As National Hispanic Heritage Month ends, I would like to take a moment to reflect on language: how we use it to include or exclude certain populations, how language adapts and changes, how important it is to let marginalized populations to use language to define their own identity.
There have been multiple times when I have been asked, “what is the appropriate word to describe my community?” Is it Hispanic, or Latino or the newer term, Latinx? For me, while some of these terms fit in some ways, they don’t embrace our full understanding and nature of my community.
First, it is important to understand that Hispanic and Latino do not refer to a race of people. Instead, they refer to a shared language, culture, ethnicity, or geography. A person can be considered Hispanic or Latino, or both, but those terms still identify nothing about their race. Latinos can be Black, Indigenous, Asian, White, etc.
Generally, Hispanic refers to those people who come from Spanish-speaking countries. This can be problematic because it includes Spain, which is in Europe. And it excludes Brazil, which is in Latin America, because they speak Portuguese. Many people do not see their identity as tied to the colonization of their country. It is even further problematic because in Spanish the word is translated as Hispano, which further limits the population to “a person descended from Spanish settlers in the Southwest before it was annexed to the U.S.”
On the other hand, Latinos refers to people from Central and South America. This does include Brazil but does not include Spain. This is purely a geographic term. This does include many Caribbean nations. However, some countries that speak English as a primary language, such as Jamaica, do not identify as Latino.
Most often in the United States these two terms are used interchangeably even though they do not actually describe the same populations of people. A 2018 Pew Research Center survey of Hispanics and Latinos found that 27% prefer to refer to themselves as Hispanic and 18% prefer Latino. But 54% had no preference with either word. And in 2019 a similar survey found that 47% described themselves using neither word but instead by their family’s country of origin.
It is also important to note that Spanish is a gendered language. All nouns have a gender. Feminine nouns generally have an “a” ending, e.g., una mujer latina (a Latina woman) or la mesa (the table). Male nouns generally have an “o” ending, e.g., un hombre latino (a Latino man) or el suelo (the floor). If you are describing a group of all women, it would be Latinas. But, most importantly, if there is even one man in the group, it becomes Latinos. This holds true with the words Hispanos and Hispanas as well.
Many people have looked for a more inclusive, gender-neutral way to describe our community. That is where the term Latinx (pronounced La-tin-X in English) came to some popularity. Some people argue that it arose from protests beginning as far back as the 1970s in Latin America where feminists protesting would X out the words ending in OS to reclaim the idea of gender neutrality and reject the default as masculine.
But for most people in the U.S. it became better known after the 2016 Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando. Pulse was hosting a Latin night for its LGBTQIA+ community when a gunman walked in and killed 49 people and injured more than 50 more. Many news reports used the term Latinx as gender-neutral way to describe the customers, most of whom had ties to both the LGBTQIA+ and Latino community.
The first time I heard the word Latinx outside of media reports was from people who were not Hispanic or Latino. They also didn’t speak Spanish. While I could appreciate the need for inclusivity, for me, it was a word that was very difficult. It often left me struggling when I was interpreting or translating for people. There is no proper translation for Latinx. That often left me to say “Latinos y Latinas” every time, which made my translation clunky.
There was no consistency with translation or interpretation. Some people would pronounce it the same as in English. Others would pronounce it like it was Spanish, so it was La-teen-equis (in Spanish the letter “x” is pronounced equis). Most people did not understand it at all.
In fact, a December 2019 study found that roughly 75% of people who identify as Hispanic or Latino had not heard of the term Latinx. And of the 23% who had, only 3% used the term. Using this term when translating or interpreting between English and Spanish is difficult. While I appreciate the people who feel this word clearly speaks to their identity, for me it does not.
A 2019 comic by Terry Bias introduced the idea of using another inclusive term: Latine. It was a term that was not only inclusive but also made perfect sense for me as a bilingual person. As Bias explains, he found the term through a Mexican Drag Competition on YouTube called La Mas Draga. The host used an “e” instead of an “o” or an “a” to introduce all the contestants. And he was able to use that same change to other words while continuing to speak Spanish. So, instead of saying, “Bienvenidos a Todos” (Welcome to everyone, using the male form of welcome and everyone) he changed the “o” in each case to an “e,” so it was “Bienvenides a Todes.”
This usage makes it much easier for those of us who go back and forth between languages. We can transliterate and use non-gendered words in English and Spanish. It allows us to move in both languages with an ease that is difficult when thinking of replacing other Spanish words with an “x.”
In fact, there is an online community, Call me Latine, that provides language resources and examples of how people can use Latine as the basis for nongendered Spanish terms. They are “dedicated to addressing gender and heteronormative bias in Hispanic and Latino culture.” To be clear, unlearning years of heteronormative Spanish is not easy, and it requires constant work and attention. But it feels right to me, as someone who goes between both languages constantly.
I fully believe that everyone should use the word that they find best defines them. Our community deserves to define their own identity instead of having others define it for us. People should use whatever term that works for them that is inclusive. For me, I choose Latine.