Why I Embrace the Term Latinx

When I first saw the word Latinx—best described as a gender-neutral term to designate US residents of Latin American descent—in print it seemed awkward and hard to pronounce. But rather than giving in to my first instinct, I came to embrace its futurist charms, realizing that it opened a path for an even greater inclusivity and acceptance of difference, one that had already defined us for many years. The “x” at the end was a fitting reminder of how so many people of Latin American descent—black, brown, female, LGBTQ—had been subtly erased by dominant narratives, but could still be reclaimed in the nascent twenty-first century.

Detail from the cover of "Latinx: The New Force in American Politics and Culture" by Ed MoralesThe advent of the term Latinx is the most recent development in a naming debate that reflects America’s politics of race and ethnicity. For most of the twentieth century, three dominant groups, from Mexico, Puerto Rico, and Cuba, had developed different political and cultural agendas in three separate geographical regions—the Northeast, South Florida, and the Southwest. Although the New York area had always been the most diverse, occasionally experimenting with the label Hispano as a way to unify different Caribbean and South American constituencies, US Latinx as a whole were a fragmented constituency. Puerto Ricans in New York were most interested in economic struggles and the colonial status of their homeland; Cubans concentrated on US policy toward the Cuban Revolutionary government; and Mexicans focused on border/immigration policies as well as a legacy of discrimination that paralleled that of African Americans.

The 1970s Birth of Hispanic and Latino

Because of the period of unrest during the Civil Rights Movement, the administrations of Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon began to take steps to categorize Latin American descendants under one label to better target them for social programs and advancement. According to G. Cristina Mora’s Making Hispanics, the term Hispanic was implemented by the Nixon administration in the 1970s as an antidote to the “unrest” created by increasing activism in Latinx communities. As he did with African Americans, Nixon promoted Hispanic entrepreneurship by appointing a Mexican American, Hilary J. Sandoval Jr., as the head of the Small Business Administration. Hispanic became a monolithic category whose development was fostered by the Census Bureau, political activists of both liberal and conservative stripes, and advertising firms, who ultimately helped create the vast Spanish-language media that played a crucial role in consolidating and promoting this new identity.

But in the context of the civil rights era, some activists, organizers, and advocates had a problem with Hispanic because it overtly identified them with Spanish cultural, racial, and ethnic origins. Despite Spain’s past as Europe’s most diverse, multicultural nation, in the mid-twentieth century it was largely perceived as white. Both Mexican Americans and Puerto Ricans living in New York had been rejecting identification with whiteness, so the Latino label, which carried with it the notion that Latin American descendants were not merely hyphenated Europeans, but products of the mixed-race societies that freely acknowledged that they were not “white,” gained in popularity.

Over the years Latino had become the identifying label of choice among liberals and West Coast Mexican Americans, while Hispanic still carries a strong weight among conservatives in the Cuban-American community in South Florida. In the Northeast, which has a diverse mixture of Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, Mexicans, Cubans, and Central and South Americans, Latino and Hispanic can be almost interchangeable.

As Latino became the preferred choice of those who wanted to identify as multiracial, gender politics quickly emerged in the politics of labeling. Spanish is a Romance language in which all nouns are assigned a gender (ordinary objects such as shoes, automobiles, and computers, for example, are male or female). Therefore, it would follow that the Latino population necessarily consists of Latinos (male) and Latinas (female). As the politics of racial identity began intersecting with that of gender and sexual preference, Latino became Latino/a, then Latina/o to move “o” out of the privileged position. In the 2010s, during the universalization of digital communication, Latin@ was briefly favored among student unions, academic circles, and nonprofit organizations. Yet even that would prove unwieldy, with some questioning the envelopment of the “a” by the “o.”

