I’ve written before about my love of language, the importance of the words we choose to describe the richness of our lives. I used to think that this respect for language meant that I should fiercely protect the forms and structures that I’d been raised and educated to believe were the “correct” ones. It’s embarrassing to admit now but that’s why, for example, it was a little difficult for me at first to adapt to the use of non-gendered pronouns like they/them, which are rightfully becoming the norm today. “Arggghhhh, that’s not grammatically correct,” my narrow little mind would scream. It’s especially embarrassing to admit this as someone who studied linguistics, someone who should know that language is a fluid concept that evolves in tandem with the culture it represents and describes. It makes absolutely no sense to argue that our changing realities should adapt to structures that have always been and will always be fluid. The structures must adapt to us. Not the other way around.
I was reminded of all of this over the weekend, after several conversations with different groups of friends about the use of the term “Latinx.” For those not familiar, the term first began to gain popularity sometime in the mid 2000s as a more inclusive way to refer to people of Latin American descent, particularly those in the United States. The history of how we have traditionally been described, or categorized, in this country is unsurprisingly fraught. Without going too deep into the nerdy details, “Hispanic” was first popularized in the 1970s as a catchall to refer to people from Spanish-speaking countries, and first appeared in the U.S. Census in 1980. However, critics of the term pointed out, among other things, that not all people in Latin America speak Spanish and that the word centered a very European (i.e., colonizer) view of the region. Accordingly, “Latino”/“Latina” was increasingly favored as a way to acknowledge descendants of native cultures and other places where Spanish is not the primary language, Brazil being the most obvious example.
Now we are once again faced with a new intersection of culture and language. The Spanish language is inherently gendered. The neutral article “the,” for instance, translates into either “el,” in its masculine form (as in “el carro”: the car) or “la,” in its feminine form (as in “la silla”: the chair). In a world where our understanding of gender and non-binary identities is constantly evolving, such gendered language was bound to hit a wall of necessary self-reflection. Hence, Latinx appears as a way to circumvent the issue and has steadily grown in popularity over the years to where it was finally added to the Merriam-Webster dictionary in 2018. But, oh, do people have feelings about this!
One of the main criticisms I’ve found in researching this, is that attempting to essentially un-gender a Spanish term is itself imposing a U.S.-centric approach to language. While I am usually the first to be up in arms about our knack for appropriating and “Americanizing” other cultures, I am not persuaded that that is what is happening here. To be clear, I am not concerned with how the Spanish language will itself evolve to adapt to this culture shift. I have opinions on it of course, but who am I to speak to how people in other countries and their languages evolve. In adopting the terms Latino or Latina, we English-speakers in the U.S. have chosen to also adopt the gendering of the term. Its usage here, and only its usage here, in the United States is what I am attempting to address today. My native language is Spanglish, y’all, a uniquely American dialect, so in that sense I feel particularly qualified to weigh in on this specific issue, and I don’t understand the view that adopting “Latinx” in and of itself imposes anything on the Spanish-speaking world. As always, I welcome anyone to enlighten me. I love to learn.
Another criticism of adopting “Latinx” is that, while recognition of the term itself is increasing, only a small minority of folks are actually using it. A 2019 Pew Research poll of adults of Latin American descent in the United States, found that while almost a quarter were familiar with the term, only 3 percent were actually using “Latinx” regularly. This is another concern that, when introduced as an argument against adopting “Latinx,” I have to admit I also do not understand. From my perspective, the fact that few people are using a relatively new word is no reason to dismiss it outright. In fact, a closer look at the poll numbers shows that in younger age groups (18-29) the term is recognized by 42 percent, and used by 7 percent, of those surveyed. This seems to indicate that the shift is generational, and thus will likely only increase as younger generations enter the conversation. I also suspect that if that same group of people surveyed were asked about whether they support or even recognize the rights of queer, transgender, or non-binary folks, that number would unfortunately likely be significantly lower than 25 percent. Does that mean then that we should follow their lead and deny human beings their right to exist? I hope not.
Which leads to what, in practice, seems to be the most often cited reason for avoiding Latinx in formal settings: the desire to stay out of the “politics” of it all. I have the least patience with this argument, to be honest. Oxford Dictionary defines politics as “the activities associated with the governance of a country or other area, especially the debate or conflict among individuals or parties having or hoping to achieve power.” The way I see it, our evolving understanding of gender is a matter of science, not politics. It only becomes political when we allow personal beliefs, whether ours or those of others, to govern the very right of a people to exist. Non-binary folks are not demanding that everyone go out and get a pride flag tattooed on their forehead. By advancing the use of non-gendered language they are merely asking to not be erased. Why do we fight so vehemently against that? And yes, I recognize that the cultural shift has been made political, so if you are against the recognition of gender-fluid identities, then by all means stand up and shout it from the rooftops. But if your position is that you are better off not taking a position, guess what? You already did.
For me, it’s a no-brainer. Sure, the word is clunky; it doesn’t roll off the tongue. My Spanish-speaking, non-U.S.-living cousins and aunts and uncles are going to probably look at me sideways every time I use it in their presence. And I hear those of you who further question the “Latin” root of the word as still not being inclusive enough. But Latinx is the best we’ve got for now, and if I’m picking a side, I will err on the side of inclusion. Always.
Martha E. Menendez, Esq. is the Bernstein Senior Fellow at the UNLV Immigration Clinic.