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It seems like there’s a new word for Latin American heritage every couple of decades—and it never seems to fit just right. “Hispanic” was brought into common parlance in the early 1970s, but was later challenged by “Latino” and its feminine partner “Latina.”
Now comes the rise of the divisive—but gender-neutral—“Latinx,” touted by progressives for its supposed modern hipness, yet somewhat reviled by the people it represents.
With Hispanic Heritage Month in full swing, it’s time to ask: what’s in a name?
“As an immigrant, I found myself being classified as Hispanic upon arrival to the United States, a term I did not know nor had used to call myself before,” says Dina Castro, a Wheelock College of Education and Human Development professor of early childhood education and director of the BU Institute for Early Childhood Well-Being. “Then, there was the option of using Latina, which is my preference because it highlights my Latin American origin and not only the fact that I speak Spanish.”
While there’s no one group or individual responsible for coining Latinx, its popularity has snowballed in tandem with conversations around gender. Previous terminology forced the speaker to identify as male or female, Latino or Latina, while Latinx gives both speaker and listener the ability to opt out of the gender binary. The term was embraced enthusiastically by progressive entities with a stake in gender-neutral policies. It was added to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary in 2018.
According to the Pew Research Center, a thimble-sized portion of people with Latin American ancestry use the term Latinx. In August 2020, the center reported that 3 percent of respondents viewed it favorably; a year later, a Gallup poll increased that to 4 percent. If you were to base your impression on this research—or on various recent think pieces—you’d assume that the term was foisted on an unwilling community who found themselves saddled with it.
Maia Gil’Adí, a College of Arts & Sciences assistant professor of English, says this isn’t the case. “You have to ask yourself, who’s taking the surveys?” she says.
Gil’Adí, who specializes in Latinx literature and culture, points to a journal article by Nicole M. Guidotti-Hernández, an Emory University professor, who places the term’s coinage “around 2004 in queer contexts.” It was an organic youth movement, she contends, born of the internet, and rejected by the older generation.
“With the younger generations—with the kids that I teach—I would think that they’re much more comfortable using the term Latinx,” Gil’Adí says.
The conversation around Latinx often includes reference to its usage in higher education, not by just students, but the institution as well. (BU, for instance, uses the term “Latinx” in its official style guide.) This can be attributed to the fact that college students are leading the national discussion on gender—or that the national population of Latinx college students is on the rise. In 2020, the Postsecondary National Policy Institute reported that at 21.8 percent, Latinx students were the second-largest ethnic group of college enrollees.
At BU, the Latinx community has increased across the board in the past five years: undergraduates by 7 percent, graduates by 23 percent, faculty by 17 percent, and staff by 38 percent.
Not everyone at BU represented by these numbers prefers the term Latinx. Gil’Adí understands, she says, but thinks it’s important that people realize that to her and other scholars, the X does not refer solely to gender neutrality. It can represent an unknown value, as in mathematics, and signifies what she refers to as a “categorical impossibility.”
“How do you define a population made up of descendants from all the countries in Latin America, people that are white, Black, Asian, and indigenous?” she asks. “Anglo-American culture always wants to define the minoritized other as this one thing, and I think the X pushes back and says, no, we are all these things.”
The conscientiousness of Latinx contrasts with its predecessor term, “Hispanic.” Popularized under the Nixon administration when it first appeared on the 1970 US Census—also the first time the Latinx population was seen as a separate entity by the government—the term was the result of a decision by an ad-hoc committee convened by the Census Bureau to group people from Latin America together under one mother tongue. It’s an arbitrary designation, Gil’Adí says, one that erases indigenous languages and puts a “linguistic belonging and a sort of limitation” on something that’s not so easily confined.
And of course, many are opposed to grouping Latinx people together under the language of their colonizers.
“For me, the term Hispanic highlights only the colonial part of my ancestry, and I have indigenous and Afro-Peruvian ancestors as well,” Castro says.
In 1992, author Sandra Cisneros told the New York Times: “To say Hispanic means you’re so colonized you don’t even know for yourself, or someone who named you never bothered to ask what you call yourself. It’s a repulsive slave name.”
In spite of the pushback, the 2021 Gallup poll reported that “Hispanic” was the favorite out of the terms on offer, at 23 percent. It’s possible that those who participated have also filled out their fair share of censuses.
There are plenty of other options for self-identification beside Latino, Latinx, and Hispanic. There’s Latin@, popular in the 1990s as a gender-expansive precursor to Latinx. There’s Latine, a gender-neutral term championed by detractors of Latinx, primarily for its better adherence to Spanish grammar.
“With regard to the more recent terms proposed to address gender equity, I prefer Latine over Latinx,” Castro says.
There’s also the option of abandoning racial classification altogether and instead focusing on geography.
Johanna Calderon-Dakin (COM’06), a publicist and bilingual culture consultant born and raised in Mexico City, says she prefers to identify herself as Mexican. “What is most important in my opinion is that whether you use Latino, Latinx, or Hispanic, we all are part of this one great community, yet we are not homogeneous,” she says. “The diaspora of the Latino community is immense, so it is difficult to put us all under one blanket.”
Gil’Adí wonders if the ideal self-identifying term might not be invented yet. “Think about the different permutations that have led to ‘Black’: Negro, African American, Afro-American,” she says. “Within the past 5 years, this explosion of Latinx has been huge, so what’s going to happen 5, 10 years from now?”
Ultimately, while she remains partial to Latinx, Gil’Adí doesn’t think that these terms primarily benefit the people they refer to. “When you’re in [Latin America] you’re Colombian, Brazilian, whatever. Once you come here, you become this other thing that then becomes racialized,” she says. “People have a really hard time with things that aren’t concrete, that are slippery. It’s about learning to sit with that uncomfortableness.”
