When I first saw the word Latinx – best described as a gender-neutral term to describe US residents of Latin American descent – in print it seemed strange, alien, and unfit for proper pronunciation. But rather than perceiving it as my enemy, I came to embrace its enticing, futurist charms.
The term Latinx arises from a perceived inadequacies of the labels ‘Hispanic’ and ‘Latino’, which emerged in the civil rights era, around the same time that the term ‘Negro’ gave way to ‘black’, and then ‘African-American’.
Although Hispano was used earlier, particularly in New York in the early to mid-20th century by migrants from Latin American as a vehicle for advocacy and political organizing, Hispanic was adopted in the 1970s by government bureaucracies, the business community and advertisers and marketers as a way to promote American assimilation while retaining ethnic pride.
Yet many academics and activists, as well as cultural figures, particularly West Coast Mexican-Americans, grew to prefer “Latino.” The term Hispanic, they felt, was an attempt to use identification with Spain to create another “whitened” European-American ethnic label. The term Latino, these activists believed, subtly reflected the mixed-race origins of Latin Americans.
More recently, attempts to address the male-centric nature of the masculine “o” suffix created variations like Latino/a, Latina/o, and finally the awkward Latin@, which seized on internet age typography and tried to create a shared male/female space.
The arrival of Latinx coincides with a strong push for eliminating identifiers of gender in language, such as the now ubiquitous (at least among millennials) posting of pronouns to be used when referring to an individual, such as she/her, him/her, and the liberating they/them.
This trend is emblematic of how acknowledging “border spaces” through the sort of women-of-color feminism pioneered by 1970s and 80s Chicanx writers like Gloria Anzaldúa and Cherrie Moraga can transform male-dominated ideas about Latinx identity into broader intersectional sectors of marginalized people. In this way “Latinx” represents a queering of Latino.
Yet of course Latinx has its detractors. An early attack appeared in a student newspaper of Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania. It resonates with some grievances I’ve heard when speaking to some of my students at Columbia. Latinx is seen as an attack on the Spanish language in its dismantling of tradition, and this particular post criticizes it as an imposition of US values on Latin American culture, which is based in the Spanish language.
It also mocks the messiness of continuously using “x”s in written and oral communication, which is understandable until you realize that saying Latinx is as easy as saying Kleenex.
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 like Univision and major advertisers who have for decades tried to concoct a flattened, de-racialized identity to create a loyal pool of voters and consumers.
In 2015, Mark Hugo López of the Pew Hispanic Center argued that research showed: “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 shows 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%, second only to Asian Americans.
While this second factor may be a threat to the diminishing of Latinx identification, the first one does not erase the fact that Latinx identification is primarily about non-binary racial and gender identification. That doesn’t mean that we don’t see ourselves in terms of our race and sexuality, which although fluid, powerfully symbolizes difference from the American norm.
I embrace Latinx because of its futurist implications. Like superheroes of color and the possibilities inherent in girls and everyone else who code, Latinx represents an openness that is increasingly under threat in a political climate that is most intent on drawing borders, keeping outsiders out, and using violence to keep it that way.
Yet because I am aware of how the strategic essentialism of Latinx is not the be all and end all of who we are, 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’s not easy to hold on to such seemingly opposite intentions, but although it’s not usually part of our national conversation, it points to a future America that might be.
Ed Morales is the author of the forthcoming book Latinx: The New Force in American Politics and Culture.