PHOENIX — Just one letter – “x”– has spurred death threats, sparked arguments and reverberated throughout a community.
The “x” marks the intersection where masculine and feminine are dropped in the Latino/Latina culture, rolling out a new, controversial label for those who don’t identify as masculine or feminine. Those who identify as Latinx are part of an emerging and increasingly visible group known as genderqueer or nonbinary. At times, Latinx is substituted as an all-encompassing term for all Latinos.
Latinx is equal parts social-media firestorm, social movement and social divider.
From smartphone screens to Twitter feeds, and friend circles to academic literature, Latinx has quickly flooded the conversation around evolving language, culture and masculinity.
“When you change words, you change stories,” said Brendan O’Connor, a linguistic anthropologist at Arizona State University. “When we say having to choose between established genders is problematic, we’re calling attention to people whose voices haven’t been present in the story thus far. That can be threatening to a lot of people.”
Why Latinx drives some people crazy
In the fast-paced and unforgiving online world, gender-neutral language blazes through like a wildfire, consuming frustrations, Facebook posts and tweets.
Latinx soon spread beyond social media and attached to numerous academic papers. The term began popping up on college campuses in 2015, according to Inside Higher Ed, which pointed to the surge in colleges that adopted the term for student organizations or in their curriculum. The University of Denver changed its “Latino studies” program to “Latinx Studies.” The University of Iowa will hold a “Latinx Conference” in October. A search for the term on Google yields more than a million results.
Arizona State University’s largest Latino student organization, El Concilio, has added the identity “Latinx” into its club description. The Huffington Post now uses it as a term to encompass all Latinos. Press has published articles using Latinx as as an all-encompassing term similar to the Huffington Post.
“I never thought of Latinx as only a genderqueer term because in my circles people of any gender have used it to identity both themselves and their community as a whole,” said Celina Jimenez, who wrote a series of articles for the ASU campus publication the State Press exploring Latino, or Latinx, representation in the media. She said she prefers to use Latinx as a term for all Latino/as because of the inclusivity it provides in her writing.
Jimenez’s reflection furthers the debate on the true definition of Latinx.
The lack of a focused definition makes way for Latinx to have detractors. Meet Gilbert Guerra, a sophomore attending Swathmore College in Pennsylvania.
As others began supporting Latinx, Guerra and his Latino-identifying colleagues criticized it.
“In our opinion, the use of the identifier ‘Latinx’ as the new standard should be discouraged because it is a buzzword that fails to address any of the problems within Spanish on a meaningful scale,” Guerra and fellow student Gilbert Orbea wrote in an op-ed in The Phoenix, a campus newspaper.
“No one had really challenged Latinx in such a public way before we did,” Guerra said.
Guerra and his colleagues argued Latinx can’t be pronounced in Spanish and unravels a centuries-old language. The political-science major said the gender-neutral nature of the term isn’t the issue. It’s the inference that all Latinas or Latinos must identify as Latinx.
“I would never choose for someone else. I wouldn’t say you should call yourself Latino or you should call yourself Latinx,” Guerra said. “It’s an incredibly complicated and personal choice. (Proponents of Latinx) don’t realize that they’re doing the exact same thing. They’re choosing for other people.”
Guerra, who identifies as Mexican, does want to see a better term for those who identify as Latino and genderqueer emerge but he, like many others, isn’t sure when or how that will happen.
Guerra’s opinion column spurred a menagerie of reactions, in emails and Facebook messages, from across the country. Many have offered encouragement. Some have sent death threats.
O’Connor, the linguist, said such reactions are a side effect of “the anxiety around language.”
Arguments surrounding language aren’t about the words themselves but the revolutions they symbolize.
O’Connor pointed to the massive pushback a Spanish-language version of the national anthem received in 2006.
“It’s not too much of a stretch to say that controversy isn’t really about the language that the national anthem is in,” O’Connor said. “That controversy is about people’s anxieties, concerns and fears about how the makeup of the country is actually changing.” Four years earlier, Hispanics/Latinos were named the largest ethnic minority group in the U.S.
