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Latin-QUE? The Complexity of the “X”

April 16, 2021

This piece represents the opinion of the author .

Identity is extremely complicated, particularly for people of Latin American origin here in the United States. Numerous ethnic classifications for people like this exist here, but the two most commonly used terms are “Hispanic” and “Latino/a.” Although sometimes used interchangeably, these two terms differ greatly in meaning and origin.

The two terms “Hispanic” and “Latino/a” do not refer to racial categories (such as skin color or race) but rather describe a shared ethnicity and culture. This is because anyone who identifies as “Hispanic” or “Latino/a” could be of any race.

“Hispanic,” a word originating from the Latin word Hispanicus (used by the Romans to describe the Iberian Peninsula), describes the people or cultures related to Spain where the central unifying identity element is the Spanish language. Thus “Hispanic” widely refers to people who speak Spanish and/or have ancestors originating from Spain. In contrast, the term “Latino/a” is a demonym that often refers to people with cultural ties or origins in the region of Latin America.

Nuances aside (because trust me, there are LOTS, depending on who you speak to), we will illustrate the differences between the terms with a couple of examples. A person from the Philippines is considered “Hispanic” in the U.S. if they speak Spanish, but not “Latino/a” because the Philippines is not a part of Latin America. Similarly, a Brazilian person who did not speak Spanish would be considered “Latino/a,” because Brazil is in Latin America, but not “Hispanic,” as Brazil’s official language is Portuguese.

These identity terms are often limited to just the U.S. because outside of the U.S., most people in Latin America will identify using their country of origin (e.g., Colombian, Salvadorian, Dominican, etc.). Community or informal uses are also often distinct from U.S. census definitions, adding an extra layer of complexity.

Thus we arrive at a newer term, one you may have heard of as a college student, to describe people with Latin American origin: “Latinx.” Latinx is a gender neutral/non-binary alternative term to “Latino/a” which aims to be more inclusive of intersectional identities. It is unclear where the term originated, but it has been around since the early 2000s and other variations such as “Latin@” and “Latine” have also existed since then.

The case of the word “Latinx” is interesting because of its varied reception. If one were to Google “Latinx,” one would likely find contrasting opinions, statistics and varied usage of the word in the media. So how often is the term actually used, if at all?

The most widely cited study to answer that question is a 2020 Pew Research Center Study, which reveals that 76 percent of interviewees of varying demographics had not heard the term “Latinx,” and that of the 24 percent that had, only 3 percent use it. Anecdotal evidence can also vary, as exposure to the term on social media and academia varies depending on the person. For example, older generations of working class immigrants may have never heard the term, while a younger college student is more likely to be exposed to it.

“Latinx” has been met with both mockery and celebration. I will summarize the main arguments on the opposing sides I have encountered during my research. Opponents of the term have often cited the following reasons for rejecting it.

  1. The term is an example of “linguistic imperialism” because some “woke liberal” American Anglo-crowd is imposing a patronizing word on Latin America.
  2. Adding an “x” makes the term unusable in Spanish. This is because romance languages like Spanish are gendered languages, i.e. nouns are assigned masculine or feminine classifications. Thus, a genderless term is not compatible with Spanish.
  3. The Royal Spanish Academy (Real Academia Española or REA), the official overseers of Spanish Language rules, have rejected the term grammatically.
  4. While in English, Latinx can be pronounced phonetically (LATIN-EEKS, just like “Kleenex”), it cannot be pronounced in Spanish. Thus it favors English speakers over Spanish speakers.
  5. Adjectives frequently used to describe the term include “elitist,” “arrogant” or “incorrect” (there are many more) and conclude that “no one in Latin America actually uses it (they use Latine), only Anglicized Westerners do.”
  6. Transphobia and homophobia.

Supporters of the term have often cited these reasons for accepting the term.

  1. The term is more inclusive for non-binary Latin Americans, whose identity may not fall under the traditional gender norms.
  2. The term acknowledges the intersectionality between the LGBTQ and Latin American identities, thus allowing LGBTQ members to not have to choose between their Latinidad and queerness. It also allows allies to stand in solidarity with their peers.
  3. It challenges the sexist machismo culture often prevalent in Latin American communities, which could lead to constructive changes for its members.
  4. The term is part of a greater generational response to the changing reality of the Latin American demographics in the United States. Thereby, identity markers must adapt to keep up with changing populations.

While each individual argument (there are flaws in many) presented here can be dissected and countered, it is undeniable that the term Latinx has certainly caused discussion in various communities in the United States and will likely continue to.

Personally, I had never heard the term until I arrived at Bowdoin, and I can firmly say I do not identify as “Latinx.” I have met both fervent opposers to the term as well as proud Latinx-identifying people but most people I have spoken to feel apathetic towards the term or mock it unironically.

The term Latinx, however, fascinates me because its varied reception is a representation of how complex identity can be as a person of Latin American descent in the United States and of a generational divide between older, often non-U.S. born parents and their likely U.S.-born children.

To be honest, I actually dislike the term “Latinx” because it is a subset of an identity term I already greatly dislike, Latino. How can one represent the collective linguistic, ethnic, racial, national and personal identity of people who carry two continents’ worth of legacy in a singular term? In my opinion, one cannot.

For example, in every U.S. election that I have lived through, I have heard the media ramble on about how one candidate can capture the “Latino” vote. This is the greatest example of how this term puts anyone with Latin American origin into a singular monolith. You can have Latin American origins and be white, mixed-race, indigenous, non-Spanish speaking, multilingual, conservative, liberal, Christian, Jewish, curly-haired, Argentine, Chilean … or something else from amongst a near infinite set of diverse permutations.

The term Latino has always carried negative connotations to me because it willingly ignores the cultural differences between people with Latin American origin. The diversity of experiences, family history, and thought that various people have shared with me over the years is impressive, and thus I believe it should be celebrated and not chicken cooped into a singular monolith.

However, if someone I know feels proudly about identifying as Latinx, Latino/a or Hispanic, then I will gladly support them because that is their rightful answer to the complicated nature of Latin American identity in the U.S. I detest the notion of invalidating others’ experience; thus, if someone feels strongly about a certain part of their heritage and identity, it is valid.

Frankly, this column is incomplete because so many more complexities exist in the discussion, but I believe it is important to begin dialogues surrounding identity. Thus, I encourage any reader to research outside sources as well as to investigate their own identity further, because it should be celebrated, con mucho cariño.


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One comment:

  1. New Bowdoin dad says:

    As a non-native yet fluent Spanish speaker, I think this is the best article I’ve read on the use of the equis. Thank you Sr. Campos.

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