Over the last few years, the use of the identifier “Latinx” (pronounced “Latin-ex”), born out of a collective aim to move beyond the masculine-centric “Latino” and the gender inclusive but binary embedded “Latin@,” has received increasing attention and usage in popular to scholarly spheres.
Earlier this year, Latina magazine (Reichard, 2015) headlined a short blog on the burgeoning term, as did the Columbia Spectator (Armus, 2015) in a longer report, both featuring quotes by scholars and activists who hailed its importance in disrupting the traditional gender binary and acknowledging the vast spectrum of gender and sexual identities. The social media popular Latino Rebels has published more pieces with usage of the term, including a recent thoughtful essay by Blanca E. Vega (2015), as are advocacy and academic conference programs incrementally evidencing its application. But with a newer, burgeoning identifier also comes opposition and resistance. Recently, the National Institute of Latino Policy e-blasted just that, “The Argument Against the Use of the Term ‘Latinx,’” (The Phoenix, Nov. 19, 2015), written by Gilbert Guerra and Gilbert Orbea of Swarthmore College, which equally came to our attention by colleagues and social media.
As scholars, whose interdisciplinary work independently addresses the intersections of gender, race and class, with one of us identifying as a genderqueer Puerto Rican, we would like to address what essentially surmounts to a reactionary response that fails to substantively consider intersecting areas of privilege and oppression. We feel it is representative of the reiterations of these very arguments we not only hear and read in our own personal and academic circles, arguments that will not disappear anytime soon, but equally hold implications for the future of Latinx-based scholarship, advocacy and policy formation.
Thus we reapply sections of Guerra and Orbea’s arguments as follows, with our own specific responses:
Guerra and Orbea: It Is A “Buzzword”
The identifier “Latinx,” as a new standard, should be discouraged because it is a buzzword that fails to address any of the problems within the Spanish language on a meaningful scale…. As Latinos, we are proud of our heritage, that were raised speaking Spanish. We are not arguing against gender-inclusive language. We have no prejudice towards non-binary people. We see, however, a misguided desire to forcibly change the language we and millions of people around the world speak, to the detriment of all.
Let us be frank from the get-go. The authors are excluding a large part of the population that they are claiming to be part of: Latinxs that were not raised speaking Spanish. The use of the Spanish language variants does not make one an authentic Latinx, in the same way the use of North American variants of the English language do not define “American.” Not all people who self-identify as Latinx, or Latino/Hispanic, or whichever term is used on Census or job/college application forms, actually speak Spanish. In fact, a recent report by the Pew Research Center (Krogstad, Stepler and Lopez, 2015) underscores the changing dynamics of Spanish and English language proficiency among people who self-report as “Hispanic/Latino” in the United States, with the political implication that there isn’t, as one of the above study authors was quoted, “a single Latino profile.” Identity is fluid and dynamic and is rarely if ever understood in static, rigid terms, nor based on absolute markers.
By reducing Latinx to a “buzzword,” the suggestion that we should not strive to make our language and culture more inclusive because “Latinx” does not address systemic change is remarkably disturbing. This is an argument often used by people of privilege to resist “progressive” structural change. Can we really be comfortable implying that we should continue to marginalize sections of our people while we figure out a way to stop doing it in a manner that is “really” meaningful? Guerra and Orbea seem to imply that otherwise, the temporary inconvenience is not worth it. For those who hold unexamined privilege, this is probably true. Without a commitment to liberation and solidarity, why would someone who holds gender privilege (due to their gender identity and/or conformity) shift the way they speak, read, or think if it is not useful for them? Privilege affords us a blind spot to those who are oppressed and while marginalized by our linguistic practices, allows us to argue that our “inconvenience” is more important than their suffering.
