“What’s in a name,” Juliet asks, as she contemplates the destructive rivalry between the Capulets and the Montagues. She reasons it shouldn’t matter because a “rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” The reality was that, for Juliet’s family, the Montagues by any other name would still stink. The power of names transcends the word (or signifier) and even the object named. Often, the attributes we attach to any name are more significant than the object itself. Consider how the apple evolved into the “forbidden fruit,” even though the Bible never directly refers to it. A lesson we need to apply to the naming process associated with descendants of Latin America living in the US. Whether it’s Hispanic, Latino or Latinx, what we call ourselves imprints a set of beliefs, values and ideas that represent how we see our ourselves.
Various names have emerged as an “umbrella” term for descendants of Latin American ancestry in the US. In the fifties and sixties, many of us erroneously called ourselves “Spanish.” Then, the US government came up with “Hispanic” and incorporated its use in the 1980 Census. Many rejected its Spanish bias that also negated the significance of our mestizaje. The emergence of “Latin” was a poor substitute, one just slightly better than “Spanish.” We are no more Latin than the Romans were. In 2000, the census added Latino as an option. Latino has gained popularity ever since.
Latinx first appeared in 2004, according to Arlene Gamio, author of Latinx: A Brief Guidebook. By 2014, its use was widespread among academic and activist circles, especially in the LGBTQ community. Before the emergence of Latinx, many people questioned the sexism inherent in the use of Latino and Latinos to imply an entire group. So, that concern led to the use of Latina/o and Latin@. Those terms raised other concerns. Latinx was a natural progression to a more gender-neutral term.
The term has met resistance, at times hostile. At first, I found the term awkward, but eventually came to understand the necessity of its use to promote a more egalitarian discourse. So, I would like to address the prominent arguments against Latinx and share my thoughts on why its useful.
It’s Elitist and Won’t Catch On
Opponents of Latinx argue that it emerged from academia and activists and doesn’t represent the “common people.” Thus, they claim, it’s elitist. It is true that the word has academic origins. That it is therefore “elitist” is questionable. Scholars are prone to fine tuning the discourse they use in their work. We are always searching for that word that gets it right. In that sense, originating a word to advance ideas that may solve social problems is no more elitist than surgeons utilizing professional terminology in their work.
If by “elitist” they refer to the denotative meaning– “the view that a society or systems should be led by an elite”–then we have to consider the irony of this usage. So often criticism frames humanists and scholars simultaneously as leftists and elites. Which one is it? Do we want to dismantle the current socioeconomic system for the sake of “the people?” Or do we want to establish some type of society more reflective of fascist thinking? This line of uncritical thinking often comes from a conservative perspective that fears intellectuals and academics. Conservatives see the flow of free thinking and discourse as a potential threat to the status quo. Therefore, they dismiss scholarly and intellectual work as meaningless and out of touch with the “masses” they aspire to control.
A corollary of this argument is that Latinx will never “stick” because it’s not coming from “below.” That the “common person” doesn’t care about gender neutrality and won’t use it. There is validity in the argument that many mainstream words often derive from common usage. But it’s not rare for a term used in the critical discourse of scholars to enter into vernacular use. For example, the word “meme,” so prevalent now, comes from semiotics. Meanwhile, younger generations–who are clearly part of the “people”–have adopted the term and are popularizing it. Young people have grown up with a stronger openness to gender issues. They are the ones who primarily generate and move social media. They’re the future. I’m not surprise that Latinx is trending.
It’s an Attack on the Spanish Language
The most laughable argument is calling Latinx a “blatant form of linguistic imperialism” and an attempt to “bulldoze” Spanish. The promoters of this claim most have forgotten the imperialist agenda behind the Spanish crown. How it not only forced Castilian on the rest of Iberia, but exported it to the Americas through conquest and colonization. At the same time that they pushed Catholicism and other foreign ideas on the indigenous peoples they enslaved and whose land they stole. This type of criticism should seem absurd to most Latin Americans. So spare me, if I do not weep for the alleged imperialist “attack” on the Spanish language.
Languages are fluid and will evolve and change. The Spanish we speak in the Americas is obviously not exactly the same Spaniards speak. The Spanish we speak in the US is not the same variety that many Latin Americans speak in their respective countries. Here in the US, Latinx communities have hybrid versions of Spanish. Some of us speak Spanish fluently but we also speak those registers known as spanglish or calo. Code switching is part of our lived experience.
Those who claim Latinx is an offensive attack on Spanish neglect that it’s a word rooted in the hybrid linguistic experience of the people who originated it. To the purist, embedded in a monolingual perspective, it may be difficult to comprehend. That also includes bilingual purists who believe you should speak one language at a time.
For those living in the nepantla world that Gloria Anzaldua wrote about, it is natural and affirms our mestizo sensibility. We have no problem adding an x to Latin and pronouncing it La-tee-nex. Anymore than some of us saying wachale or roofo. Like so many lexical items developed from our hybrid experience, Latinx fulfills a need within our lived world. That is the natural state of language. Concerns about linguistic purity and preserving Spanish are completely out of whack with our reality.
That is also why the claim that Latinx doesn’t provide a gender-neutral alternative for Spanish-speaking people falls short. It’s a Latinx neologism to use in our hybrid cultural and linguistic world. If monolingual Spanish speakers want a gender-neutral term that fulfills their purist demands then they should invent one.
It’s a ‘Fashionable Identity’ and Distraction
You would think the debate over Latinx is a trifling spat between language nerds. But anyone who has a profound and critical comprehension of language and its uses knows it’s always deeper than that. Consider the backlash that video producer Kat Lazo received when she posted a video on Latinx. There were so many hostile comments and a call for Mitu, her media company, to cancel her, that she felt it necessary to respond.
We cannot attribute such a backlash to passion over language alone. It is not surprising that the majority of opponents of Latinx are men. It’s not surprising that the arguments against it are essentially a defense of language rooted in patriarchal, trans and homo phobic ideology. Change the language, and you start to change the mindset. That is the fear, but it is also the rationale behind supporting it.
That fear manifests itself in various rhetorical ways. Some I’ve presented above. But even within neoliberal, moderate, or “liberal” Latinx circles, there are those who nonetheless hesitate to embrace progressive change. They dismiss the term as “fashionable” or a “distraction.” These folks clearly don’t understand the profound impact language has on forming and affirming ideology. And we know that ideology shapes political worldview and promotes social behavior.
Anyone who desires dramatic social justice in our society, cannot dismiss the emergence of Latinx as a “fashionable identity.” It is both a form of resistance and call for change. Far from being a distraction, its use sheds light directly on core social justice issues and takes a proactive stance.