Growing up, I was always confused by school forms which required me to check off a box for my race and ethnicity. I had purely identified as Cuban since my father was born in Havana, so words like "Hispanic" made no sense to me, and with his light skin, my father identified as white due to a history of racism in his home country. So did I need to check "white" or "Hispanic"—and what was the difference between race and ethnicity anyway? Things got even more confusing as I got older and forms started featuring the word "Latino." Which one was I? Now, confused kids and adults alike have yet another term to choose from: Latinx.
In recent years, curiosity about the word "Latinx" has spiked. Just take a look at the rise in Google searches alone for the term:
The phrase has been adopted among people who are looking for a more inclusive and gender-free alternative to "Latino" or "Latina," which, as Spanish words, are automatically gendered to signify a man or a woman, leaving no option for those who choose to identify as non-binary. While having this alternative is incredibly progressive, its usage can still be a confusing. That may be why recent research suggests that only a tiny portion of U.S. adults understand and embrace the term for themselves.
So, consider this your go-to guide for the meaning of "Latinx."
Where did the term "Latinx" come from?
The word "Latinx" originated in the mid-2000s "in activist circles primarily in the U.S. as an expansion of earlier gender-inclusive variations such as Latino/a (with the slash) and Latin@ (with the “at” sign)," says Joseph M. Pierce, an assistant professor in the Department of Hispanic Languages and Literature at Stony Brook University.
"The 'x' does not imply a specific gender—as would the 'o' (masculine) or the 'a' (feminine) for nouns in Spanish—and is meant to disrupt the grammatical binary that is inherent in this Romance language."
However, the history of using "x" is lengthier, says David Bowles, a writer, translator, and professor at the University of Texas Río Grande Valley in Edinburg, Texas, who is currently working on a book 0n the word Latinx. "Radical feminists in the 90s (and perhaps as early as the 70s) would sometimes on posters and in graffiti would literally "x" out the "o" at the end of words that were meant to include men, women, and non-binary folk all together."
The word "Latinx" is ultimately a "non-gendered, non-binary, inclusive way of pushing back against the default masculine in Spanish," says Bowles.
How do you say "Latinx?"
"It can be pronounced several ways: Using the same pattern as Latino (lah TEE nex, rhyming with 'kleenex') or in English (LAT in EX). A few people even say 'lah TEENKS,'" says Bowles.
However, Latin "equis" (as you would pronounce the letter "x" in Spanish), is not typically used, Pierce says.
Is "Latinx" capitalized?
"It's capitalized in English, but not in Spanish," says Bowles. This is because, as Pierce explains, the word "Latinx" is a proper noun used to refer to a group of people. You would capitalize it in the same way that you would capitalize Black, Indigenous, etc., when referring to a group. It is also capitalized when used as an adjective, such as "Latinx people are amazing," says Pierce.
And is "Latinx" in the dictionary?
The inclusion of the term "Latinx" in the dictionary is a bit polarizing. Yes, the term is currently included in both Merriam-Webster and the Oxford English Dictionary, but Bowles says that "The Royal Academy of Spanish (RAE) refuses to include any use of -x or -e. They insist there is no connection between grammatical gender and gender oppression."
And while Pierce says that "this inclusion lends legitimacy to the term and marks it as more than just a passing fad," others believe that whether or not the term is included in the dictionary is irrelevant. "I am not sure being in the dictionary is a benchmark we can aspire to when we are defining categories that describe us, identify us," says Dr. Luisa Ortiz Pérez, Executive Director of Vita-Activa.org. For her, and many other self-identified Latinx people, the ability to select the terms we want to identify as is more important than a simple dictionary inclusion.
What is the difference between "Latinx" and Hispanic?
There is a simple explanation and, as with many things dealing with race, culture, ethnicity, and history, there is also a more complicated version. The easiest way to understand the difference between "Latinx" and Hispanic is, as Ortiz Pérez puts it: "Latinx is an ethnic and cultural category, where as Hispanic is a linguistic division. Brazilians are Latinxs but they are not Hispanic. Spaniards are not Latinxs but they are Hispanic."
Meanwhile, Bowles explains it this way: "'Latinx is focused on geography." This means that, "to be considered Hispanic, you or your ancestors must have come from a Spanish-speaking country formerly belonging to the Spanish Empire: Argentina, Cuba, Colombia, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Mexico, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Panama, El Salvador, Bolivia, Chile, Ecuador, Paraguay, Peru, Uruguay, Venezuela. And, of course, Spain. To be considered Latina/Latino/Latinx, you or your ancestors must have come from a Latin American country: Mexico, Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Cuba, French-speaking Caribbean nations, Central or South America (though English-speaking regions). Your people might speak French, Portuguese, or Spanish."
However, it's not as simple as that, because both Hispanic and Latinx/Latino/Latina come with their own histories. "This is an important distinction because it relates to how people name themselves, on the one hand, and on the other, how particular groups are understood by government institutions such as the U.S. census, as well as the geographies, histories, and cultural expressions (such as food, music, film, and literature) that are imagined as unique and cohesive," says Pierce.
Still confused? Here's a longer explanation.
Who uses the term "Latinx"?
Whomever feels that the term accurately defines their background—though a bilingual December 2019 survey of 3,030 adults suggests that only a small portion of the U.S. population does. According to Pew Research, only 3 percent of surveyed adults who self-identify as Hispanic or Latino said they consider themselves Latinx. What's more, almost three out of four of those same adults had never even heard of the term.
The survey found it most commonly known among those born in the U.S., who were predominately either English-speaking or bilingual (29 percent of respondents in both groups), while only 7 percent of mainly Spanish-speaking respondents had heard of it.
— Pew Research Center (@pewresearch) August 11, 2020
Going by Pew's data, those mostly likely to identify as "Latinx" are between the ages of 18-29, a college graduate, and Democrat-leaning. Women were more likely as men to use "Latinx" to describe themselves; 5 percent as opposed to 1 percent of men. That said, the Pew Research survey does not include any self-identified non-binary respondents, which is important to note given that gender neutrality and inclusivity is one of the intentions of using "Latinx."
Why do some people not like the term "Latinx?"
There is no denying that the Spanish language is gendered (a group of 20 people with 19 women and 1 man is considered "Latino"), which is precisely why some have begun to embrace the term "Latinx" for its inclusive nature. However, with change can come backlash. "Hatred generally comes from conservative members of the community that still believe everything cultural needs to be sanctioned by the RAE, which is outdated," explains Ortiz Pérez.
Spanish-language purists argue that the word "Latinx" is simply about political correctness and that the word (and similar constructions) will "destroy Spanish," as Bowles puts sit. "I promise you, Spanish language has already evolved tremendously over the past 500 years and can withstand more."
A common misconception is that it is about sexual orientation, since its usage initially sprung up amongst LGBTQIA+ circles. But Pierce emphasizes that it is about gender identity and expression. "It does not imply any particular sexuality," he says. "Nor does 'Latinx' apply to everyone as an identity category. Instead, it expands the possibilities for expression that people have at their disposal. People who have been marginalized because of the gendered dynamics of Spanish view this shift toward the 'x' as one of inclusivity and openness."
At the end of the day, using the term "Latinx" is a personal choice. "My feeling is that we should allow one another to use the labels each of us selects," says Bowles. "I'm comfortable with Mexican-American, Chicano, and Latino. Others might have different preferences. It's a personal choice. No one can tell you to use Latinx...but no one can tell you not to, either."
Personally, I have embraced the term—but not everyone in the Latino/Latinx community has. And, as Bowles says, that personal choice should be respected and accepted.
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