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Latino vs. Latinx – A Match for the Ages

Two boxing gloves touching in the middle. On the right it says "LatinX" on the left it says "Latino"

Feminist Book Club blog contributors are working together to create posts as an “Educate & Activate” series. We will define a term or movement, provide historical context, and give you additional resources to learn more. We believe that an educated populace can be better activists, accomplices and co-conspirators. It is important to note that these are meant to be brief descriptions and not inclusive or exhaustive of all resources. We urge you to continue being curious, and continue learning more.

What’s the difference between Hispanic or Latino or Spanish or Latinx? All are terms used to describe a group of people who speak the Spanish language but some versions are fraught with colonialist sentiments and others are the new kids on the block.  To kick of National Hispanic Heritage Month I’d like to talk about Latino vs. Latinx. What’s the difference? Why are comment sections filled with detractors when a company/brand/person uses Latinx? Why does any of this matter? As someone who doesn’t believe in un-biased reporting I’d like to take a moment here to say that I – as an Afro-Latinx cis-het woman – firmly believe in Latinx and think it should be used widely and broadly.

Definition

Latino and Latinx are both terms used to identify a group of people who are from – or whose ancestors hail from – Central and South America and the Spanish speaking islands of the Caribbean. This term includes Brazilians.

These terms are different than Hispanic which identifies people who speak Spanish and come from Spain, Central and South America (excluding Brazil) and the Spanish-speaking Caribbean islands. We will not be talking about Hispanic today because that’s a whole ‘nother issue that I could write a medium-sized research paper on given its colonial sentiments.

First Use

According to Merriam-Webster DictionaryLatino was first used in 1946. However I find that hard to verify. I would argue that the term, as used above, was adopted in 1997 when the United States government officially elected to use “Latino” as a complement to “Hispanic”.

Latinx was first used in somewhere in the mid-2000s in activist circles in the U.S. to include those all persons – regardless of sex – in a language that is gendered. What do I mean by gendered? In Spanish there all words are either male or female. To say “the sun” for example is to use masculine terms “el sol”; to say “the moon” is to use feminine terms “la luna”.

Historical Context

Spanish is a gendered language as I indicated above. Everything has a gender. Your radio? A lady. Your book? A dude. Collective nouns almost always default to male. If there are 19 women and 1 man in a group, it’s a group of men. What are the implications of that language on a people when not everyone is seen in the language?

The best way – I think – to discuss the history of the conflict between these terms is to give it a concrete example. Before the 1970s there was no way for someone to identify if they were “Hispanic” or “Latino” on official U.S. paperwork. Everything was either:

  • Black
  • White; or
  • Other

In a few places you had the option to outline if you were Chinese or Japanese, maybe some included an option for Mexican, but it wasn’t standard and it certainly wasn’t consistent. So what are the practical implications of this, you may be asking yourself? Well. If we need to understand that maternal death rate for women who are Latinas, how would we get that information? If you are opening up funding for job training for “minorities” how do you ensure that Spanish-speaking citizens are included? Especially if they are counted as white?

Before the term Hispanic – with all its flaws – or Latino existed, my family wasn’t part of the narrative in the United States in a formal capacity. It took the advocating of activists like those within UnidosUS, formerly known as the National Council of La Raza, to bring Spanish-speaking activists from all areas of the country with their distinct needs (Mexicans in the west, Cubans in the south, Puerto Ricans in the northeast) and hammer out what a Hispanic agenda would look like. They then took that forward and began to lobby the U.S. Census to create a new category in the 1980 Census.

As we move forward in time and get to the early 2000s, people began to wonder why we had to use an inherently masculine/feminine words at all. What happens when you don’t see yourself in the language you use? How do you make language more inclusive? I personally used Latin@ for a while back in my younger days – 15 year old me thought she was hella woke – but these were clunky and didn’t lend themselves to being spoken aloud. Latinx arrived in 2007ish and immediately started receiving backlash from Spanish speakers all around the United States and confusion from those abroad.

One of the most broadly shared critiques of Latinx came from an op-ed drafted by two men at Strathmore College – Gilbert Guerra and Gilbert Orrea. The argued that use of Latinx “…should be discouraged because it is a buzzword that fails to address any of the problems within Spanish on a meaningful scale.” They also argued that while they didn’t wish for the erasure of non-binary spanish-speakers the use of Latinx was a clear case of linguistic imperialism “…the forcing of U.S. ideals upon a language in a way that does not grammatically or orally correspond with it.”

…it’s amazing how you canuphold the erasure of folks who exist outside the binary and say “but we have no prejudice towards non-binary people” in the same breath isn’t it?

They also argue that the use of gender in the Spanish language is different than gender in English, that by “forcing” gender neutrality in Spanish you are working towards the erasure of Spanish and other hyperbolic claims.

In 2018 the Real Academia Española (RAE) distributed it’s first style guideline in conjunction with the Asociación de Academias de la Lengua Española (ASALE) and came down with a ruling that the use of the X or E shouldn’t exist in the Spanish language. “The problem is we’re confusing grammar with machismo,” said Darío Villanueva, RAE’s director. In the same document, by the academy tasked by (????) to uphold the Spanish language also included the words “selfie” and “guasup” as official words so maybe they are just full of shit? It’s so hard to tell…

I’m going to end with this little musing of mine. Language is constantly evolving and we should never aim for it to be static. Creating a space for those usually held at the margins (such as Hispanic) or those that don’t “exist” according to the current language (like our friends who exist outside of the binary) is a revolutionary act and forces us to consider everyone who exists, not just those who we think have the right to. Spanish is a language imposed on Latin Americans by virtue of colonization and has evolved from purely Castilian Spanish that was spoken in the 16th century to what it is now – a language influenced by Indigenous peoples who were decimated, African peoples who were enslaved, and Arabic peoples by virtue of trade (…and also mass murder, see: The Spanish Inquisition). Nothing stays the same forever, and I’m down for any change that makes it better for more people.

Resources for Further Reading

Latino Terminology: Conceptual Bases for Standardized Terminology by David E. Hayes-Bautista, PhD, and Jorge Chapa

Hispanic vs. Latino vs. Latinx by Yara Simón

“Latinx” is growing in popularity. I made a comic to help you understand why. by Terry Blas

Who Put the “Hispanic” in Hispanic Heritage Month? by Shareen Marisol Meraji

Which is Better “Latino” or “Latinx” Pero Like

When Your Latinx Latin Ex is Also Named Latino Alternatino (this is funny as hell and reminds me of an Abbott and Costello routine)

Natalia Santana is a compliance professional by day, and an activist, student and parent...also by day. Interested in the intersection of activism and education, her joy in life is taking complicated concepts and distilling them into easy to understand Twitter rants. Favorite genres: science fiction, fantasy, and non-fiction books.

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