This guest post by David Bowles dives into the origin and usage of the terms Hispanic, Latinx, Latine, and others. It was originally posted to Medium in December 2018. David is the author of numerous books for young readers, including The Witch Owl Parliament (Clockwork Curandera #1).
Let’s take stock of these two terms.
You/your ancestors came from a Spanish-speaking country formerly belonging to the Hispanic Monarchy. Argentina, Cuba, Colombia, Puerto Rica, the Dominican Republic, Mexico, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Panama, El Salvador, Bolivia, Chile, Ecuador, Paraguay, Peru, Uruguay, and Venezuela.
And, yeah, Spain. Yikes.
(This is why I personally dislike this term. It is too linked to colonialism for my comfort.)
You/your ancestors came from a Latin American country. That means you’re from Mexico, Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Cuba, French-speaking Caribbean nations, Central or South America (including Brazil, excluding English-speaking regions). Your people might speak French, Portuguese, or Spanish.
(Personally, of the two options, I prefer this.)
Now, given those two (admittedly imperfect and fraught) options, there are other dimensions to the use of “Latino.” It’s marked masculine. So we began to include “Latina” in English (much like folx might shout “brava” to an opera singer in the US, despite clearly not knowing Italian). Good first step.
But think about gender coding in English. Once it was fine to say “mankind” or “every student brought his book.” But, yeah, screw that. It’s “humanity” and “every student brought their book.” Men are not the most important gender. They shouldn’t be the default. And unimportant inanities like pronoun-antecedent agreement shouldn’t be used to shut down the dismantling of this bug in our language.
Spanish (differently from many indigenous languages … Nahuatl, for example) marks gender in most nouns. And that’s okay, generally speaking. But the big defect in Spanish is that there is no gender-neutral way of referring to a group of mixed-gender people. The plural masculine is used.
- la mexicana — the Mexican woman
- el mexicano — the Mexican man
- las mexicanas — the Mexican women
- los mexicanos — the Mexican men OR the Mexican people
Which, okay, it’s a deep feature of the language, but that’s no reason to just accept it, right? Why? Tradition? Whose? Linguistic evolution? Are we really going to use the fact that something evolved naturally as a moral defense of it? That’s a dark, dark path.
This bug in the language was first noticed by Spanish speakers in Latin America. Different ways to get around it have been devised. “Las ciudadanas y los ciudadanos,” a politician might say (“female and male citizens”). “Ciudadano/as” was form used in written text beginning in the 90s. Then it became “ciudadan@s” for some.
Also in the late 90s (many people from outside the US have claimed), anarchist youth and feminist protesters in parts of Latin America (mainly Argentina / Uruguay) and Spain started just crossing out the vowel “o” or just replacing it with an “x” on their posters and in their graffiti. “Ciudadanxs Unidxs,” these messages might’ve read, for example.
I have less solid evidence for this, beyond individual claims. Nonetheless, regardless of whether the “x” began in Latin America or not, I want to caution everyone reading against the arrogant supposition that Latin Americans needed US Latinx folx to teach them that Spanish has sexist elements. They figured that shit out for themselves long before we did.
Of course, no one intended for this replacement “x” to be pronounced as a /ks/ sound. In fact, some in Latin America started pronouncing it /e/ or straight-up using an “e.” It’s now the preferred way to make nouns gender-neutral.
The above bit of data will come as a shock to those of you who insist the “x” of Latinx is some Anglophone or assimilated leftist “Hispanic” invention to destroy la lengua materna or some such nonsense. It is very possible that people in the US adapted it, but didn’t invent it.
Even if queer, English-speaking Latinx folks did start this trend, however, Latin America was already hip-deep in efforts to dismantle the masculine default.
This dismantling is called inclusive language. And it doesn’t just stop with wanting to find a plural form that will include male and female genders. Not all human beings are male or female.
There are non-binary / genderqueer folx, too. So, in the US, as we struggled to find a way to make Latino/a plural, queer folks of Latin American heritage hit upon a solution that includes our non-binary siblings as well.
It can be pronounced several ways: using the same pattern as Latino (lah TEE nex, my preference) or in English (LAT in ex). A few people even delightfully say “lah TEENKS.”
And guess what? YOU DO NOT HAVE TO USE IT.
You don’t have to use Hispanic. You don’t have to use Latino or Latina or Latinx or (please let this win out) LATINE.
You can be Chicano or Mexican American or Boricua or WHATEVER THE HELL you want to be.
But, get this, friend. You don’t have the power / authority to stop others from using WHATEVER THE HELL they want for themselves or to refer to the nebulous collective we [mostly] mestizo folx from Cemanahuac make up.
I mean, we’re all willing to hear your suggestions. Just don’t be assholes.
Here’s one example. Activists in Mexico and the US Southwest have suggested “Nican tlacah,” Nahuatl for “the people from here.” But my concern is that, like Turtle Island, that would just be imposing another non-universal language on the rest of the Latin Americans who don’t have any “Aztec” heritage.
There are no easy solutions to this, amigxs, amigues mies, queridas amistades. But that doesn’t mean we should stop trying. And we should do it all with a spirit of respect, a desire to understand, a big-heartedness and acceptance of differences.
Give it a shot, raza.
For further reading, check out David’s Medium post “Latinx Primer for non-Latinx Folks.”
DAVID BOWLES is a Mexican American author from south Texas, where he teaches at the University of Texas Río Grande Valley. He has written several award-winning titles, most notably The Smoking Mirror and They Call Me Güero. His work has also been published in multiple anthologies, plus venues such as The New York Times, School Library Journal, Strange Horizons, English Journal, Rattle, Translation Review, and the Journal of Children’s Literature. In 2017, David was inducted into the Texas Institute of Letters. He is online at davidbowles.us and on Twitter at @DavidOBowles.