Conversations around race and racial justice

Latinx is a term many still can't embrace

Latinx isn't a new term, and neither are the debates around its use.

According to a recent Pew Research Center national survey of Latinos, Latinx has not caught on. Only 3 percent say they use the term and it's mostly young people, ages 18 to 29, who have embraced it.

People like Daniela Muñoz, who is 25 and a senior at American University in Washington, D.C. She says that Latinx gives people the freedom to identify as they wish, "the "x" in Latinx is a placeholder for whatever you want it to mean," says the communications and culture major.

"There is a long history of discrimination in our communities, towards women and LGBTQ and Afro-Latinx," says Muñoz. "Are we doing enough or can we do more as a community to be more inclusive?" Muñoz describes herself as heterosexual and uses she/her/hers pronouns.

Muñoz was born in Ecuador and came to the United States when she was 4 with her Ecuadoran father and Dominican mother, she says. Her parents didn't know the term Latinx until recently and they don't agree with it. "They think that it's not necessary," Muñoz says.

Muñoz's parents are in good company. According to Pew's survey, only 23 percent of Hispanic adults have heard of the term Latinx.

Mark Hugo Lopez, director of global migration and demography research at Pew, spoke with NPR's Code Switch about the survey's findings. Lopez said there is evidence that Latinx has been around since 2004, "but it did start to rise in use, especially after the Pulse nightclub shooting," in Orlando, Fla., in 2016.

Merriam-Webster added Latinx to its dictionary in September 2018, and Pew has found that more lawmakers are using Latinx on social media.

For generations, people born or descended from Spanish-speaking nations have been dubbed Hispanic, after the U.S. Census Bureau added the term as an ethnic category in 1970; Latino or Latina are also used, though neither has been fully embraced. Culture experts say the majority of people identify by country of origin.

David Vazquez is a professor of race, gender and culture studies at American University. He teaches the history of Latinx and says his students seem to have consensus on the use of the term. He identifies himself as cisgendered, heterosexual.

Vazquez says that as Hispanics increasingly identified as Latino in the '80s and '90s, some Chicano and Latina feminists felt uncomfortable with the masculine term. The idea to find a more gender-neutral term took shape, he says.

Latinx was asserted mostly by people who are gender nonconforming, says Vazquez, but today "most people who use the term are open about gender non-conformity, they look for opportunities to be politically progressive and they look for opportunities to be inclusive."

He sees the value of using Latinx in political coalition building, but also in signaling solidarity with historically oppressed groups.

One problem holding back the use of Latinx, he says, is "certain parochialism around the policing of Spanish." Some argue that Latinx is not Spanish enough, but Vazquez says they need to remember that "Spanish ... is the original language of colonization."

Ilan Stavans teaches Latin American and Latino Culture at Amherst in Massachusetts. "Eliminating centuries of a structural approach to language seems to me quixotic," he says.

Stavans identifies himself as Jewish Mexican American heterosexual and says he supports political changes connected to gender and sexuality, but he cringes at Latinx. "It is very difficult to, if not impossible, to shake up the structure of a language to reflect changes in such a short period of time."

"We don't all of a sudden decide that we're not going to use such an important feature of the romance languages," says Stavans whose expertise extends to language and words.

Romance languages such as Spanish and French are gender-based. In Spanish a table is feminine and a tree is masculine, for example, "and that's so deeply rooted in the language," Stavans says.

María R. Scharrón-del Río is a psychologist and an associate dean of education at Brooklyn College, they and Alan Aja wrote Latinx: Inclusive Language As Liberation Praxis. Scharrón-del Río identifies herself as queer.

Language is an intervention tool, says Scharrón-del Río, "it saves lives." They say that using the right pronouns and the right names has a positive impact on people.

Scharrón-del Río says that Latinx often "creates discomfort" because it reclaims the history of LGBTQ Latinos and Latinas who have been overlooked and neglected.

Scharrón-del Río says despite the Pew data, they hope Latinx sticks around.

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