Growing up in Laredo, Texas, I’ve spent my entire life in the country’s fifth-least ethnically diverse city. Class roll calls were populated by many Cruz’s, Gonzalez’s, and Garcia’s, and I took advantage of the fact that I was constantly surrounded by people who shared my childhood experiences and outlooks on life. I, like most of my peers, learned Spanish before English. The staples of my culture, the food and festivities, were not mine but everyone’s. Before moving to Austin, I was ecstatic at the prospect of actual diversity and the unique opportunity I’d have to socialize with people from all different walks of life. Unfortunately, the culture shock was real. In most circles, whether in class or in my extracurricular activities, I was the only Latino around. All at once, I felt pride in being able to represent my community in a place where there was such a stark lack of representation, but I also felt slightly uncomfortable in my inability to fully relate to people of different backgrounds.
One of the most startling aspects of my transition was a word that has haunted me ever since arriving: Latinx [La-teen-ex]. I had never heard the word before, yet it was supposed to identify me and those like me. I was surprised that a word intended to promote inclusivity made me feel so alienated. Strangest of all, it wasn’t a word escaping the lips of fellow Hispanics, but rather those who didn’t know any better and wished not to offend my community. Professors, TA’s, and non-Latin peers all used the word as if it were the default. How had this foreign neologism become so pervasive throughout our culture?
One of the main issues I have with “Latinx” is that it breaks the rules of the Spanish language, following instead the gender rules of English, even though most of the “Latinx” community doesn’t speak English. Spanish, like French or Italian, is a gendered language with masculine and feminine nouns. For example, the Spanish word for chair is “silla.” This is a feminine noun, so you refer to chairs using the feminine article “la.”
In contrast, the word “the” is an English article that is gender-neutral, and thus can be used in all instances. No such gender-neutral counterpart exists in Spanish. Chairs don’t actually have a gender, but the rules of the Spanish language assign a gender to all nouns whether animate or inanimate. When referring to humans, the same rules apply. But, when referring to large groups or people who identify as gender-neutral, Spanish grammatical rules dictate the masculine noun is still used. This is why the term “Latinos” is utilized to refer to all people of Latin-American descent. In opposition to the use of the masculine noun, “Latinx” was born to identify the community as a whole or members of the LGBT community that don’t identify with a gender binary. The first problem is that it is unnecessary. The word “Latino” already exists and it fulfills the same purpose, and it would be hard to institute a giant cultural change like that, especially for older people within the community.
Beyond the fact that it’s unnecessary, it is also inherently inaccessible. “Latinx” is supposed to refer to people of Latin American descent, yet it is a term unpronounceable by most of the Latin American world. The term is pronounced “La-teen-ex,” but that last syllable uses the English pronunciation of the letter x. The only way to counteract this problem is by saying “La-teen-equis,” but I doubt this alternative will gain any traction. Of course, the accessibility problem is of no issue to Latinos who have had the privilege of growing up in the United States or with access to an English education, but that isn’t the reality for the majority of the Latin population.
I also fear the implications of the word’s use. As opposed to focusing on real issues plaguing the Latino community like teenage pregnancy, police brutality, social mobility, literacy rates, or immigration, the debate becomes centered on language. Using “Latinx” might make people feel like they’re doing enough to help the community, but it just distracts from real issues. Moreover, should we also be changing other gendered nouns like “amigos” or “niños” to “amigxs” or “niñxs”? Is that even pronounceable?
Finding a term to identify the Latino community has always been a contentious pursuit. The term “Hispanic” is widely used, but is problematic in that it only refers to Latin-American individuals that speak Spanish. This term ignores those that may speak Portuguese, which is the second most spoken language in South America, or any one of the various indigenous languages spoken all across the Latin world. There has even been pushback against Hispanic Heritage Month for its inherent exclusion of those same Latin groups. Before “Latinx,” terms like “Latin@” began to circulate as an attempt to be more inclusive. For those of Mexican descent, Chicano is used, but the gender-neutral Chicanx has also gained some traction, and even such variations like Xicano or Xicanx, which remove the “ch” to reject the notion of Western colonization. Most Latinos in the United States even prefer to identify with their country of origin, like Mexican-Americans or Colombian-Americans. For me, Latino has always been an effective umbrella term to unify all the different nationalities and ethnicities of the Latin American world.
Both “Latino” and “Latinx” are English inventions, but Latino has become more widely used because of its Spanish pronounceability. If you believe “Latino” truly does enforce the patriarchy through a masculine default, use “Latin” instead. Latin retains an accessibility to the entirety of the Latin-American world, and is already widely-used as an alternative. I fully understand the inclusive intentions of Latinx, and I will not hesitate to use it if someone truly prefers it, but I fear it alienates the majority of the people it’s supposed to designate. I myself am uncomfortable using a word created by English-speaking Latinos for English-speaking Latinos. The debate has helped propagate some important conversations. However, I want to take pride in the community and culture of my parents and grandparents — by being completely and unapologetically Latino.