By Melissa K. Ochoa, Assistant Professor of Women’s and Gender Studies, Saint Louis University
Most of the debates on the usage of “Latinx,” pronounced “la-teen-ex,” have taken place in the United States. But the word has begun to spread into Spanish-speaking countries, where it has not exactly been embraced.
In July 2022, Argentina and Spain released public statements banning the use of Latinx, or any gender-neutral variant. Both governments reasoned that these new terms are violations of the rules of the Spanish language.
Latinx is used as an individual identity for those who are gender-nonconforming, and it can also describe an entire population without using “Latinos,” which is currently the default in Spanish for a group of men and women.
As a Mexican-born, U.S.-raised scholar, I agree with the official Argentine and Spanish stance on banning Latinx from the Spanish language – English, too.
When I first heard Latinx in 2017, I thought it was progressive and inclusive, but I quickly realized how problematic it was. Five years later, Latinx is not commonly used in Spanish-speaking countries, nor is it used by the majority of those identifying as Hispanic or Latino in the United States.
In fact, there is a gender-inclusive term that is already being used by Spanish-speaking activists that works as a far more natural replacement.
Though the exact origins of Latinx are unclear, it emerged sometime around 2004 and gained popularity around 2014. Merriam-Webster added it to its dictionary in 2018.
However, a 2019 Pew research study and 2021 Gallup poll indicated that less than 5% of the U.S. population used “Latinx” as a racial or ethnic identity.
Nonetheless, Latinx is becoming commonplace among academics; it is used at conferences, in communication and especially in publications. But is it inclusive to use Latinx when most of the population does not?
The distinct demographic differences of those who are aware of or use Latinx calls into question whether the term is inclusive or just elitist.
Individuals who self-identify as Latinx or are aware of the term are most likely to be U.S.-born, young adults from 18 to 29 years old. They are predominately English-speakers and have some college education. In other words, the most marginalized communities do not use Latinx.
Scholars, in my view, should never impose social identities onto groups that do not self-identify that way.
I once had a reviewer for an academic journal article I submitted about women’s experiences with catcalling tell me to replace my use of “Latino” and “Latina” with “Latinx.” However, they had no issue with me using “man” or “woman” when it came to my white participants.
I was annoyed at the audacity of this reviewer. The goal of the study was to show catcalling, a gendered interaction, as an everyday form of sexism.
How was I supposed to differentiate my participants’ sexism experiences by gender and race if I labeled them all as Latinx?
The “X” factor
If a term is truly inclusive, it gives equitable weight to vastly diverse experiences and knowledge; it is not meant to be a blanket identity.
Women of color, in general, are severely underrepresented in leadership positions and STEM fields. Using “Latinx” for women further obscures their contributions and identity. I have even seen some academics try to get around the nebulous nature of Latinx by writing “Latinx mothers” or “Latinx women” instead of “Latinas.”
Furthermore, if the goal is to be inclusive, the “x” would be easily pronounceable and naturally applied to other parts of the Spanish language.
Some Spanish speakers would rather identify by nationality – say, “Mexicano” or “Argentino” – instead of using umbrella terms like Hispanic or Latino. But the “x” cannot be easily applied to nationalities. Like Latinx, “Mexicanx” and “Argentinx” do not exactly roll off the tongue in any language. Meanwhile, gendered articles in Spanish – “los” and “las” for the plural “the” – become “lxs,” while gendered pronouns –“el” and “ella” becomes “ellx.”
The utility and logic of it quickly falls apart.
“Latine” as an alternative
Many academics might feel compelled to continue to use Latinx because they fought hard to have it recognized by their institutions or have already published the term in an academic journal. But there is a much better gender-inclusive alternative, one that is been largely overlooked by the U.S. academic community and is already being used in Spanish-speaking parts of Latin America, especially among young social activists in those countries.
It is “Latine” – pronounced “lah-teen-eh” – and it’s far more adaptable to the Spanish language. It can be implemented as articles – “les” instead of “los” or “las,” the words for “the.” When it comes to pronouns, “elle” can become a singular form of “they” and used in place of the masculine “él” or feminine “ella,” which translate to “he” and “she.” It can also be readily applied to most nationalities, such as “Mexicane” or “Argentine.”
Because language shapes the way we think, it is important to note that gendered languages like Spanish, German and French do facilitate gender stereotypes and discrimination. For example, in German, the word for bridge is feminine, and in Spanish, the word for bridge is masculine.
Cognitive scientist Lera Boroditsky had German speakers and Spanish speakers describe a bridge. The German speakers were more likely to describe it using adjectives like “beautiful” or “elegant,” while the Spanish speakers were more likely to describe it in masculine ways – “tall” and “strong.”
Moreover, the existing gender rules in Spanish are not perfect. Usually words ending in “-o” are masculine and those ending in “-a” are feminine, but there are many common words that break those gender rules, like “la mano,” the word for “hand.” And, of course, Spanish already uses an “e” for gender-neutral words, such as “estudiante,” or “student.”
I believe Latine accomplishes what Latinx originally meant to and more. Similarly, it eliminates the gender binary in its singular and plural form. However, Latine is not confined to an elite, English-speaking population within the U.S. It is inclusive.
Nevertheless, problems can still arise when the word “Latine” is imposed onto others. “Latina” and “Latino” may still be preferable for many individuals. I do not think the “-e” should eliminate the existing “-o” and the “-a.” Instead, it could be a grammatically acceptable addition to the Spanish language.
Yes, Argentina and Spain’s ban of Latinx also included a ban on the use of Latine. Here is where I diverge from their directive. To me, the idea that language can be purist is nonsensical; language always evolves, whether it is through technology – think emojis and textspeak – or increased social awareness, such as the evolution from “wife beating” to “intimate partner violence.”
Linguistic theory posits that language shapes reality, so cultures and communities can create words that shape the inclusive world they want to inhabit.
Language matters. Latine embodies that inclusivity – across socioeconomic status, citizenship, education, gender identity, age groups and nations, while honoring the Spanish language in the process.