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Merriam-Webster Dictionary has officially added ‘Latinx’ to its catalog. But what does the word mean, who uses it, and why are some denouncing this change?
The word ‘Latinx’ [la-TEE-neks] offers a gender-neutral alternative to ‘Latino’ and ‘Latina.’ In English, there has been a linguistic departure from using gendered terms like ‘policeman’ and ‘guys’ to refer to mixed groups of people. Spanish grammar, however, is highly gendered, making it difficult to refer to anything without specifying a gender. The United States has a large Latin American population who use both Spanish and English, and it is from this bilingual community that ‘Latinx’ was born.
The term functions two ways: it can refer to a community or group of people or to an individual identity. The LGBTQ community – particularly those who don’t identify as male or female – find the term useful for its non-specificity.
‘Latinx’ has been around since the mid-2000s but has risen in popularity in recent years. Notably, Google searches for the word spiked after the Pulse nightclub shooting in June 2016, which hit Orlando, Florida’s LGBTQ Latinx population hardest. Until that moment, the term was used most frequently by LGBTQ communities, but national attention on the tragedy also brought national attention to the word.
“There is a generational and a cultural divide as to who uses the term,” says David Reyes, a New York comedian and community health advocate. Reyes, who mostly identifies as Latino, regularly uses the word ‘Latinx’ in his public work. “For me, ‘Latinx’ is a way for me to signal to other Latin Americans that we are a new generation of people with our own unique culture. My parents grew up in El Salvador, in a different world than I did. ‘Latinx’ is a way for me to hold on to the heritage of my parents as well as add my own experiences.”
For Roberto Rodriguez Estrada, a writer based in Oakland, California, the word ‘Latinx’ is about their personal identity. “I identify as Latinx primarily because I think it’s the most effective way to make an intervention in the binaristic gender markers inherent in the Spanish language,” says Estrada. “More than that, as a non-binary person, it feels truest to me – especially having parents whose notions of gender are rooted in both their language and their [Nicaraguan] culture. It’s been easier to explain non-binary identity to my parents by using the -x as a way for folks to represent themselves when their gender identities don’t cohere with gendered linguistic rules and conventions.”
Detractors say that Spanish is an inherently gendered language and are uncomfortable with changing tradition. In 2013, the Real Academia Española in Spain – the institution responsible for maintaining the stability of the Spanish language – released a statement arguing for the traditional methods of referring to mixed-gender groups with masculine endings and against the changes happening in the Spanish-speaking world. The influence of the RAE is not as strong in Latin America as it is in Spain, and its directives have little material impact on how people actually speak. The organization represents traditionalists uncomfortable with outside influences on the language.
Others complain that ‘Latinx’ does not make sense in the Spanish language. “We rarely use the ‘x’ in Spanish as it is,” writes José García Escobar, a journalist based in Guatemala. “It didn’t catch on. People in Latin America are using the ‘e’ instead of the ‘x.’” As Escobar explains, the ‘e’ as an alternative for ‘a/o’ endings starting becoming popular around 2017. Before that, many writers would use both the feminine and masculine article, for example “los y las maestras” to refer to a group of teachers.
Evolution is integral to a language’s survival. It means that people are using the language and adapting it to fit their changing needs. Both English and Latin American Spanish have lost the use of the formal you (‘thou’ in English and ‘usted’ in Spanish more recently) as ideas around class have shifted. English has also struggled with the use of a singular ‘they’ when referring to non-binary people. Though linguistic changes can divide as well as unite, these linguistic difficulties are part of deeper cultural trends that open up important conversations about identity and selfhood.