‘Latinx’ and the History of Shifting Terms (OPINION)

Aug 19, 2020
12:49 PM

Screen grab from a 1980 Univision ad encouraging U.S. Latinos to complete the census.

In 1934, University of California economist Paul S. Taylor described an obscure new term that was budding in South Texas.

“The term… is as yet little used…. [It] conforms more closely to the ideas which the group holds for its people, and is used consciously by them.”

The term: Mexican American.

The earliest uses were few and far between in the late 1910s, but it had grown slowly through the 1920s and 1930s. Mexican Americans had adopted this new identity in response to demographic and political upheaval on both sides of the border.

At first, very few people adopted it. In fact, many people were angered by it and openly mocked it.  They believed that Mexican Americans were absurd and reflected a self-absorption and lack of perspective.

“Some [Mexican Americas] are conceited, living with a sense of superiority that they are American citizens. I think that they try to show it more than they actually feel it,” wrote the Mexican consul in San Antonio, Enrique Santibáñez.

The author and journalist Conrado Espinoza described Mexican Americans in the ‘20s as “families that, in terms of appearance, have lost their Mexican identity and are in terms of language (horrible Spanish and horrible English), in terms of their customs (grotesque and licentious), in terms of their desires (futile and fatuous ambition); a hybrid group which adapts itself neither in this country nor in our own.”

Santibáñez’s and others’ disdain of the new term could have been pulled from the current debates surrounding “Latinx.” Much has been written about Latinx, with authors claiming it is elitist, useless, and an attempt to Americanize the Spanish language. Some have intoned that it is a word for people who have lost touch with the cultures and language of Latin America and are more-or-less Americanized social justice warriors.

A recent poll by Pew found that only 3 percent of the population uses the term.  While Pew surveyed a larger group, an earlier and smaller poll from November 2019 found similar results, showing just 2 percent preferred the term. These polls aren’t vindication or evidence that the term has come to the end of its run.

Latinx is a relatively new term and the debate surrounding it is far from over.

Communities creating, debating, and adopting new labels is not a new phenomenon. There is a long history of diasporic communities using new terms to situate themselves within their cultural contexts and political circumstances. In the past and in our present, new terms reflect the communities wielding the languages available to them to articulate their sense of belonging. And while those terms may be unpopular at first, they can grow into important identities over time.

In the first decades of the 20th century, people of Mexican descent in the U.S. needed a new term that would situate them in changing political circumstances. In the 1910s and 1920s, they saw increased racial violence. In the 1930s, citizenship became increasingly important as many ethnic Mexicans were deported, both citizens and foreign nationals. Access to New Deal programs depended upon proof of citizenship as well. They felt there was a dire need for their community to be recognized as primarily American, not a foreign “other.”

Their success in convincing their co-ethnics to adopt the term was uneven.

In surveys conducted in the 1930s by University of Texas political science professor Oliver Douglas Weeks, he found that the local San Antonio LULAC chapter had only 60 members out of an ethnic Mexican population of over 40,000. Even if some not in the group used Mexican American or Latin American, the percentage of people using those terms was still well below 1 percent. In Falfurrias, members who subscribed to the term only comprised a little over 3 percent of the ethnic Mexican population.

Nonetheless, the term grew in importance. By the 1950s and 1960s, Mexican American politicians had won elected office from California to Texas.  In 1959 the Mexican American Political Association was created to address the needs of the ethnic Mexican population in California.  The term while not widely used was accepted and politically relevant.

When a new group of activists started calling themselves Chicanas and Chicanos and began demanding social change, Mexican Americans were irritated and angry.

Politicians like Henry B. Gonzalez couldn’t stand the term or the young activists. LULAC member Jacob Rodriguez wrote disparagingly: “The term ‘Chicano’ was, and is, an insult, no matter how it is used…. It can’t even be dignified ‘kitchen-Spanish’ since all it is, is ‘gutter-Spanish.’”

Rodriguez went on condescendingly, “the younger generation doesn’t know any better. It still has a lot to learn…. Our youngsters’ lack of living, practical experience and comprehension is impelling them to ‘identify’ with something and —unfortunately for them and all the rest of us— they don’t even know what with or why.”

Chicana and Chicano activists, educators, and academics went on to challenge exclusive policies in politics, housing, and education, but they never convinced the majority of their own community to adopt the term either. Few people in the 1960s and 1970s identified as Chicana or Chicano, but the term and identity was important in creating alternative ideas of belonging, political resistance, and cultural affirmation.

By the 1980s, politics had shifted again and the terms changed to reflect this. The Decade of the Hispanic and the Reagan Revolution overlapped, and governmental and corporate power merged even more. Hispanic was a new term that could patch together disparate nationalities residing in the U.S. into a singular demographic powerhouse. In its alchemy, it turned Puerto Rican employees, Mexican American dollars, and Cuban American business ownership into data points that explained “Hispanic” socioeconomic standing. The introduction of Hispanic into the 1980 census solidified the term in the national consciousness as millions of people checked the box to identify themselves.

In response to the perceived corporate origins of Hispanic, but seduced by the pan-ethnic solidarity that it provided, Latino gained popularity in the ‘90s. And in response to the sexism that plagued higher education, corporations, Supreme Court nominations, and the White House, many academics and activists offered a corrective that meant to delineate the contributions and activities of women in society. They sought to politically and linguistically pull women from the shadows of men, to decenter mankind in favor of constellations of humanity. Instead of a singular Latino, they began writing “Latina/o” or “Latin@.”

The new addition did not sit well for many people. Some disliked it because it could not be pronounced and was clunky. Others claimed that it was unnecessary because in Spanish grammar the masculine form includes men and women.

The Chicano author Dagoberto Gilb was critical about it even in a 2010 interview. He claimed that feminist Chicana professors were “making people write the slash in: ‘Chicano/a.’” He added, “It’s a phase…. I don’t want that slash shit anymore. I hate it. So you just call me a Chicana writer.”

And now Latinx has emerged from the long history of finding new words to describe the new worlds our communities imagine are possible.

The term inherits the activist politics of the Young Lords and the Chicano Movement. The term embraces the ideas and actions of the feminist and gay rights movements. It also recognizes the importance of pan-ethnic labels in building diverse coalitions. Because of this, Latinx has transgressed the politics of previous activists.

For this, Latinx activists are derided as “wokosos,”young snot-nosed kids who are talking out of turn and not respecting their elders. The claim that Latinxs are political ingénues who don’t appreciate the actions of those who came before them is a criticism that was also hurled at Chicanas and Chicanos.  The claim that the “x” is unpronounceable or does not follow Spanish language rules was also made against Latina/o. The notion that Latinxs are overly Americanized in their concerns and affects was also used against Mexican Americans.

In this way, the debate over Latinx isn’t new. What is new, in the case of Latinas/os/xs, is that now people outside their communities are paying attention to their intra-community debates. And that shows that the Latina/o/x community is slowly moving from marginal to mainstream.


Aaron E. Sanchez is a Texas-based writer who focuses on issues of race, politics and popular culture. He is a happy husband, proud father and an avid runner. He blogs at CommentaryandCuentos.com. You can connect with him .