The Conundrum of Latinx

Is it really true that a rose by any other name would smell as sweet? Maybe not, especially if the rose is a word that has only recently entered the lexicon and, in the process, created an ample amount of pique, confusion, and, for good measure, mystery among sixty million Americans. The word is Latinx. Never heard of it? Then, some quick history.

The term first appeared in the early part of the 21st century. It was as much a clarion call of inclusion and identity as one of separation and distinction. It was also an unmistakable but peaceful wave of a flag carried by new and growing voices in a mosaic Latino community.

While there are a few theories as to the word’s origins, it is inarguable that a few groups using the term, if not exclusively then at least more consistently, are younger Latinos and a more vocal and political Latino LGBTQ community. A growing number of Latino and non-Latino academics and professionals have also become allies.

But while the term carries with it an undiluted message of clarity, even independence, by those who’ve adopted it, Latinx still has a ways to go before it catches on in a significant, mainstream way with the nation’s sixty-million-plus Latinos. Currently, the term is more boutique than big box and still searching to find its sweet spot in the political and social vernacular.

“I have never warmed up to it,” said San Antonio Express News columnist, Elaine Ayala. Her newspaper, said the veteran journalist, has no official policy on the term and Ayala uses it only sparingly. “I prefer to use the labels (people) use for themselves.” In San Antonio, she said that is usually Latino and Latina or Mexican American.

Graphic from Pew Research Center

The National Association of Hispanic Journalists, a body of more than 2,300 reporters, writers, editors, and other news professionals, while acknowledging Latinx as new coinage, has also not taken a position on the term. “We’re flexible in its use,” said NAHJ President Nora López. “We think what’s most important is to use the term if it’s the preferred term of the person you are interviewing…that’s always the best course.”

The classroom, however, is a whole different story, said Adriana Nieto, Associate Professor and Chair of the Chicano-Chicana Studies Program at Denver’s Metropolitan State University. Not surprisingly, Nieto’s classrooms are populated with a mostly younger set, some of whom identify as LGBTQ. “When we teach our classes,” said Nieto, “one of the first things we talk about is nomenclature.” It’s important, she said, to make sure students understand “the different contexts where those terms have been used.” Terms of identification change over time, said Nieto.

Indeed, there is a transitory nature connected with words once acceptable and used in identifying ethnic groups. The most obvious examples are terms used during the last century to identify African Americans, either on official forms or even in normal conversation. They were terms also used by African Americans. A quick scan of old movies, television shows–including news broadcasts–or an examination of not-that-long-ago newspapers and magazines documents the usage of words like “negro” or “colored.” The words were not only considered normal and acceptable, but used as a matter of course and considered inoffensive in those days. Today, use of either is considered inappropriate or simply ignorant at best.

But if there is any realistic hope that Latinx will one day become the dominant identifier for the nation’s fastest growing ethnic population, it has some catching up to do. In a 2020 poll, the Pew Research Center found that less than one-quarter of U.S. Latinos were even aware of the word and only 3% of Latinos used it. 

Anna Gonzalez-Barrera, Senior Researcher at the Pew Research Center, confirmed the poll findings in a recent conversation. “Very few people even knew about it,” she said. Where it has found its niche, said Gonzalez-Barrera, is among younger people. “They are more likely to use it, also some Latinas.” Others comfortable with Latinx, the polling showed, are people with more education, “people who have attended college.”

With Latinx lagging as a self-identifier, the poll asked which term Latinos are most comfortable with and prefer. Gonzalez-Barrera answered that it was overwhelmingly Latino or Hispanic. Still, Latinx is not destined for oblivion, she said. “I think it might stay for a while. We are planning more research.”

But the fluidity of language doesn’t stop with a single word, including Latinx. Ever-evolving social movements regularly inspire and propel new terms that while perhaps odd-sounding or initially offending to the ear, ultimately find their place in
everyday usage.

It may not happen soon, but more gender-neutral words are waiting in the wings to take their place alongside or, one day, supplant Latino and Hispanic. Latin@ and Latine are two such examples. Other terms, both carrying a torch for Mexican roots, are Chicanx, 21st century homage to Chicano and Xicanx, a nod to pre-Columbia Mexico where ‘x’ appears in scores of words. Xoxocotl, for example, means ‘sour.’ Xochitla, meaning garden or orchard, is another.

Latino baby boomers, key movers in the social renaissance of the ‘60s and ‘70s, do not seem keen on this new moniker. Rudy Cuellar, a self-described “old school Chicano” is a northern California artist and long-standing member of a group that calls itself the “Rural Chicano Air Force.” Cueller sums up succinctly his feelings about Latinx: “Here we go again,” he said from his home in a recent phone interview. “The schools are ripe for that (expletive).”

Still respectful of people who choose new words for self-identification, the “old school” artist says he has two granddaughters “who have gone that way” and identify as Latinx. Nonetheless, he remains firmly in the camp of Hispanic, a word he says is perfectly simple, clear, and descriptive. Also, said Cuellar, “Businesses prefer Hispanic because it’s
very inclusive.”

Though Cuellar sees no future with him for the 21st century descriptor, Latinx, he concedes its introduction is simply language evolution. “It’s not a fight to fight…it’s a pendulum. It goes to the left and swings back. It’s just constant.” 

Latinx may be the “Rodney Dangerfield” of ethnic appellations. While it may be growing in popularity among some groups, it is failing miserably for full-scale acceptance among Latino or Hispanic as a term
of identification. 

Editor’s Note: The piece is the first installment of a series featuring writers of color from across the community, who select topics of their choosing. This project is made possible by the “Advancing Equity in Local News” grant facilitated by The Colorado Media Project to support more diverse voices in media.

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