When I recently wrote an article pointing out why the Oscars need to recognize more Asians and Latinos, I was proud of my work — grateful that I can use my platform at Refinery29 to challenge my industry and others to be more inclusive, especially as a Latina. (Mama, I made it!)
So when I clicked on a final version of the piece and saw that the headline read “Hey, Hollywood: #OscarsSoWhite Means We Need More Asians & Latinx, Too,” I was confused. I knew I had written “Latinos” in both the headline and the article, yet any mention of “Latino” or “Latina” had been changed to “Latinx” throughout.
A quick ping to my editor revealed that, like many other media outlets, Refinery29 had recently decided to adopt the word Latinx, a phrase born in the early aughts to be more inclusive of Latinos who are gender-non-conforming. By dropping the masculine “o,” Latinx (pronounced lah-teen-ex) does not default to a masculine connotation or exclude anyone it’s meant to include.
I’m an opinionated Black and Puerto Rican feminist who works at a forward-thinking women’s website, someone who prides herself on being inclusive, and using her work to examine her own privilege as well as points of view different from her own. You’d think adopting Latinx would be a no-brainer for me, right? Yet reading my own writing with a word I’d never used — and had only really seen used around the Internet here and there — felt, somehow...wrong. As if I was betraying some part of my culture, or causing the very people who I wanted my article to reach to instead stumble over it, all in an effort to achieve political-correctness.
This seemingly small semantics issue quickly became a dilemma: To Latinx or not to Latinx?
It might sound like a simple word choice, but the decision is a complicated one. On the one hand, the word Latina is a badge I’ve worn with pride for nearly 30 years, a label that I associate with my family and my culture — my people. But on the other hand, if I choose to continue to call myself Latina, or refer to my family as Latinos, does that make me ignorant, or phobic, or an opponent of gender non-conformity? Am I being a hypocrite, not pushing myself to be as inclusive as I ask you, Refinery29’s readers, to be?
I had to learn a lot more before I could decide.
A large part of the issue begins with the origin of the word “Latino” itself, which is problematic, considering that it stems from the colonization of people in Latin America. Around the 1940s, it started to become more commonly used by Americans to lump together a group of people simply because they can trace their roots back to Latin American countries. "Hispanic" was an alternative label that popped up by 1970, but it was even more problematic, just a made-up, non-Spanish word created by the government for the U.S. Census. And many people of Latin descent, particularly those from Caribbean countries, still refer to themselves as "Spanish," though many find that problematic because, again, it's a reference to Spanish colonialism.
So despite its colonial roots, Latino has become the name most widely embraced by its people. It unites millions of people in America whose cultures are not the same, but share similar commonalities, whether they are through our food, music, or our language. Now, when you attend a salsa concert or scroll through Twitter bios or sit at a table of platanos and pernil, you’ll likely encounter the word Latino used proudly. Despite a not-so-friendly rivalry between the Puerto Rican and Dominican teams at the recent World Baseball Classic, many fans were simply proud to see so many Latinos representing on an international stage. (Pero, my people would never forgive me if I did not mention here that, for the record, Puerto Rico did beat D.R…#LosNuestros)
Still, there is a glaring issue with the word Latino. Like all of the romance languages, Spanish is gender-based. While the plural “Latinos” is meant to include all people of Latin-American descent, there could be a room full of 10 Latinas, and if just one guy enters, suddenly the group is referred to as “Latinos.” That basic grammar concept reveals a culture that is inherently patriarchal, always handing men the power, even through its language.
For some, this machismo was not acceptable. While I’m not sure of the exact origin or person who created the phrase, all internet signs point to 2004 as the year members of the queer Latin-American community came up with the term Latinx, replacing the -O or -A with an -X in a move toward gender-inclusivity, as well as a nod to Nahuatl and the other indigenous languages of many Latin-Americans’ pre-colonial ancestors.
According to NBC News, Latinx began gaining in popularity in Google News searches in 2014. It quickly became more commonly used than “Latin@,” another adaptation that rose through the LGBT communities online in the early '00s, with the @ symbol signaling inclusivity by combining the O and the A. That vernacular never fully gained traction, however, because many in the LGBT community pointed out that it still denoted either female or male, therefore excluding anyone who identifies as outside of the gender binary. (Not to mention the @ symbol complicates things when it comes to HTML and Google recognition.)
