Editor’s Note: Ed Morales (@SpanglishKid) is a journalist and lecturer at Columbia University’s Center for the Study of Ethnicity and Race and the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY. He’s the author of the book “Latinx: The New Force in American Politics and Culture.” The views expressed are his own. View more opinion articles on CNN.
A quiet story in the entertainment site Deadline that television star Eva Longoria and Black-ish creator Kenya Barris would be developing a new sitcom revolving around a “modern Latinx family” seemed to set off Texas Sen. Ted Cruz Wednesday. “No actual Latino uses the woke made-up term Latinx,” he tweeted, reiterating a now familiar conservative talking point.
Since it came into widespread use over the last five years or so, Latinx has been attacked by both rightist and leftist critics for different reasons. Using the catchall slur “woke” allows conservatives to claim that it is an indoctrination tool for liberal ideology, while some progressives feel it obscures the uncomfortable legacy of Latin American colonialism and racism. But the reality of Latinx is not quite as simple as this political debate.
It’s often been said that naming is power, whether it comes from an authority or government, or whether it arises from marginalized people that seek to be heard in everyday conversation. When I first heard the term “Latinx” in 2014 to describe Latin American descended people living in the US from students in a seminar I teach at Columbia University, I was compelled to listen.
We had spent various parts of the semester discussing the evolution of fairly interchangeable terms like Hispanic, sometimes but not exclusively favored by those with more conservative leanings, and Latino, in turn, its liberal counterpart, to Latino/a and Latina/o, and finally Latin@. Those latter iterations were designed to acknowledge that Spanish is a language whose nouns are designated as male and female, recognizing the “Latino” was a male term that included women as an afterthought, just like “man” once stood for men and women in English.
But Latinx was something new, a kind of radical stroke designed to “x” out the notion of gender altogether and in that way recognize nonbinary people, and by extension the LGBTQ community. The origin of Latinx is unclear, though some have traced it to online forums from way back in the mid-1990s, while others point to the use of “x” among Chicana feminist writers like Cherrie Moraga, who wanted to celebrate the use of the letter “x” in Indigenous language. Still, others see in the “x” a reference to those who have been obscured by the legacy of colonialism, the unknown and the marginalized, much the way Malcolm X used it to symbolize his stolen African identity.
Since then, the use of the word Latinx to describe US-born people of Latin American descent has stirred continued controversy, but its use appears to be growing. Intended to be a more inclusive term that recognizes nonbinary and LGBTQ people, it symbolizes a new era in ethnic and racial identification in America. According to Google Trends, the interest by web searches in the term Latinx over the last five years has increased significantly, peaking last September (most likely for Hispanic Heritage Month), with an 88% increase in California – the country’s most Latino populated state. Latinx reflects a desire for younger people to be heard. While a Pew Hispanic study last August showed that only 3% of those surveyed preferred the term, 42% of young people between 18-29 have heard of the term, and 14% of those who are women use it. This probably accounts for why Longoria and Barris opted to use the term in the announcement of the new series spinoff.
Still, the term is far from being accepted universally, since it is being attacked from both conservative and progressive sides. Some Hispanics feel the term is an outside imposition of English – difficult to pronounce in Spanish, laden with American liberal values, while others feel it is an elitist academic term that working people do not care to use. Still others, fueled by a growing awareness of anti-Black and anti-Indigenous tendencies of Latin American cultures, feel that broad terms like Latinx, Latino, and Hispanic, erase their unique identities.
The idea that Latinx represents an imposition by US culture on the Spanish language or some notion of Latin American culture seems to lose its credibility when one considers the astonishing array of English words that have come into common use in Spanish-speaking Latin America. There is no outrage when Latin Americans use words like “brunch,” and “hipster” (pronounced heepster) and I still remember hearing residents of Buenos Aires, Argentina, referring to their living rooms as “el living” in the early 2000s.
The word Latinx appears to be difficult to pronounce, but no one in my Spanish-dominated family had difficulty with a word like “Kleenex” when I was growing up. Maybe it’s the missing e: Some Spanish-speakers prefer to use the term “Latine,” which serves the same function of de-genderizing the term while dispensing with the apparent visceral charge of “x,” which generates an emotional reaction among so many detractors.
The fact is that most Latin American descended people in the US become English-dominant by the third generation, often retaining some Spanish, and hybrid terms like “Latinx” break strict language rules as part of an alternative culture that combines elements of both. That “Latinx” does not conform to the rules of Spanish is part of the idea, and is part of what gives it power to represent US Latin American descendants. Young Latinx linguists like Luis Urrieta and Nelson Flores think its use is an example of “translanguaging” that “breaks the rules” and intentionally “signals a political stance.”
The objection to the use of any form of “Latino” or “Latin American” because those words represent the legacy of Spanish or continental European colonialism has more validity, particularly in this moment of “racial reckoning.” The unofficial myths of racial democracy used in various Latin American countries employ an embrace of racial mixing that often serve to blunt Black and Indigenous identity and culture in favor of its subservience to European values. The growth of movements demanding recognition of Black and Indigenous people of Latin American descent has led to another term, BIPOC, which refers to Black and Indigenous people of color, bypassing the “Latino” identification and allowing for solidarity with non-Spanish speaking Black and Indigenous people in the Americas.
Yet the spread of the use of Latinx, however slow, has been an important step forward since it represents the first time an American ethno-racial group has at least debated with using a term that directly refers to inclusivity of its nonbinary and LGBTQ constituents. Despite arguments that the term is viewed as “elitist,” or too quickly employed, particularly in the last presidential election cycle, as something imposed from above, web searches and social media conversations prove there’s an increasing interest.
It seems unlikely that the broader Hispanic-Latino label will disappear, since so much of the governmental apparatus, political strategies, and media marketing is dependent on it. But then there is the matter of how the rhetoric of hate does not seem to distinguish between the variations of Latin American descended people. The recent spate of attacks on Asian Americans fueled by Donald Trump blaming the Covid-19 pandemic on China and his constant name-calling has not spared non-Chinese Asians, with the latest high-profile incident in New York involving an immigrant from the Philippines. Latinos are often grouped together as targets of discrimination as well, often having their citizenship status questioned because of their appearance or Spanish-accented use of English.
There is a need for solidarity among people of Latin American descent despite our many racial, ethnic, linguistic, and religious differences. Yet at the same time, we don’t want to lose what makes us special by being Mexican, Puerto Rican, Dominican, Colombian, Salvadoran, Guatemalan, Black, Indigenous, women, or queer. Latinx might do the trick, but it serves everyone to remember the evolutionary journey from colored and Negro to Afro- and African American, and even “Black.” No matter how many changes and variations, what these times show is that the power to name should be reserved to those who history has long ignored.