Latinos Finding Identity in A Word That Means a Lot
Language is an interesting thing. It evolves, and is manipulated by the people that use it wherever they may exist.
The English Language sprouted from Anglo-Saxon Britain around the 5th century. The Spanish language came after the fall of the Roman civilization, and as a dialect of Latin.
Throughout the ages, as both languages became the common tongue in their respective regions of the world, they spread, and syntax changed, words changed, and even crossed into other languages to form new additions to the lexicon.
Even now, when language seems to have its rules and boundaries set (besides slang), there are words that change convention because of necessity.
“Latinx” is a word that aims to break the mold, with it being a perfect example of a group of people needing a new way to describe themselves. Although not officially used in all of the world, it has been gaining use in the mainstream for years for a variety of reasons.
The history of the word Latinx and why it is beginning to be used more and more across the board of Spanish language lexicon begins with what history teaches of the Spanish language and gendered words.
When a group of people is together, it can be described as “they”. In Spanish, it depends on the gender makeup of the group. If it is all males, it is ellos. If it is all females, it is ellas. If it is a mixed group, it is still considered ellos. The Spanish language is filled with these types of nouns that are gender specific, and when males are introduced in a situation, it becomes the default masculine “o”.
Latinx derives from the belief that there shouldn’t be a hierarchy to the gender distinctions. That there should be an inclusive way to identify. The term also exists to create an identity for Latinos which is rarely their choice, whether by traditional societal standards or historical treatment of identity.
Katynka Z. Martínez, PhD, is an Associate Professor and Department Chair of San Francisco State University’s Latina/Latino Studies program, which falls under the College of Ethnic Studies. Her view of the term correlates to the Latin American history, and finding identity.
“People of Latin American heritage who live in the U.S. have constantly been engaged in a struggle to define themselves on their own terms.”
Professor Martinez historically highlights what can be seen as one of the core purposes of the “Latinx movement”. In the pursuit of “equal footing”, the term gives those using it the ability to identify with a word that defines a belief system mirroring their own.
Much like Latino Social Justice groups in history, Professor Martinez says, “The activism of the Young Lords and the Chicano movement was incredibly strong in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The folks involved in these movements were committed to social justice, stopping the U.S. involvement in the war in Viet Nam, challenging police abuse in their neighborhoods, and affirming their identities on their own terms. Sometimes this meant creating new names like Chicana and Nuyorican.”
Like the groups of early Latino Social Justice movements in the US, it’s the users own progressive beliefs that are incorporated and represented by the word.
Since the term Latinx stems from a need for gender inclusivity it’s no surprise that its first recorded use was in the early 2000’s, by members of the LGBTQ community, specifically Afro-Latinos. Although the term is new by US social justice standards, its creation comes from a history of searching for identity.
According to Google Trends, which maps search-volume, it first showed up online in May of 2004, then fluctuated in popularity over the years, until it shot up in late 2015 and has steadily kept rising in use and inquiries due to social media and the presence of the internet in general.
Maritza Martinez, Director at Somos Familia, a Latino LGBTQ focused nonprofit, knows all too well the identity crisis that LGBT Latinos encounter, which in turn leads self-creation of signifiers like Latinx.
“One of the biggest challenges many Latina/o/x youth face is family and community acceptance. LGBTQ Latino youth [are] twice as likely than non-LGBTQ Latino youth to say they do not “fit in” with the communities where they live,” says Martinez.
One of the goals at Somos Familia is to provide the support system and “intergenerational leadership” to Latinos who might have a hard time understanding their children’s or relative’s views on identity, or the process of “coming out”. Likewise, it can also help interpret a parent’s or elder’s views.
Martinez adds, “As LGBTQ people, we spend time learning about gender and sexuality in order to better understand ourselves. After this long journey of self-discovery, we come out and then our parents and family have to go through a similar learning process to understand what we are telling them. In many cases concepts like gender non-conforming or pansexual will be difficult to understand and Spanish translations may be wordy or difficult to understand.”
A Historical Meaning
And so, as members of the Latino LGBTQ community began using Latinx to identify themselves in the early 2000’s, its usage spread to other groups of Latinos, who as a group have historically been at crossroads in how they identify in this country.
Professor Martinez says, “Many people opposed the term “Hispanic” because they associated it with Richard Nixon, who was president when this term was first used in the 1970 U.S. Census. Opposition to the term “Hispanic” can only be understood within this context – as a government imposed term that failed to recognize the self-naming, self-determination, and struggles of large segments of the very population it purported to address.”
It’s true that for many Latinos, there exists a few options in how they identify, and they can be interchangeable depending on the context. One can for example identify as Mexican-American, Guatemalan, Chicano, Hispanic, or Latino. But like the word Hispanic or Latino, some would rather not identify due to historical context, and the fact that it was people like Nixon that utilized it in the first place. Latinx serves as a way to take control of the cultural identity.
“The term “Latinx” could be viewed as a continuation of this struggle. People who choose to use this term are drawing attention to the fact that previous terms that were used to refer to people of Latin American heritage have not completely captured the full experiences and realities of this population,” says Professor Martinez.
In some circles, the identifier Latinx can also be seen as a form of “reclamation” or rebellion from the European/Spanish language that our official definitions and usage come from (By way of the Real Academia Española, who most definitely does not side with the term Latinx).
A Latinx Future?
As Professor Martinez notes, there has been an overall fluctuating history of changing identifiers in the Latin American community. Latinx is just the latest in a long line of searching for the right word to describe oneself.
“It’s worth keeping in mind that we’ve been reworking these names for a long time. For example, in 1975 Ester Hernandez created an etching and titled it “La Virgen de Guadalupe Defendiendo Los Derechos de los Xican@s.” The art piece made a strong impression on viewers both because it presents a karate-kicking Virgen de Guadalupe and because it reworks “Chicano” by introducing the term and idea of “Xican@s.”
In present time, the use of Xican@s is indeed still used by some, although its use is essentially only in the United States. It is in this country where the very identity of our varied histories is in a constant flux, and to that end, why terms like Chicano, Xican@s, and now Latinx exist.
At San Francisco State University, where the College of Ethnic Studies was the first in the nation, the storied culture of academia and the culture of students has different approaches to Latinx in the present.
“Many students use the term “Latinx.” Unfortunately, some of SF State’s official documents are pretty far behind with regards to the terms they use to refer to our community. Some official reports only use the term “Mexican-American” and fail to recognize the full diversity of our campus community,” says Professor Martinez.
Even then, Professor Martinez sees Latinx as something of value to Latinos. “I think it’s great that a new term is being introduced now. I look forward to the conversations that will take place when folks who use the term engage in conversations with those who have never heard of it and might have never questioned gender binaries.”
In the end, the term Latinx works for some, not for all. It is not the supreme answer to complicated cultural histories and does not mean it will replace whatever one chooses to identify themselves as. In a way though Latinx provides generations of Latinos with a stepping stone in finding their own place in this world while paying homage to their heritage.
And it definitely helps to form an understanding of why people use Latinx and why it was created in the first place.
Somos Familia’s Martinez says, “It is my hope that everyone will come to understand the word even if they don’t use it. We focus on gender so much throughout everyday life without even noticing and this can be harmful to some people. I think it is a critical way to validate, acknowledge and celebrate the identities of Latinx people beyond the gender binary. We need more inclusive language like this for our community.”
As history has shown, eventually there may be another signifier that works better to better classify the diverse nature of being Latin American. But for now, Latinx is here.
For more information on ways to connect and learn more, please visit somosfamiliabay.org.