Somos Libres

The Word “Latinx” IS A Betrayal To Latinidad. That’s Exactly The Point.

Latinx is a betrayal. It’s an attack. It’s a butchering of Spanish. And that’s why I use it.

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Last month, a Gallup poll revealed that only 4% of Latinx adults prefer the “x” in the identity term. It set off another predictable round of online discourse about the continued use of the word. Thousands of tweets argued that “Latinx” is “linguistic imperialism”—that the term is being forced onto us by the “white woke crowd” who demand that Spanish’s grammatical and linguistic rules be abandoned for SJW-speak. If a mere 4% of the community uses the word “Latinx,” they argued, then adopting the term is a betrayal of our culture and of our community.
In a sense, they’re right. “Latinx” is a betrayal. But not in the ways they might think.
To understand, it helps to know where the term comes from. “Latinx” first entered the mainstream following the 2016 Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, when a shooter targeting queer and trans Latinxs killed 49 people and wounded 53 more. Before then, according to scholar Arlene B. Gamio Cuervo’s Latinx: A Brief Handbook, the term “Latinx” first gained popularity among Afro-Latinxs and Latinxs of Indigenous descent; for them, using “Latin@” online became confusing because the at-sign would tag other users. The addition of the “x’ was a conscious decision. It was an homage to Indigenous Nahauatl languages, and functioned as a linguistic visibilization of the communities most directly impacted by colonial violence, and the land theft, enslavement, and blanqueamiento that go along with stamping out Indigenous lives. By abandoning the “o” in favor of the “x”, the word “Latinx” achieves a true neutrality, rather than embracing the masculine default as neutral.
The word “Latinx” — as well as the word “Latine” that’s also frequently used by the community — has made me feel seen, which is why I recently tweeted about it. When I did, my mentions quickly filled with the same types of anti-Black, misogynist, and transphobic responses from white and cisgender Latinxs that I have heard all my life — including a few people whom I considered my friends. Some said that my African-American identity or my presumably non-fluent Spanish meant I didn’t have the authority to weigh in. Others were honest and said that they simply didn’t care about trans people at all. The vitriol with which some within the community spoke about the word “Latinx” revealed just how few people considered or cared that “Latinx” was simply not created for everyone, the 96%. But that’s exactly the point.
I’m a Black Puerto Rican, but I haven’t felt comfortable identifying as Puerto Rican for much of my life. I can never enter a space and shed my Blackness, but I usually have to announce my Latinx identity. I would never really be Puerto Rican so long as my Blackness was unambiguous to most people. What’s more, there was the fact that my mother has always leaned into the material benefits of looking how Latinas are “supposed to” look: light-skinned with European features. Her identity was never under scrutiny in the same way mine was, and so she never made much of an effort to pass on Puerto Rican customs and traditions. Every once in a while, she’d use a Spanish word or recount some childhood story, and I both envied her and longed for her fluency in more than just language and culture.
The word “Latina” also felt wrong because femininity felt wrong. Like many other Black cisgender girls I’ve known who have expressed similar feelings about their womanhood, we could not figure out how to be soft, dainty, and feminine — even though it seemed to come so easily to everyone else. And believe me, I tried. My mother paid for my first relaxer when I was around five years old. I had my last keratin treatment at 17, because I finally had agency over my appearance. I tried to emulate girls with the same amount of cleavage as me, which always felt awful—almost like going to school only to realize that you forgot your pants; I was consumed by that panic every day. Walking around was embarrassing. All I wanted was to escape myself.
While many know me as a confidently queer and nonbinary person, there was once a time when I had no idea what words like “gender binary” or “non-binary” meant, or had any idea that the word “Latinx” even existed. I only knew discomfort, alienation, and isolation. So when I finally found the vocabulary, it was a relief. Though labels and boxes are not everything, it’s really hard to be so young without a single word to describe such intense feelings about who you are. Not having positive and affirming words to describe yourself leaves so much room for your brain to come up with discouraging, hateful ones. Whatever transphobia I get in my Twitter mentions, I promise I’ve said it all to myself first.
I remember when one of my closest friends first asked our friend group to start using “they” and “Latinx” when we spoke about them. Like me, they’re also Black, nonbinary, and queer. I came out not long after, and I began identifying as Afro-Latinx for the first time in my life. Finally, it didn’t feel like a lie.
Today, most mainstream discussions of “Latinx” frame the word as a thorn in the community’s side. The results of the latest Gallup poll have only legitimized claims that no one actually uses “Latinx,” so, the logic goes, publications, politicians, universities, and everybody else should stop employing it. Disrespectfully, I am not no one. My loved ones are not no one. Trans people are not no one. Black people are not no one. Indigenous people are not no one.

 Disrespectfully, I am not no one. My loved ones are not no one. Trans people are not no one. Black people are not no one. Indigenous people are not no one. 

When people argue that “Latinx” and “Latine” are some great cultural betrayal, it’s difficult for me to stomach that perspective, because I’ve lived and, in many ways, still live a life of perpetual self-betrayal—of being complicit in my own erasure. Part of me wants to respond by stressing how much they’re missing the point, but another part of me, the part which I am more inclined to listen to, believes that “Latinx” is absolutely a betrayal. It betrays anti-Blackness. It betrays Indigenous erasure. It betrays patriarchal violence, queerphobia, transphobia, and transmisogyny. It betrays every relic of colonialism, including white supremacy. For a lot of people who adamantly reject the term “Latinx,” the word absolutely is a betrayal. Their fear is justified because it threatens hierarchies and power distributions this same population materially benefits from. “Latinx” is a protest against those who are willing to go down with the ship: the people who are hellbent on maintaining the oppression of the most marginalized among us in Latin America and the diaspora.
“Latinx” is a betrayal. It’s an attack. It’s a butchering of Spanish. It’s whatever nasty thing you want to call it because Spanish and Latinidad have never had any respect for the people that “Latinx” is for.
It’s a testament to the creativity, vitality, and diversity of Latinx communities that the cruel origin of Latinidad — what connects people whose ancestors were colonized — is rarely reckoned with. Given international liberation movements in our communities, we’re devoting coverage to examining what freedom looks like in 2021, specifically for Afro-Latinx and Indigenous people. In a series of reported articles, essays, and stories to commemorate this Latinx Heritage Month, we’re looking at beautiful expressions of freedom, who gets to experience it, and the ways in which we claim for ourselves.

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