There’s no denying that inclusivity is essential — especially during an unbelievably divisive political era. But we're also living in a time when, largely thanks to social media, communities can create more comprehensive vocabulary virtually overnight. This wouldn’t be the first time we’ve seen such an evolution in the name of an identity group in America: Black folks in the U.S. have been labeled, both personally and otherwise, as everything from Negro and Colored People to African-American and now People of Color or, simply, Black — but, importantly, now with a capital B.
“I am completely in favor of the word Latinx, because even though it doesn’t sound perfect to many Spanish-speakers, it’s meant to be more inclusive of all people, and that’s at least a step toward progress,” says Connie Chavez, a video editor at Latina.com who chooses to pronounce the “x” in Latinx in Spanish: equis. “When I use it, I’m acknowledging people who have been marginalized for a long time. If we can all check our privilege and embrace the term, it’s like a way of saying ‘We see you, and you matter.’”
But beyond the way this new word Latinx feels on the tongue, there are a few reasons people like myself are hesitant to start using it. One is the fact that, yes, the Spanish language itself is gender-based, and while you can argue the inherent anti-feminism and exclusivity in that, for many people of Latin descent, you just don’t think about gender when speaking Spanish. When you look at “un libro,” for example, the book is not a male book; that’s just the word. When the label for a group of women becomes masculine when a male enters, you don’t think of that as making the group male; the words automatically just take one form (yes, the masculine one) when there are multiple genders involved. That’s the way the language works.
For me, beginning to tinker with this gender-based structure raises many questions, including: Do you have to use Latinx when definitively referring to a woman? Why can’t that simply remain “Latina?” Is my grandmother now suddenly supposed to start calling herself puertorriqueñx after eight decades? (Besides the fact that that’s one heck of a mouthful, I can already imagine her facial expression if I even tried to explain it.) And will the change be sweeping across other romance languages, like French and Italian? Italianx, perhaps?
The debate over whether to “Latinx” is happening in three different places concurrently: among queer communities, as well as in academia and the media. But the average Latino is not using the phrase, if they even know about it at all. On Instagram, there are currently only about 38,000 tags using Latinx (small potatoes in the world of social media). In an informal poll of about 15 of my late-twentysomething, college educated friends in cities like New York and Chicago, only two had ever heard the word. (Another asked if it was a porn site.) The rest weren't even aware of its existence and didn’t understand why the word “Latinos” can’t continue to include everyone, as it long has.
Even some of my Latina Refinery29 colleagues had never heard the moniker (and those who had admitted to not personally using it), and a sweep of the comments sections of our stories where the word “Latinx” was used revealed many of our readers are also unfamiliar with the parlance. One could argue that this lack of awareness means we need to educate ourselves and the people around us. But considering there are more than 55 million Latino/Latinx people in the United States, just whose decision is it, exactly, what word we use to identify ourselves? And who gets to decide whether or not we should feel guilty if we don’t?
“The tricky part is that identification is very personal,” says community advocate and social media influencer Elianne Ramos. “I’ve always been a little weary of the labels the United States likes to slap on your forehead when you arrive here. Outside of the U.S., you are not Latino; before I moved here, I was simply a Dominican woman. I didn’t understand why I had to see myself as part of a collective called ‘Latino,’ or why there was such pressure on everyone to be so politically correct. But the longer I’ve lived in America, the more I’ve realized, because we are seen here as ‘different,’ the Latino label does create a community among us.”
Ramos says she has yet to use the term Latinx, and while she’s considering it, she thinks everyone should feel entitled to identify however they prefer.
“If you choose to continue to call yourself Latino or Latina, that is your prerogative,” she says. “I think you can use whatever you prefer, as long as when you’re talking about other groups of people, you make a conscious effort to be inclusive and not silence or discount any voices.”
And so, dear readers, here I am. I’m at the end of my internal Latino-Latina-Latinx debate. My conclusion? It’s still really, really complicated. But ultimately, as Ramos said, it’s personal. I’m going to try to use Latinx when I’m writing, or referring to a larger group of people, which may contain within it folks who don’t relate to the male-or-female words traditional Spanish provides. But I will continue to self-identify as a Latina, and I will continue to refer to my friends and family as Latinos.
That decision might mean that I’m not enlightened or progressive enough, or not helping to push my people forward. But for me, it’s a compromise between being inclusive and honoring the rich flavors of my culture.
The biggest lesson I learned from sorting through my feelings on the label Latinx? That labels are just that: Labels. Acceptance, support, and amor para mi gente of all kinds? That’s what really matters.