And to “the detriment of all?” This is another statement that clearly seeks to invisibilize non-binary and trans people of Latin American descent. Why make most people uncomfortable to include people who are already invisible? Throughout the article, Guerra and Orbea make no acknowledgement of their own privilege, only of their oppressed identities. Both of us, for example, are light-skinned Latinxs, and experience the same kind of empirically well-documented privilege that links “lightness” or “whiteness” among Latinxs, with more favorable treatment in institutional and economic spheres (see Darity, Dietrich and Hamilton, 2002, 2010, for example). This can happen at the same time, both in the same or in other “spaces,” where our gender identity, use of language and other social “identifiers” can work for or against us. Thus, while we both experience privilege due to the lightness of our skin, privilege does not look the same for both of us due to how it intersects with other dimensions of our identities, including gender and gender conformity. The blindness of unexamined privilege trips Guerra and Orbea into perpetuating oppressions along gender lines, despite their disclaimers. It is similar to saying, “I am not racist, however…”
Guerra and Orbea: “Linguistic Imperialism”
The use of the term Latinx is a blatant form of linguistic imperialism. It is a result of forcing U.S. ideals upon a language in a way that does not grammatically or orally correspond with it.
Let us be frank again. What happened after 1492?
What is the most blatant form of linguistic imperialism for Latin Americans?
Are we not aware that upon the arrival of the conquistadores and subsequent acts of genocide, a few thousand indigenous languages existed in the Americas, and a few resilient hundred continue to be spoken today? Not to mention the attempted erasure of African languages via the violence of slavery and colonialism.
Moreover, indigenous languages in Latin America (and throughout the world) range from the genderless to the multigendered, going beyond the binary. This is another instance in which Guerra and Orbea, while claiming to denounce imperialism, actually fall into one of the markers of colonization: the erasure of indigenous history and its cultural legacy.
English-speaking people that are also resisting linguistic inclusion have similar arguments against using “they” for people that do not conform to the binary: it is not grammatically correct, it is a mouthful, it makes it hard to follow discourse, it is… hard. We certainly appreciate taking a decolonizing approach to language, but the authors are not really engaging in this. Part of engaging in a decolonizing approach is that you have to first acknowledge that the reality of people that have been colonized (including that of the authors and ourselves) is marked by multiple paradoxes, including the very paradox that language can act simultaneously as oppressor and liberator.
Even as we resist colonization, our genealogy, our language, our innermost fibers of being contain multiple contradictions: we are at once colonized and colonizer (Edwards, 2010). As Julia de Burgos beautifully depicts: Ser y no querer ser… esa es la divisa. Part of our process of colonization implies that we have internalized the power dichotomies of the oppressor, the tendency to make invisible the margins instead of centering them. The authors’ discourse perpetuates imperialist/colonialist ideology by advocating for continuing a status quo (imposed by colonization) that marginalizes and invisibilizes those that do not adhere to hegemonic masculinity and gender conformity.
Guerra and Orbea: “Latinx” Is Nonexistent
The term “Latinx” is used almost exclusively within the United States. According to Google trend data, “Latinx” came into popular use in October of 2014 and has since been widely popularized by American blogs and American institutions of higher education. The term is virtually nonexistent in any Spanish-speaking country.
We both know of several Puerto Rican writers and scholars that use Latinxs and/or use “x” in other gendered articles and pronouns instead of “a/o” or even “@”. Lissette Rolón Collazo, Beatriz Llenin Figueroa and Jaime Géliga Quiñones are among the first ones that come to mind. Moreover, a simple Google search of “lxs” + a Latin American country brings up hundreds of thousands of websites, articles, and blogs written by Latin Americans living in their countries of origin that are using this gender-inclusive article in Central and South American as well as the Caribbean. Another google search of “lxs” + psicología produces almost 60,000 results that include the works of scholars and references to teaching materials —such as those by Yuderkys Espinosa Miñoso (Dominican-born, residing in Argentina) and Adriana Gallegos Dextre (Pontificia Universidad Católica del Perú)— in addition to newspaper articles, blogs, descriptions of groups, all using the gender inclusive article “lxs.” Thus, while it is not by any means mainstream, the use of the gender-inclusive “x” within Latin America is far from “nonexistent.”
Guerra and Orbea: “You Are No Longer Speaking Spanish”
If you take the gender out of every word, you are no longer speaking Spanish. If you advocate for the erasure of gender in Spanish, you then are advocating for the erasure of Spanish.
