanish pronunciations and is gender neutral. The x is also creating a grammatical headache for words beyond the gender-neutral descriptor. In online dialogues, people are applying the x to other words, such as "mis amigxs" instead of "mis amigos" or "mis amigas." There's no sound way to pronounce 'amigxs' in Spanish."
So, given so many differing opinions, which word should you use?
Like with other terms used to describe someone's identity, there's no one right word. It comes down to each individual's preference. Some may prefer Hispanic, others Latinx, and still others may prefer to be identified by their country of origin or heritage (Mexican, Dominican, Venezuelan, etc.).
The best way to know whether you should use Latinx or something else? Just ask.
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