Experts explain what Latinx means and how to use it

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Latinx, a gender neutral alternative to Latina and Latino, is a term that has recently made its way into popular culture. The term is used to describe the diverse group of people with roots in Latin America. Since the Spanish language classifies most words as masculine or feminine, the term Latinx was born out of an act of solidarity with LGBTQIA+ people who may not want to be classified as masculine or feminine. Latinx is an intersectional term that aims to include all people of Hispanic descent.

“Latinx is an inclusive term that can collectively refer to people who identify within and outside the gender binary,” said Alan Aja, a professor in the Department of Puerto Rican and Latin Studies at Brooklyn College, City University of New York, and Maria Scharrón – del Río, a professor in the School Counseling Program at the same institution.

What is the origin of the word Latinx?

The term Latinx emerged from the Spanish-speaking gay community to challenge the binary gender, Aja and Scharrón-del Río explain. While the exact origin of the term is unclear, its use can be traced back to online queer community forums. Some researchers have found the early use of the “x” in place of the sex-linked “o” and “a,” dating to the late ’90s. However, the term became popular recently, following the devastating Pulse Massacre in 2016, the mass shooting that took place at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida.

“We found that Latinx was more widely used after the pulse massacre,” say Aja and Scharrón-del Río. “Perhaps as an act of defiance, solidarity and visibility of non-binary gender identities like the LGBTQ+ [community] was attacked.”

What are the differences between the terms Latino, Latina and Hispanic?

Since Spanish is a language with grammatical gender, certain words are used to describe men and others to describe women. “Latino and Latina are gender variants of Latinx,” explains Eve Rosenfeld, a Ph.D. candidate in psychology at the University at Buffalo investigating identity invalidation in black and white Latinxs. “Latino includes only male groups of Latinx individuals, as well as mixed groups of Latinx individuals. Latina includes only female groups of Latinx individuals.

However, some say that using Latina and Latino can be exclusive and unfair. “Use of these gender-linked terms ignores those with genders outside the male-female binary. In addition, the gender terms center males over females,” Rosenfeld says.

Yael Rosenstock Gonzalez, author and identity coach, explains for non-Spanish speakers. “An English equivalent of Latino is the use of ‘humanity’ to refer to all people,” she says. “While ‘humanity’ also includes women and possibly other genders, the name is inherently masculine.”

The term Hispanic, on the other hand, refers to an ethnic group in the United States that has its cultural origins in Spanish-speaking countries. You can find the term on any federal or state form, college application, or employment papers. However, the label is marked as problematic by members of the Latinx community. The use of Spanish assumes that every Latinx individual speaks Spanish, while they may only speak their native languages; it also excludes Brazilians because they speak Portuguese. In addition, Spanish was first used on US census forms in 1980 and has been linked to a whitening ideology. According to writer Araceli Cruz in her article “The Problematic History of the Word ‘Spanish’,’” it is a term with racist undertones and has been described as laundering the unique heritage of Latinx people.

How do you pronounce Latina? How do you use it in a sentence?

Latinx is usually pronounced “Latin-EX”. It is also sometimes pronounced “la-TEE-nex” or “La-TEENKS.”

Here are the different ways you can use the term in a sentence, Rosenfeld explains:

  • It can be used as an adjective: Latinx Americans, Latinx members of the LGBT+ community

  • It can also be used as a noun: Latinxes in academia often face micro-aggressions and discrimination.

  • It can be used separately (I’m a Latinx woman) or plural (Latins are the fastest growing population in higher education).

  • It can describe individuals (I identify as Latinx) and groups (Latinxes living in Southern California).

Why do some people have a problem with the term Latinx?

While Latinx is a word created with inclusivity in mind, not everyone supports its use. Some people think that Latinx is an elitist term mainly used in academic settings. It has also been termed as a form of “linguistic imperialism,” which means that some think that the term Latinx stands for English controlling the Spanish language in a way that is inconsistent with the grammar or conventional way of speaking. Since Latinx doesn’t sound like other words in Spanish, it can also potentially alienate non-English speaking people of Hispanic descent.

Rosenstock Gonzalez offers an alternative: the term “Latin” (pronounced La-TEEN or Latin-EH). She says: “Using ‘e’ has no gender associations. For example Latine, elles, todes, amigues – all of which are easier to integrate into the Spanish sounds that already exist and therefore easier to sell to Spanish speakers.”

While a single word may never perfectly describe such a diverse and rich culture, the use of deliberate language counts. “The use of Latinx and Latine is an act of solidarity and resistance to the violence that racist, sexist, heterosexist, classist, xenophobic, skilled and other oppressive structures inflict on our communities,” say Aja and Scharrón-del Río.

Natalia Sylvester, author of the YA novel Run of a Latinx teen whose father is running for president, says, “The term Latinx may not be perfect, but a willingness to change (and more importantly, to listen to the LGBTQ community about it) is vital. “

How can I be an ally of Latinx people?

Given the escalating violence against Latinx people, allies must step up to the plate. To start, use whatever language they ask you to use. Then listen, tune and act.

“Being an ally of Latinx people means first and foremost recognizing the legitimacy of the term and respecting one’s choice to use it, even if you choose not to use it,” said Nicholas Patino, a Miami photographer and community leader.

Rosenfeld offers an imperative: “The most important thing to do as an ally is to listen, non-defensively,” she says. “Support our causes. Fight against ICE. Dismantle your own racism. Do not invalidate our identity, even if our appearance differs from your expectations. Don’t assume things about us based on our identity. We are not all immigrants. We don’t all speak Spanish. We are extremely diverse. Recognize that diversity. Center your alliance around our voices.”

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