Curiosity

What The Term ‘Latinx’ Means And Who Uses It

Some people of Latin American or Spanish descent embrace the term, but others don't relate to it.

If you’re one of the roughly 60 million people of Latin American or Spanish descent living in the U.S. you’ve probably been identified as Hispanic, Latino or Latina — and you’ve probably embraced it. But in more recent years, the term “Latinx” has gained popularity, but some people are still unsure of who it applies to and what exactly it means.

The origins of the word Latinx are unclear, though there’s evidence the “x” replaced the gendered “o” (male) and “a” (female) during the late 1990s, according to Dr. María R. Scharrón-del Río, a professor at the Department of School Psychology, Counseling, and Educational Leadership (SPCL) of the Brooklyn College of the City University of New York. She and co-author Alan Aja published a research paper this year with the American Psychological Association entitled “Latinx: Inclusive Language as Liberation Praxis.”

Courtesy of Maria Scharron del Rio

Because of its gender-neutral nature, Latinx is thought of as a queer-friendly term and, according to Scharrón-del Río, it was developed within the Spanish-speaking queer community in Latin America and its diaspora to challenge the gender binary. That said, she explains that a person’s preferred term is a personal choice. For example, a trans woman might prefer to identify as Latina, while others within the queer community might opt instead for Latine, another gender-neutral term.

In my experience, both professionally and personally, I’ve found Latinx has been embraced by the younger generation in the United States. However, many GenXers and Boomers reject Latinx, preferring to use Hispanic, Latina or Latino, or their country of origin plus “American” (i.e., “Mexican American”).

In an informal poll in a Facebook Latina group, one 63-year-old woman wrote, “I don’t understand the term Latinx, so I don’t use it.” Many of the older women agreed, saying they prefer the terms they’ve been using all of their lives, like Hispanic and Latina.

Meanwhile, those who do support using Latinx chimed in saying it was inclusive. Even many who aren’t part of the LGBTQ community opt to identify as Latinx.

“I prefer the term Latinx because it’s more inclusive. That’s the simple and truthful answer. I have a Mexican-American friend who is non-binary, and addressing them as Latina/o is completely ignoring their preferred pronouns. It’s rude,” Stephanie Melchor, 28, of San Antonio, Texas, wrote in a Facebook message to me. “So for me, referring to a group of people as Latinx feels like the correct way until I understand their pronouns. I identify as Latina. Latinx doesn’t harm me — but instead, it helps others feel more comfortable. And I’m all for that.”

Courtesy Stephanie Melchor

In recent years the surge of the use of Latinx has coincided with a broader movement to expand the terms used to identify people from Latin America. Hispanic refers to someone from Spain or another Spanish-speaking country, while Latinx encompasses Latin Americans, including those from countries like Brazil where the primary language isn’t Spanish. With the rise of Latinx, especially among the queer community, other marginalized communities have voiced their disconnect with Latino/a and Hispanic. Some people within those communities have embraced Latinx while others find it problematic.

Dr. Cristobal Salinas Jr., associate professor at Florida Atlantic University, says he’s spoken with individuals who feel Latinx is centered on the American aspects of a person’s identity, finding that it eliminates Latin American experiences and some believe it’s only used in the U.S.  Salinas found that people in some Latin American countries prefer the gender-neutral alternatives Latiné and Latinu over Latinx. He says the term also has other shortfalls.

“Latinx has only been applied to Spanish speakers just like ‘Hispanic.’ Both terms exclude Belize, Brazil, French Guiana, Guyana, and Suriname, and some indigenous communities. That is why Latine/i/u started being used,” he said, adding that he promotes the use of “Latin*” as a “space holder for people to self identify however they want.”

The Afro-Latino/a community has also voiced its disconnect with the term Latinx and Latinidad in general. Janel Martinez, writer and founder of the digital platform for Afro-Latinas “Ain’t I Latina,” recently spoke up about distancing herself from Afro-Latina, preferring instead to identify as “Garifuna,” which refers to descendants of an Afro-indigenous community in the Caribbean.

“A conversation-shifting hashtag #LatinidadIsCancelled, started by Afro-Indigenous (Zapotec) writer Alan Pelaez Lopez, outlines just how mestizx, white-centering, anti-Black, anti-Indigenous, and anti-queer the culture remains,” Martinez wrote in a piece for Vice about how Latinx is another form of erasure for Black people.

She added that this prompted those who identify as Afro-Latinx to reconsider the word and the Afro or Black used in conjunction with Latinx, as Latin America and Latinidad has historically ostracized the Black community. She writes that some “wonder whether ethnicity itself is enough to identify with Latinidad (a term used to describe the ‘shared culture’ of Latinxs).”

So, despite its origins as a term for inclusivity, Latinx remains polarizing for Latin Americans in the U.S. A little less than a quarter of U.S. adults who self-identify as Hispanic or Latino have heard of the term Latinx, and only 3% self-identify as Latinx, according to a nationally representative, bilingual survey of U.S. Hispanic adults conducted in December 2019 by Pew Research Center. The survey results align with my informal Facebook poll, with 42% of Latin American adults ages 18 to 29 having heard of the term as opposed to just 7% of those ages 65 or older.

Scharrón-del Río says the younger generation’s proclivity for inclusivity and representation is part of the reason Latinx is the preferred term for many.

“This resonates to younger generations who are challenging the oppressive and marginalizing processes in our society,” she said.

The terms used to identify Latin Americans in the U.S. are ever-evolving and specific to different countries such as Boricua/Nuyorican for Puerto Ricans in the U.S. and Chicana for Mexican-Americans. The latter is tied to the Chicano movement of the ‘60 and ‘70s, which grew as a form of resistance to assimilation and of pride in their indigenous roots.

“Only people who know the history and meaning of the Chicano movement have the political consciousness that leads them to adopting the term and understanding what it means to adopt that identity,” 29-year-old Barbie Carrasco from Los Angeles wrote in a Facebook message to me, saying she found a piece of herself that had been missing when she learned about the history of the term. “I know my roots and I know my purpose because of it. So I identify as Chicana and/or Mexican, not Latinx.”

Courtesy of Barbie Carrasco

The truth is there’s no single identifier that adequately summarizes a group of people with such diverse backgrounds spanning the 33 countries that encompass Latin America and the Caribbean. As an immigrant born in Argentina, I have always identified as Latina in the U.S., finding that to be the term best suited for me, partly because questionnaires don’t usually have a better option. I never identified as Hispanic but checked it off when there was no other option. But the increasing popularity of Latinx is a reminder that there’s power in how we identify. Even if Latinx isn’t currently the preferred term for a majority of the Latin American population in the U.S., it’s clear there’s a shift happening.

“The use of Latinx and Latine is an act of solidarity and resistance against the violence that racist, sexist, heterosexist, classist, xenophobic, ableist, and other oppressive structures inflict in our communities,” Scharrón-del Río said.