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  • Writer's pictureLet's Talk About Race

What does it mean to be Latinx?

Added to the Merriam Webster dictionary in 2018, Latinx is defined as "a person of Latin American origin or descent (used as a gender-neutral or nonbinary alternative to Latino or Latina)."

However, while the term has gained marked popularity in recent years, it has almost been marred by controversy, namely, who does the term apply to (and by relation, who should use the term?) While the term can be seen by many corporations looking to be cautious around correctly identifying their audience, the broad use of the term has already had backlash. For instance, many mocked or chastising President Biden on his recent use of the terms in a rally to get people immunized

“It’s awful hard as well to get Latinx vaccinated," the President said at a recent speech in North Carolina. "They’re worried they’ll be vaccinated and deported."

While part of the controversy stems from the conflation of the Latinx community with undocumented immigrants, there is also pushback from those being labeled as Latinx—who often find the term can be whitewashing and colonizing Spanish. According to a Pew Poll in August of 2020, only 3% of Hispanics use the term Latinx, despite it being a label ostensibly created for the Hispanic/Latino community.

So is there an answer? What is Latinx and how should we use it?

According to Dr. Cristobal Salinas, and foremost expert in the evolving use of the term, Latinx should be designated for those who don't feel encapsulated by the gender binary.

"So let's put it this way: we have Latino, Latina - And the two terms that allow us to self-identify in that way. But then we have a new term, which is "Latinx", which in the way that I describe it is a term that disrupts binary notions of gender, and it is a noun for individuals who do not identify with the men or women binary."

" I fear that if we continue to use the X for everyone instead of the specific gender pronoun with which participants or community members self-identified with, we will soon run into the same problem—— that the "X" will simply serve as a substitute for the "O" in Latino."

This distinction is an incredibly important one, as the term Latinx can empower those who identify as non-binary, but one must be careful not to engage in identity erasure of those that don't.

To give examples: Many "Latinas" have expressed feeling a great deal of pride of pride in the feminized identity of a term that often masculinized. Similarly, many transgender individuals have yearned their whole life to be identified by the gender they align with— and removing it from them can be feel insulting.

However by the same token, someone who would be non-binary (identified by "they" or "them" in English), would feel equally misgendered by being called "Latina" or "Latino", respectively.

So if latinas, latinos and latinx individuals can all exist individually, what is the best term to address a crowd collectively? In his work with college students, Dr. Salinas's attempted to answer this question.

"When I interview people and I engage with people, I ask them, "How do you self identify?" And they said, 'I am Latino' or 'I am Latina'. But as a community, everyone else is Latinx, to be inclusive of all."

"And what's interesting is that Latino men said, "I can be Latinx, but I am Latino. But I don't get offended if I get called Latinx".

In essence, an individual can identify by their individual gender pronoun (latino or latina), and also by a broader group identity of latinx. This would be similar to how a person could identify as man or woman, and also as American, as English is absent a gendered version of our nationality/ethnic origins.

However the final barrier to who should be called Latinx is generational, and stratified by education. Younger, more educated, and more North American Latinos and Latinas are much more likely to use the term Latinx, than their older, Souther American counterparts.

According to Pew, college graduates under 29 are over 6 times more likely to have heard of the term Latinx than those over 65. Furthermore those who grew up English dominant are over 4 times more likely to have heard the term than those who grew up speaking primarily Spanish.

"When I was interviewing students, what they said, 'Yeah, this term is only used in higher education spaces,"Dr. Salinas reports. "So they also seen Latinx as used in some communities outside of academia as a privilege term, as a term that is being used in elitist circles"

Furthermore students said there was lingering confusion over the previous naming convention shift from Hispanic to Latino.

"And I don't take [the term Latinx] back home because back home, my parents, my grandparents, my family members are still struggling between what is the difference between Latino and Hispanic. So if I bring a new term is like a battle, it's already the battle of the terms."

To hear more of my interview with Dr. Cristobal Salinas, checkout the episode "What Does it Mean To Be LatinX?"

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