Conversations around race and racial justice

For some community members, ‘Latinx’ misses the mark

A young man in a blue shirt with green trees behind him.
Nova Classical Academy senior Evan Odegard Pereira, pictured at St. Catherine University near his home in St. Paul, Minn., on Thursday. Odegard Pereira won a New York Times op-ed contest for a piece in which he explains why he does not identify with the label Latinx.
Evan Frost | MPR News

Latinx. It’s a word that causes confusion not only among the general population but also among the very people it is supposedly meant to identify.

Evan Odegard Pereira, a student at Nova Classical Academy in St. Paul, tackled the subject of the word’s use in an op-ed he wrote as part of a contest for the New York Times. The 16-year-old’s piece was one of 10 winners out of more than 11,000 entries from around the world.

Odegard Pereira, who is of Costa Rican heritage, doesn’t identify with the term. He sees it as a word that has been imposed on Latinos by those outside the community — including politicians and corporations.

He said the use of the word is a “bit performative.”

“A lot of people see language and the language that we use to talk about social issues as sort of a trend. And it really shouldn’t be a trend, it should be about respect. And it should be about calling people what they want to be called,” Odegard Pereira said in an interview. “I think that there are a lot of Latino voices that aren’t being heard on this issue.”

He said politicians and corporations may be using the term as a way to seek out the Latino community, but an overwhelming majority of Latinos don’t identify with the label.

A Pew Research report found that only 3 percent use the term — meaning 97 percent do not identify as Latinx (pronounced “latin-EX”).

How it started

The origins of the terms are murky. It first appeared in the early 2000s but has gained traction in the past two or three years. The word is used to be gender-inclusive, replacing the “a” or “o” in Latina or Latino with the X. Spanish, like the other Romance languages, is gendered. If a group includes both men and women, traditionally the masculine form of the word will be used to describe the group.

The push to make terms for the Latino community more gender-inclusive can be traced to at least the 1960s and the Chicano Movement, said Jessica Lopez Lyman, assistant professor in Chicano and Latino studies at the University of Minnesota.

Spanish is typically masculine and refers to men, Lopez Lyman said.

“Women fought very hard to make sure they also had a voice in the movement, despite facing a lot of different forms of patriarchy,” she said.

At one point the term to use was Latino/a, which then evolved into Latin@.

“The idea being that gender is fluid, and gender is a spectrum. And so we see that being taken up by people who are activists, who are artists, and also academics,” she said, referring to the use of the “at'“ symbol.

But how do you pronounce the “at” symbol?

Lopez Lyman isn’t sure. “But the motivation is, again, to represent people’s genders more accurately,” she said.

Eventually the term evolved yet again to Latinx.

“The purpose of the ‘X’ is to push against a gender binary,” she said.

It’s intended to show that gender is not just masculine or feminine, Lopez Lyman said, and is “meant to be more inclusive for gender non-conforming and trans individuals who might not see themselves in the ‘a’ or in the ‘o’.”

But she acknowledges that some people might not see themselves in the ‘X’.

‘Calling us what we want to be called’

Odegard Pereira said he and his friends don’t use the label. He said those outside the Latino community who use the term don’t understand it. And many Latinos do not feel represented by the term, Odegard Pereira said.

“We feel it doesn’t really describe us, and is being used by people who don’t understand us. And I think that’s not really the message that the people using this term would want to give. I think people, usually when they use this term are trying to reach out to the community,” Odegard Pereira said. “Alienation is one of the big problems. I think the solution to that problem would be calling us what we want to be called, respecting our preferences and just going with our preferred terms.”

The word Latinx can tend to be an overarching umbrella term, Lopez Lyman said.

“I personally see myself as a Chicana. I use the term Latinx because it’s understood in spaces that I’m part of, but that would not be my first choice for identity,” she said.

When speaking with her students, one point she raises is how Latino terminology gets co-opted.

“It’s really important that we continuously define ourselves for ourselves in our communities,” Lopez Lyman said.

Language is often seen as being tied to culture.

In his op-ed, Odegard Pereira wrote, “Language changes over time, but such adaptations must be organic. Forced changes from outside our community are a form of linguistic imperialism, which centers the English language and perpetuates cultural erasure. At its core, this is an issue of linguistic self-determination.”

Language is fluid, Lopez Lyman said. Linguists, she said, tell us that as long as we can understand one another, language will continually evolve to reflect current realities.

In fact, she said, among some of her students the term Latinx is already outdated. They prefer the term Latine, pronounced “Latin-AY.”

“I think that it’s not a problem to change. I think that people that want to hold on to a purity of Spanish actually need to do some self-reflection about how they’re holding on to a colonial legacy that does not serve our people,” she said.

To those who want to be an ally to the community, the simple solution on knowing what term to use is to ask.

“Asking before assuming, and that can look as simple as saying, ‘I hear people say Latinx, do you have a preference for how you’d like to be identified?’” Lopez Lyman said.

Through her own involvement in the community and research of Latina artists in Minnesota, Lopez Lyman has come across unique takes on self-identification. Some call themselves “SotaRicans” — Puerto Ricans born in Minnesota. Others refer to themselves as Minnesotanas, meaning Latinas from Minnesota.

“And I love it,” she said of the distinct identities people have claimed. “We’re such a creative, vibrant community.” 

Vicki Adame covers Minnesota’s Latino communities for MPR News via Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues and communities.

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