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I bristle every time I see the word “Latinx.” The term has become ubiquitous, both in and out of academia: in social media, marketing materials, course titles, academic program names, job ads, etc. If we are serious about using language that promotes progressive reform, it is time to drop the term Latinx in favor of “Latine,” an ethnic identifier that fosters genuine inclusion.
I did not always hate Latinx. I first saw the term following the 2016 Pulse night club shooting in Orlando, Fla. The word was an alternative to the gendered “Latino/a” and was intended to create more inclusive language. In the aftermath of that hideous shooting, the increased presence of “Latinx” in news stories, academic discourse and social media seemed a laudable act of solidarity.
I know firsthand the influential power of language. The son of working-class Colombian immigrants, I grew up absorbing linguistic punches: poor Spic, coke dealer, f-ing immigrant. Words of discrimination, exclusion, ridicule. The emotional scars I carry from those experiences make me amenable to language that seeks the opposite effect: tolerance, empathy, inclusion. The apparent potential of “Latinx” to promote social change and grant greater linguistic visibility to women and nonbinary people inspired me to use the term.
Yet the term “Latinx” bothered me for reasons I was not ready to contemplate. The racist language I heard as a kid affected me well into adulthood and contributed to a long-standing struggle with impostor syndrome. I earned a doctorate from an Ivy League university and became a Spanish professor, yet I have never felt proud of my achievements. Instead, I convince myself I am an intruder in intellectual circles reserved for smarter, more capable people who are not poor, coke-dealing, f-ing immigrant Spics. If colleagues I respected—and felt inferior to—did not take issue with Latinx, neither would I.
But my academic job positioned me particularly well to witness what I now understand as an elitist linguistic trend. The effort to neutralize gender in Spanish did not stop at “Latinx.” The letter x soon replaced -o and -a in other words, too. Amigo (friend) became amigx, querido (dear) became queridx and so on. These new words irked me even more than “Latinx,” but, like a good impostor, I did what I thought would ingratiate me with my liberal compañerxs (colleagues).
My perspective on “Latinx” changed in 2019 when my mom, who only speaks to me in Spanish, asked me to explain the term’s significance. More accurately, she tried to reference the identifier but was unsure how to pronounce it. Her uncertainty granted me new insight into my discomfort with the term “Latinx.” I could explain gender-inclusive language to my mom but could only spell out terms like queridx, because these words cannot be pronounced in Spanish. The battle against grammatical gender was inaccessible to my mom, who did not attend college and was not about to read a jargony essay on the subject.
If this new linguistic practice did not lend itself to a simple oral explanation to my mom, it also excluded much of my family and the immigrant community in which I grew up. What’s more, the allegedly inclusive language also left out a significant portion of my students at Bronx Community College, many of whom come from backgrounds like mine. I finally understood that the knee-jerk aversion I felt toward “Latinx” stemmed from an unconscious recognition that this linguistic practice was not as inclusive as its many adherents, including myself, claimed.
Following that conversation, I scoured the internet for critiques of “Latinx” and found an edifying interview with Mexican linguist Concepción Company. Company asserts that using language in a manner that yields words such as amigx privileges writing over orality and excludes groups, such as some Indigenous communities, that lack formal writing systems These populations are thus denied equal opportunity to participate in activism via language. My family, my community and my students were not the only ones left out of the Latinx conversation.
Company’s arguments unlocked an intellectual door that impostor syndrome had made me too afraid to approach. If I was to articulate an argument against “Latinx,” I needed to ignore the term’s increased presence in academia. Clearing that psychological hurdle allowed me to articulate a stance against “Latinx” and the use of x to neutralize grammatical gender. I eventually felt confident enough in my arguments to share them on social media, in the classroom and in this essay.
So what’s wrong with trends that claim to support inclusivity but are limited to writing? These practices also exclude persons with limited schooling and literacy skills. In Latin America, education and literacy gaps are most prominent in Indigenous and Afro-descendant communities. In restricting these groups’ access to linguistic practices perpetuated by U.S. academics, the use of the term “Latinx” further marginalizes underrepresented populations.
Even literate persons who do not spend significant time engaged with writing (journals, books, social media, etc.) are kept out of the conversation. I think of my dad, a talented man who could build a house from the foundation up but who once told me he has never read a book from cover to cover. He, and most of the families I grew up with, are excluded from a discussion about topics as important as ethnic identity and inclusion.
Proponents of “Latinx” downplay the problem of pronouncing words such as amigxs by noting that individuals who identify as Latinx are mostly U.S.-born and English-speaking. Fluency in Spanish certainly does not make one a more “authentic” member of the linguistically diverse communities of the Americas. However, supporting a practice because it is intelligible in English excludes monolingual Spanish speakers and people, like my mom, who have functional English ability but prefer to communicate in their native tongue.
Arguments that emphasize the use of “Latinx” among English speakers implicitly separate persons of Latin American descent into two groups: monolingual Spanish speakers and those who were born in the U.S. and primarily speak English. This de facto division runs counter to assertions that “Latinx” denotes inclusivity. Some descendants of Latin American immigrants might not feel a strong attachment to Spanish, but that does not mean the language in its spoken form ought to be dismissed. For the more than 460 million native speakers in the world, Spanish is not an abstract remnant of colonialism but a lived means of communication. Expecting a multinational ethnic group to tolerate language simply because it is acceptable to English speakers is linguistic imperialism under the guise of social progress.
The elitist and hegemonic connotations of “Latinx” became glaringly egregious to me when I came across the term “Latine,” another alternative to “Latino/a.” “Latine” also neutralizes grammatical gender but can exist in spaces outside of academic texts and tweets written and read mostly by the college educated. Spanish already contains gender-neutral words that end in -e (e.g., estudiante, or student, inteligente, or intelligent), making “Latine” a logical extension of what exists in the language.
So why do I still see “Latinx” instead of “Latine” in calls for papers, titles of conference presentations and so on? Likely because “Latine” and the related use of the letter e to neutralize grammatical gender has roots in activist circles in Latin America and Spain, and U.S. academics (politicians, the media, marketing firms, etc.) primarily value and legitimize intellectual currents that circulate in this country, to the exclusion of all others. Argentine president Alberto Fernández regularly includes words such as todes (instead of todos for everyone) and amigues in his speeches, evidence that these terms are accessible to Spanish speakers regardless of schooling or literacy. Meanwhile, U.S. politicians (primarily Democrats) continue using “Latinx” in social media posts despite growing evidence that only a small fraction of U.S. adults who identify as Latino or Hispanic (just 3 percent) refer to themselves as Latinx, while as many as four in 10 members of this heterogenous population find the term irksome or offensive.
The question of how to identify people of Latin American ancestry is a thorny one. It has been for centuries. Some believe we should use ethnic identifiers derived from Indigenous languages, while others reject the existence of a single transnational term given the tendency of Latines to self-identify using national adjectives (Mexican, Cuban, etc.). These important discussions remind us that we must think critically, not just about the word “Latinx,” but about what we communicate when we claim to use inclusive language
But when it comes to “Latinx” and “Latine,” the question is not a matter of personal choice, as many claim. This assertion creates a false equivalence between the terms. I use “Latine” because inclusive language should not value literacy over orality, English over Spanish, or the ivory tower over the greater community.