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The Case for “Latinx”: Why This Latina is Happy About a Gender-Neutral Word for Her People

The beauty of language? We can make it do whatever we want.

Rita Moreno as Lydia on Netflix's "One Day at a Time"

For all that we’re referred to as a single entity, Latin Americans in this country hail from many countries and/or territories, each with their own distinct cultures, their own distinct relationships to the U.S, and just as many opinions about how to do anything. The one thing holding us together? The language left us by our colonizers. Groovy.

Use of the word “Latinx” as a gender-neutral alternative to constantly writing “Latin American” or “Latino/a,” or “[email protected],” or the most egregious of the three, defaulting to “Latinos” when referring to a mixed group, has been on the rise since 2004, when the word was first introduced (according to the OED). Now considered a correct usage in most academic and activist circles, Latinx continue to debate whether or not 1) the usage is “correct,” and 2) whether use of the word is or isn’t a slap in the fact to our culture(s).

I am but one Latina with an opinion, but here it is. 1) Yes. 2) It is not. Here’s why:

Con Argument 1: “Latinx” isn’t linguistically correct

Here’s the thing. “Latinx” isn’t a Spanish word! It’s an English one. No one is expecting Spanish speakers in Latin America to use the word “Latinx” in Spanish. That’s because Spanish is an inherently gendered language. English is not. So whether or not it follows Spanish-language rules is irrelevant. For a long time, we’ve been trying to fit a gendered square peg into a non-gendered round hole. “Latinx” is a neat way to fix that.

Some have proposed the word “Latine” as an alternative to “Latinx” which, you know, fine we can talk about the difference between changing it to an “x” versus an “e,” but the beauty of language is…we can make it do whatever the hell we want. It’s there to adapt to our needs, not the other way around. Linguistic rules, like all others, were made to be broken. And sometimes, they need to be.

Con Argument 2: It’s disrespectful to Spanish! It’s insulting and racist!

If we were to refer to, say, Chinese people, we would call them “Chinese.” Chinese is not the Chinese word for Chinese. It’s the English word for Chinese. If finding a word in one’s own language to refer to another group of people is “linguistic imperialism” or whatever the hell, I challenge everyone reading this, from now on when speaking English, only to refer to them as Zhōngguó rén (中国人), which is the Mandarin (known in China as either Zhōngwén, Pǔtōnghuà, or Hányǔ, “the common language”) for the Chinese people.

I mean, it would be a cool thing to do just because it would be cool to know Mandarin words, but it’s not inherently racist, or ethnocentric to call a group that is not your own a name in your own language.

The argument that “Latinx” is “disrespectful” to Spanish troubles me for two reasons:

Rita Moreno as Lydia on Netflix's "One Day at a Time"

First, if that’s the case, then so should be the words “Latin American.” After all, those aren’t Spanish words either. They’re English words. And yet, I don’t see anyone getting up in arms saying that those speaking English should say “Latinoamericano” instead.

Second, it’s interesting to me that some people bend over backwards to defend Spanish, when Spanish (as well as Portuguese and Italian) was imposed on the area by colonizing forces. It’s like, we’re trying really hard not to insult the people … who oppressed the natives living here, from whom we are also descended?

Here in the U.S, colonists from England were quick to alter English, changing the spellings of things and removing extraneous “u’s” and whatnot to make sure that their English was different from “The Queen’s English,” because while they were stuck speaking English, they certainly didn’t feel the need to speak it or write it the same way their colonial power did.

I have zero qualms about not following Spanish rules. Yes, I speak Spanish, because it’s what my parents spoke, and what their parents spoke, going back several generations. It is a part of me and my culture in that sense. However, I don’t have a reverence for Spanish. It isn’t this holy, unchangeable thing. No language is.

Con Argument 3: We don’t need a change like this! This is just Tumblr activism at its worst. 

Now, I’m not Tumblr’s biggest fan, but Tumblr activism, like all activism everywhere, exists for a reason. It exists because a group of marginalized people refuses to be ignored.

Remember above where I said “No one is expecting Spanish speakers in Latin America to use the word “Latinx” in Spanish.” The thing is, plenty of Spanish-speaking people want to: like genderqueer/non-binary/queer people, for example.

The word “Latinx” first emerged in queer circles back in the early aughts, because Spanish, being inherently gendered, is also inherently sexist and heteronormative. So, I find it hugely hypocritical when people find it perfectly acceptable, in both Spanish and English, to expect someone who doesn’t identify as one gender (or any gender) to use the words “Latino” or “Latina” when referring to themselves, yet balk at “Latinx” out of a sense of identity. So, identity and culture are really important…so long as they’re yours?

And it’s not even just about those whose gender identity doesn’t work in a gender binary. As an English and Spanish-speaking cisgender, queer, Latina feminist living in a majority English-speaking country, I love that I have the option in a non-gendered language to not have to refer to a group of my people as a bunch of dudes if I’m not forced to.

I will never be in a group of Latinos. I will always be in a group of Latinx or Latin Americans. Or Puerto Ricans, if we’re getting specific.

What do you think? If you’re Latinx and you know it, clap your hands! And if you don’t think that’s a good word to use, tell us why? Do you have any alternatives that would be better? Tell us all about it in the comments below.

Rita Moreno as Lydia on Netflix's "One Day at a Time"

(images: Netflix)

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