To prove her point, look at the 2021 Gallup poll. When asked their preference between Hispanic, Latino, and Latinx, the overwhelming majority—57 percent—put down, “Does not matter.”
If Hispanics Hate the Term “Latinx,” Why Is It Still Used?
Sophie Yarin is a BU Today and Bostonia associate editor. She graduated from the Emerson College School of Journalism and has experience in digital and print publications as a hybrid writer/editor. A lifelong oddball with an abiding love of local arts and music (the scruffier the venue, the better), her journalistic ethos is: “I’m looking for a weird time.” She lives in Jamaica Plain with her partner and their tuxedo cat, Ringo, but she’s usually out getting iced coffee. Profile
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As a Dominican-American, the last two paragraphs of this article stuck out to me. I agree with the majority 57% of people who replied “It doesn’t matter”, but I would also prefer if people took an interest into my specific culture and ethnic background rather than lumping my identity with other Latin American cultures that could be different from mine. All in all, I’m very interested in seeing the linguistic evolution of the term “Latinx” and see what new word or version we’ll be using 5 to 10 years from now as the author said.
Hispanic and Latino / Latina are not the same thing!
As a Brazilian who speaks Portuguese, I have always felt misrepresented or short-changed by the terminology used in the United States Census and other surveys. Hispanic doesn’t apply because we speak Portuguese, Latino could apply but still carries a connotation that it represents Spanish speakers, etc. Oh well!
I can claim several identities. However, I prefer to identify as a person. Why should I choose one identity over another? Identity is not about who my ancestors were, but who I am now.
The American tendency towards racial taxonomy is frustrating. I come from the Adolph Reed Jr school of thought here. I treat it the way I treat pronouns: If you tell me what you would prefer to be referred to, I will always use it.
This article is completely dismissive of *why* the Latino community doesn’t like “Latinx,” which is that it’s an Anglicizing of their language which has been foisted on them. Also, this article very carelessly conflates “Latino” and “Hispanic” as the same, which to many, they are not.
I’d also like to add that latino/latina isn’t the only gendered word. If we don’t draw the line at Latinx, what’s next? Are we going to have profesorxs in our schools and doctorxs in our hospitals? They’re trying to change an entire language so that a very VERY small minority of people (who probably don’t even speak Spanish) feel included.
I totally agree Sonny. Latinx is yet another instance of people not of my same culture deciding what my “label” is from Latin, Hispanic, Mexican-American,… Also, LatinX makes no grammatical sense in Spanish and a fundamental part of my identity is the Spanish language itself. While the term may originate from noble intentions and meant to be a term of inclusivity, in disregarding what the culture and root-language already was, it does the opposite. It originates from an English-speaking country that disregards how people from Latin American countries see themselves.
I really think this is virtue signaling on the part of the institutions. They don’t care about much more than enrolling students to keep that sweet federal loan money coming their way.
If the Hispanic vs. Latino vs. Latinx poll numbers were closer, I would understand questions on the accuracy of the poll. But when you’ve only got 3% of respondents to the Pew poll actually using the term and three-quarters that haven’t heard of it, those aren’t numbers that can be easily ignored.
This article implies that “Latinx” is widely used among college students, but the Pew poll says that even among ages 18-29, only 42% have heard of the term and just 7% use it.
It feels like the article is choosing to ignore the data because it didn’t produce the result the author / publication wanted.
Agreed! Good fact checking
Some reasonable points in this article. It seems this categorization has only left us all more divided. I now refuse to respond to form questions regarding RACE (I write “human”) or ETHNICITY. And I will not let anyone call me “black”, Or “white” or red or yellow or whatever.
“I pray that they may all be one.” John 17:21
This article is pushing an American agenda onto Latinos everywhere, choosing to ignore the data that despite the vast majority of Latinos not knowing the term or using it is “gaining popularity.” I was born in Latin America, grew up around Latino immigrants and descendants from a plethora of countries across multiple generations, and no one uses latinx or latine or any of those things. No one has heard about the terms unless they are very young and active on social media and, even then, they don’t identify as it.
The article was ended with a foreshadowing of “what’s going to happen to the terminology in the future?” I can honestly say I don’t know but I am confident it will not be Latinos coming up with nor pushing nor caring for the terminology.
It’s good to remember too that there are tons of people with Latin American and Spanish heritage who live in the US and have for a very long time—for example, the New Mexico/southern Colorado population has lived there for several hundred years and is a beautiful mix of cultures native to the region and Spain. The term Latino/a/x isn’t thrown around a lot, though; hispanic is more common. The label Spanish is also used a lot, which is not a negative thing necessarily if that’s what is preferred by the people in question. It just comes down to the group or the person. It’s simultaneously an incredibly nuanced conversation and not of great importance to many people.
Why can’t we say Brazilian-Americans, Peruvian-Americans just as we say Irish-Americans and Italian-Americans. For people whose heritage in the current United States is long, lets just say Americans. We all have a complex history and descend from immigrants. I am a “mongrel” that could only exist in the Americas, but my ancestors happily landed in the USA.
This ‘debate’ is hysterical mainly because it’s an ‘issue’ that’s being championed in the name of a group of people who really don’t care about it that much. It’s pushing American political correctness where it’s neither wanted nor needed and just makes everyone involved in this look dumber than they already are.
What’s wrong with “human?” There is no biological basis for race. We perpetuate such a notion specifically for the purpose of discrimination.
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