Op-Ed: Linguistic Imperialism and the Complex History of ‘Latinx’

Suppose German or French institutions started calling North American women Americanerin or Canadieuse (singular) and Americanerinnen or Canadieuses (plural)—when writing in English. Men would be Americaner or Canadieux.

How would North Americans feel about being referred to by strange-sounding, bowdlerized versions of foreign languages?

Enter Latinx, a term in vogue today. It’s the same phenomenon. English speakers are applying it to Spanish-speaking and -surnamed people.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren tweeted, “When I become president, Latinx families will have a champion in the White House.” Her fellow Bay State senator, Ed Markey, posted on Facebook, “We need to stand up to support the Latinx community in Massachusetts.”

My alma mater, Williams College, has 734 web pages that invoke the term. A 2017 symposium dwelt on “US Colombianidades and the Future of Latinx Studies.”

The stated aim was “to share work and stimulate an interdisciplinary conversation on Colombianxs in the United States.”

Latinx is a substitute for Latino, a category that the U.S. government adopted for the 2000 census, and for Hispanic, a term that the Ford administration created ex nihilo in 1975 for classification purposes and the Carter administration included in the 1980 census. All refer to what former Vice President Joe Biden has called the “incredibly diverse” Spanish-speaking or -surnamed peoples originating from Tijuana and Santo Domingo in the north to Buenos Aires and Tierra del Fuego in the south.

Unlike Latino and Hispanic, however, the government did not create or adopt Latinx.

Florida University professor Cristobal Salinas Jr. says “the ‘x’ was first introduced in a Puerto Rican psychological periodical to challenge the gender binaries encoded in the Spanish language. ... The first noticeable usage of the term Latinx was at a university with the purpose to be more reflective of a gender-inclusive student organization.”

In other words, advocates adopted the term as necessary for “inclusion, especially for those who are LGBT and gender-nonconforming. ... The term was coined within queer internet groups. That was where it was used first and foremost,” said María R. Scharrón–del Río, a professor of psychology at Brooklyn College. It’s a “gesture toward linguistic intersectionality,” wrote Jeffrey Herlihy-Mera, a humanities professor at the University of Puerto Rico at Mayagüez.

Few people like being called Latinx, however.

A Pew poll shows that 3 percent of the target population uses the term. Nor, according to a 2012 BBC Brazil report citing another Pew survey and a Medium article citing a 2015 University of São Paulo survey, does it much like Latino and Hispanic.

Rather, people prefer to be called Argentine, Mexican, Panamanian, Paraguayan, Chilean, etc., possibly with “-American” appended if they’re U.S. citizens. In Portuguese-speaking Brazil, with its historical separation from Spanish-speaking countries, only 4 percent consider themselves Latino, let alone Latinx.

Although “the racial [sic] category Latino” (and similarly Hispanic) “is profoundly dependent on the United States’ imperial perspective,” at least Latino is a Spanish-sounding word that follows Spanish grammar, and Hispanic does not pretend to be anything other than an English word.

What makes Latinx singularly awkward is that it is an artificial, Esperanto-like construct devised by United States advocates. It bears no relation to the language or culture of the peoples it designates. A Basque woman named Arantxa Elixabete Matxin might relate to Latinx. But to most, “Latinx may feel like an imposition by activists. It’s also too clever by half for Romance-language speakers accustomed to gendered nouns,” wrote the eminent linguist John McWhorter in an Atlantic article titled “Why Latinx Can’t Catch On.”

McWhorter’s too-clever-by-half assertion is borne out by proponents’ struggle to place logical limits on substituting x for o and a to describe Spanish-surnamed or -speaking people. If the idea behind Latinx is not to exclude gender-fluid people, then why not rename Los Olvidados, Luis Buñuel’s 1950 film classic, Lxs Olvidadxs?

We don’t know whether any of the actors or the characters they portrayed were gender-fluid, so why take the chance of slighting someone with the potentially offending os?

Same with los desaparecidos who were victims of Chile’s and Argentina’s so-called dirty wars. Or los niños héroes, Mexico’s equivalent of our defenders of the Alamo in Texas. Should the Tijuana street known as calle Niños Héroes be renamed calle Niñxs Héroes?

Finally, since angels have no physical form, why retain the linguistically masculine name of California’s largest city? Lxs Angeles, anyone?

The hard-to-pronounce and profoundly non-Spanish Latinx is unlikely to become common parlance. But as former Portuguese finance minister António Bagão Félix wrote in an op-ed in 2016, “What is certain is that the so-called ‘ideology of gender’ is also gauged by the language used, and thus, any deviation ... is soon criticized vehemently and with exasperation,” as we see in English-speakers’ debates over pronouns.

Meanwhile, the guardian of the Spanish language, Spain’s Real Academia Española, declines to recognize Latinx.

Ted Stroll is an attorney, translator and amateur linguist who lives in San Jose.Opinions are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of San Jose Inside. Send op-ed pitches to [email protected].

5 Comments

  1. I don’t think that Latinx, as used by politicians and most journalists, has anything to do with gender non conforming people.
    If we say “latina community” it definitely means only female hispanics. But if we say “latino community” it’s potentially unclear weather we’re referring to all hispanics or just male hispanics. So latinx is just a term that helps avoid that ambiguity.
    Of course when we’re referring to a specific individual of known gender then latinx is a silly designation. But, I suppose, if the individual is of ambiguous gender then latinx might be a substitute for the pc term “they”, with the added bonus of also describing the person’s racial and cultural heritage.

  2. Dumb article. Languages have rules, gender is part of all romance languages.

    Can you think of something more intelligent to write about, say

    how are all these latinos, blacks, whites, asians, and everyone else going to make up six months of back rent

    how are we going to get the education system back to a point where kids are learning things that will improve the world like more efficient energy generation and distribution, cheaper and broader healthcare, cleaner air and water, cheaper housing materials and construction costs?

    Stop this idiotic waste of time with the x-ing. It makes our kids dumber just debating it.

  3. John, former Mexican President Vicente Fox (Mexican/Irish decent) was ridiculed for his poor use of Spanish language. For example, he used to say “Mexicanos and Mexicanas” instead of simply Mexicanos which includes all and is the proper use. Latino Community includes all Latino community. If you want to be specific, you can say the Puerto Rican community or the Mexican community… I am myself a mix of Latino and European CHRISTIAN/JEWISH soul and faith… y se [email protected] al que no le guste! Nicolas Maduro is another one that destroys the Spanish language “ballenos y ballenas…” To call Latino people Latinx is definitely an insult! Latinex? Que es esa chingadex?

  4. If Latinx allows me to shorten the cumbersome “Illegal Alien” or the dishonest “Undocumented Worker” to the simple and accurate “Wetbax” I’m all for it.

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