The Advent of Latinx

The arrival of Latinx coincided with a new desire to eliminate identifiers of gender in language, as evidenced in the now ubiquitous (at least among millennials) posting of pronouns to be used when referring to an individual, such as she/her, he/him, and the liberating they/them. I first heard of the term through my students at Columbia University’s Center for the Study of Ethnicity and Race, and it seemed particularly important among women and queer students, with slower acceptance from the broader Latinx student body. Gloria Anzaldúa at Smith College,  photograph by K. Kendall, 1990 (Flickr)Latinx, which also seemed to symbolize growing crossover between political concerns shared by women, people of color, and the LGBTQ community, is emblematic of how acknowledging “border spaces” derived from the writing of Chicana feminist writers Gloria Anzaldúa and Cherrie Moraga. These spaces worked to transform male-dominated ideas about Latinx identity to be adopted by broader intersectional sectors of marginalized people. In this way Latinx represents a queering of Latino.

Yet of course Latinx has its detractors. For some purists who want to hold on to more traditional aspects of their identity, Latinx is seen as an attack on the Spanish language in its dismantling of tradition, and also as an imposition of US values on Latin American culture, which is based in the Spanish language. Purists also mock the messiness of continually using “x” in written and oral communication, which would seem to imply the re-spelling of all nouns. But that misses the point of Latinx as a way to promote inclusivity.

There’s also a growing debate about whether those of Latin American descent should even identify as a monolithic group at all. Both Hispanic and Latino are terms used by media giants and major advertisers who have for decades tried to concoct a flattened identity that tends to de-emphasize African and indigenous aspects of national culture to create a loyal pool of voters and consumers. In 2015, Mark Hugo López of the Pew Hispanic Center argued that research showed that “Hispanics prefer to identify themselves with terms of nationality (Mexican or Cuban or Dominican) rather than pan-ethnic monikers (Hispanic or Latino or even American).”

Similar research reveals that even the use of or identification with the Spanish language decreases in most Hispanic groups by the second or third generation, and intermarriage with non-Latinx groups is at around 25 percent, second only to Asian Americans. Yet the tendency for Latinx to “code-switch” by peppering Spanish words or phrases into their English conversations demonstrates a willingness to mix culture as a frame of reference.

I embrace Latinx because of its futurist implications. Like superheroes of color and the possibilities inherent in girls and others who code, Latinx represents an openness and diversity that is increasingly under threat in a political climate that is most intent on drawing borders and keeping outsiders out. Yet because I am aware of the limitations of monolithic labels like Latinx, I think it’s important that we nurture and continue to redefine who we are as Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, Cubans, Dominicans, Colombians, Venezuelans, Central Americans, and beyond to the furthest reaches of the Southern Cone.

It is clear that a unified racial identity has created substantial political and cultural presence for African Americans, and that somehow Latinx should find a way to emulate that. Latinx have a difficult task of pursuing seemingly contradictory goals: preserving their individual national identities and finding ways to unite with other Latinx to increase political power and media representation. Perhaps, under this latest identifying label, they can find a way to do both.

Bibliography

Dávila, Arlene. Latinos Inc.: The Marketing and Making of a People. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001; repr. 2012.

Mora, G. Cristina. Making Hispanics: How Activists, Bureaucrats & Media Constructed a New American . Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2014.

Morales, Ed. Latinx: The New Force in American Politics and Culture. New York: Verso Books, 2018.

Vargas, Deborah R., Nancy Raquel Mirabal, and Lawrence La Fountain-Stokes, eds. Keywords for Latina/o Studies. New York: New York University Press, 2017.

Vidal-Ortiz, Salvador, and Juliana Martínez. “Latinx Thoughts: Latinidad with an X,” Latino Studies 16: 3 (October 2018): 384−395.


Ed Morales is the author of Latinx: The New Force in Politics and Culture (Verso Press, 2018) and Living in Spanglish (St. Martin's, 2002). As a journalist he has written for the New York Times, the Washington Post, Rolling Stone , the Village Voice, Newsday, and the Guardian. He is currently a lecturer at Columbia University’s Center for the Study of Ethnicity and Race and the CUNY Newmark Graduate School of Journalism. His next book, Fantasy Island, about the Puerto Rico debt crisis, will be published in fall 2019 by Bold Type Books, formerly Nation Books.