This argument is incredibly problematic, because now the agenda becomes clear. It is not that Latinx fails to address any of the problems within Spanish on a meaningful scale, as argued earlier, it is that Guerra and Orbea really do not want any change at all. To change the Spanish language to include others is deemed as a threat to the whole Latinx culture and their identities. This is certainly another symptom of unexamined privilege and internalized colonization. Moreover, it also implies that our Latinx identity is so frail that without protecting the integrity of the language of our colonizers, we risk losing the main instrument of colonization that still binds many of us.
Guerra and Orbea: “Latinos” Is Fine
What then, is the solution if not “Latinx”? It may surprise you to learn that a gender-neutral term to describe the Latin-American community already exists in Spanish. Ready for it? Here it is: Latino. Therefore, according to the grammatical rules of Spanish, the term “Latinos” is already all-inclusive in terms of gender.
The solution to a problem of exclusion is to do… nothing. Really?
The authors’ argument seems to suggest that it is better to not make uncomfortable the privileged majority and keeps things as they are. In other words, according to a linguistic system that is oppressive and marginalizing for non-binary people, Latinos already includes everyone it should include. We shouldn’t reflect on the fact that masculine is the default that needs to be named, let’s ignore how it reflects hegemonic masculinity. Yes, let’s forget the intersection of sexism, heterosexism and ethnicity. All is good. Let’s move on.
The motivations behind this argument are not at all different from the rationale behind “All Lives Matter” versus “Black Lives Matter.” Advocates from “All Lives Matter” propose that the “All” includes “Black” as well. This argument is born out of unexamined privilege and lack of awareness about systemic oppression. When we hold privilege, we are used to being represented and thus we are not used to being excluded. “Black Lives Matter” made people that hold unexamined privilege uncomfortable because they felt left out, as if it was saying that their lives didn’t matter. Bowing to the impetus to accommodate and keep comfortable people that experience discomfort when they are faced with their privilege, the “All Live Matters” language appeared. The erasure of difference, the argument of people that claim to be “colorblind,” has been identified as a type of aversive racism. Similarly, to claim that the masculine Latinos should not be changed because it is meant to include “all people of Latin American descent,” including women and non-binary people, is a reactionary argument that perpetuates sexisms and hegemonic masculinity by acritically maintaining a status quo that marginalizes those that do not hold privilege in this area.
In summary, in the same way that the state used and imposed the terms “Spanish,” “Hispanic” and “Latino” as identifiers of peoples of Latin American descent, were challenged in succession and met with “Latino/a” and “Latin@” under concerted attempts toward inclusivity, we are now at a similar juncture with intersectionality-inclusive “Latinx.” Latinx-based student clubs, academic departments, educational institutions overall (including our own), non-profit advocacy group, policy-related organizations, and independent to corporate media outlets, if not already, will engage in debate over the identifier.
And once again, opposition to this newer term, however imperfect it is, comes from a place of unexamined intersectionality of privilege and oppression, one that completely furthers oppression and marginalization of non-binary and trans people from Latin American descent. Recognizing the intersectionality of our identities as well as our locations within the various systems of privilege and oppression —on a personal and social level— fosters solidarity with all of our Latinx community and is also necessary to engage in liberatory praxis.
María R. Scharrón-del Río, Ph.D. is Associate Professor and Program Coordinator of the School Counseling Program in the Department of School Psychology, Counseling, and Leadership (SPCL) at Brooklyn College, City University of New York (CUNY). Maria’s research focuses on ethnic and cultural minority psychology and education, including mental health disparities, multicultural competencies, intersectionality, LGBTQ issues, gender variance, spirituality, resiliency, and well-being.
Alan A. Aja is Associate Professor and Deputy Chair in the Department of Puerto Rican and Latin@ Studies at Brooklyn College, CUNY (City University of New York). Alan’s research focuses on inter-group economic and social disparities, with attention to the politics of race, class and gender in the Latinx community.