O’Connor said it’s common for language to become the first place to come under attack as anxiety over change begins, similar to the controversy that swirled around changing Phoenix’s Squaw Peak to Piestewa Peak.
Outside of the pushback Latinx receives from detractors, even the word’s origins are confusing.
Latinx has no well-documented beginnings, but Google Trends show the term gaining momentum in 2015 and peaking in June 2016.The most-searched phrases associated with Latinx are “what is” and “definition of.”
Influenced by the debate around the Orlando shootings, Latinx’s usage online soared. Were these Latinos who were affected? Or Latin@s? Or somewhere in between, given 49 mostly gay and Latino people were killed at a popular LGBT space?
The Huffington Post jumped on the Latinx train early when, one day after the shooting, the online publication posted reactions from those who identified as LGBT and Latino, but swapped “Latinx” for “Latino.”
Since then, the publication has continued to use the term to identify anyone who falls into the “Latino” group rather than only those who identify as genderqueer.
Latino/a, Latin@ and now Latinx
Hispanic and Latino-identifying Americans have long struggled with which labels are proper. Hispanic and Latino have been used interchangeably even though they are different.
Latino has been labeled as problematic because it homogenizes more than 20 countries’ diversity under one umbrella.
Mainly, Latino touches on long-held contentions with the Spanish language reliance on masculine identity. Latinx identifiers don’t see themselves in the “machismo” associated with Latino culture or even entirely in the “marianismo,” or feminine ideal.
“Latinx is to me is being who I am without compromising another part of my identity,” said Kim Aguayo, who identifies as Latinx. Aguayo is fresh out of high school and an artist who will be attending art school in the fall. She prefers to be addressed with female pronouns but considers herself queer.
“You can just look at me and see I don’t really fall into any traditional gender role. It’s like ‘Whoa, it’s in between, somewhere,'” said Aguayo. With a thick sweep of blonde hair tinged with silver and purple touches and well lived-in Converse shoes, Aguayo’s everyday attire teeters toward androgynous.
Aguayo said her choice to balance between the feminine and masculine stems from her family upbringing. Citing a strong “machismo” influence from her father and grandfather and an equally powerful feminine influence from her mother, Aguayo crafted her personal identity from her experiences.
However, for a long time, she had no concrete way to explain to others the complex sophistication of her identity. Then, she discovered Latinx.
“I saw it on social media. People talk about it. They define themselves as it. You don’t have the masculine or feminine part of it. You’re just Latinx,” Aguayo said.
Aguayo has witnessed a community emerge.
“I think if you have a community where people understand it themselves and are a part of it themselves it makes you feel safe,” she said. “These are people who are with you and who understand you. You feel comfortable.”
Trend or staying power?
Guerra’s aversion to Latinx and Aguayo’s acceptance of Latinx are just two perspectives on the word’s potential future – what’s behind the letter “x” is more telling than the letter itself.
Latinx is now in its estimated second year of use and appears to be growing. But it faces an uncertain future, language experts and Latinxs said.
“You can propose it, but people can still go back and forth on whether or not you use it,” O’Connor said. He believes that, most likely, Latinx is merely a trend, with long-term use limited to academics and activists.
So far, Latinx is concentrated in the U.S and has yet to stray beyond its borders. Google data shows the search popularity for the terms is at its height in the U.S.
Online comments from people who live in Latin American countries show their contempt for the term:
“First, my name has an accent. Second, every noun in spanish is gendered, el cielo, la tierra, la cortina, el aire, el agua, el fuego, how are you supposed to change pronouns without basically destroying the language. You can’t. I rather tell all this gender confused —— than to force change to hundreds of millions of people so their feelings don’t get hurt. Try to pull that —— in latin america, we laugh at idiots like you, and we don’t take that —— .”
Aguayo believes that the sense of community the word provides will allow it to prevail.
“We’re all together. This is our heritage and we should be proud of it, despite colonization and slavery that we haven’t healed from or hasn’t really been acknowledged. We should still be proud and say I’m together with my community.
“Even though I don’t identify as male or female or somewhere in between. It’s who I am. It’s who we are.”