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Latino/a/x: The Debate on Gender-neutral Spanish Terms

How does the Spanish-speaking community really feel about ‘Latinx’?


CREDIT: Michael Ainsworth/Associated Press Photo


 

When we’re examining Hispanic Heritage Month, which starts on September 15 and lasts until October 15, we have to ask ourselves: What does ‘Hispanic’ even mean? Many have criticized the continued use of the term as it excludes some nationalities simply because those communities predominantly don’t speak Spanish—like Brazil and Haiti, to name a few.


The obvious answer to solve this moral dilemma would be to just adopt a term that recognizes more of the people who have contributed to our culture—the first answer popping into many people’s heads being ‘Latinx.’ But, it doesn’t come without baggage.


If you’ve been online at any time during the past few years, you’re probably familiar with this word and have seen it go from being used interchangeably with ‘Latino’ to virtually replacing it. So, how did we get to this point?


Spanish is a heavily gendered language that defaults to the generic masculine form, which is not surprising considering it originated thousands of years ago in a patriarchal society. Every noun is gendered and generic nouns assume the masculine form—Ew. Recall your high school Spanish class that taught you that there could be 100 women and 1 man in a room, and you would have to refer to them as “ellos.” With the expansion of gender expression and fluidity in the past few years, several languages have had to adjust to incorporate different identities—Latinx included. The term emerged in the last few years and nobody really knows exactly who came up with it, but it was allegedly created in the early 2000s by LGBT Latin-American activists as a gender-neutral alternative to ‘Latino’ and the corresponding feminine ‘Latina.’


Although it took about a decade for it to catch on, it’s now considered an acceptable way to refer to people of Latin-American descent, regardless of gender orientation. Latinx has replaced its traditional counterpart online, on college campuses and anywhere dominated by younger, politically aware people. The way this term has seeped into the online consciousness so quickly would make you believe there was some mass agreement among the Latin-American community about how we want to be addressed. A study done by the Pew Research Center in 2020 found that this could not be further from the truth: only about one-fourth of U.S. Hispanics have even heard of the term, and only 3% use it. The data doesn’t lie: not many people within the community are willing to use the term, signaling they may not align or feel comfortable with accepting it as their ethnic identity.


The Royal Spanish Academy, the council of several old Spaniards who have the deciding authority on what is or isn’t a Spanish word, has rejected ‘Latinx’ and the ‘Latine’ alternative for several years now because they believe ‘Latino’ is inclusive enough. Some critics of ‘Latinx’ have even said the term is offensive, such as the -x ending being an Anglicization of a Romance language and it being difficult to pronounce for native Spanish speakers. Even so, there are still many who appreciate having an umbrella term.


If the very people who are supposed to be categorized by this word can’t identify with it, then is it really as inclusive as we think it is?

Falling outside of the gender binary in a Latin American country is an extremely difficult existence. Homophobia and transphobia still plague the region— although, steps toward equal rights have been made in the past decade. Argentina became the first country in Latin America to recognize non-binary people on official documents, with an X replacing the traditional male or female response for gender. Activists in these countries have been having these conversations about gender-inclusive terms long before ‘Latinx’ became a part of the progressive American vocabulary.


For those opposed to ‘Latinx’: meet ‘Latine.’ The term is a gender-neutral one that solves two of the most common complaints against Latinx: it is not Anglicized and it is easier for native Spanish speakers to pronounce. Some progressive circles have adopted an ‘e’ ending to replace the ‘o’ or ‘a’ in pronouns, such as saying “elles'' instead of “ellos.” The term “elle'' was officially recognized by the old Ethpanoles (read: the Royal Spanish Academy) as a new pronoun in 2020, along with other words like “transfobia.” These alternatives might be more widely embraced in the future since they originate from within the community, so it eases the feeling of having the Spanish language policed by outsiders.


When you boil it down for most people, the biggest issue with ‘Latinx’ is it becoming a form of compulsive activism. When we chose to say this word over any others, is it with the conscious intent to support gender-nonconforming people, or is it just because everyone else is doing it?


Maybe, just maybe, the push-back with arbitrary words in our communities comes down to the desire to group all Latin-Americans into one monolith. The United States has struggled with categorizing us for decades now, and this might be another term used to simplify the complexity and variety of Latin-American identities. A lot of the resistance towards ‘Latinx’ stems from the way our community is constantly expected to accept the labels pushed onto us by The White Man— labels that are more often limiting than not. We can’t deny the fact that the term became so commonplace in the first place as a result of non-Hispanics embracing it far more than Hispanics have.


Historically, several different ethnic and racial demographics thriving in Latin America are grouped into one ethnicity when in the United States. Change is difficult to acclimate to, especially when it comes to ethnicity and gender. Having these conversations about homophobia and transphobia in the community while also acknowledging the performative motivations and nuances of expecting a diverse group of people to conform to one label.


If we blindly use these types of words just because we feel compelled to and not because we actually care about those we are advocating for, we are being more performative than progressive. ‘Latinx’ had the good intentions of normalizing gender neutrality and non-binary identity in Spanish-speaking communities, but the way it has been rejected and ignored by the very people to whom it was supposed to resonate with defeats its purpose. Finding a term that is both accepted by a majority of the community and accommodates all gender identities would be the most efficient form of true activism.


As a cisgender woman, I really can’t speak. My perspective is limited, but I do know we have to change with the times and adopt genderqueer and non-binary people within our culture, and that means our language. If Latinx or any other term that supports equality among gender identities, I’m more than willing to accommodate. While it does have its flaws, it’s still a productive step towards something that is long overdue. It’s time to accept everyone, not just the few who are fortunate enough to feel seen by conventional labels.


 

Emilia Cardenas-Perez is an online and print writer for Rowdy Magazine. She enjoys fruit bowls, mafia movies, online shopping and ranting about her thoughts on niche subjects. You can reach her on Instagram @emiliaaandreaa or by email emiliacardenas@ufl.edu.

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