Should we be using Latinx or Latine

Hispanic, Latino, Latinx
More than just labels

The attempt to find a general name for people from Latin America in the USA is being controversially received by both government institutions and citizens' groups. Nevertheless, it opens up an important debate about the identity and visibility of entire population groups.

By Ludy Grandas

"Hispanic teachers want to support Latino children in Georgia schools," writes a local US newspaper. Do the teachers come from a different region than the students? It depends on. Names like “Hispanic”, “Latino” and the newer form “Latinx” have a pan-ethnic, bureaucratic function - and they also mobilize.

Official US historiography has downplayed the presence of the originally Latin American, indigenous, and Spanish populations. For this reason, hardly anyone is aware that the presence of Latinos dates back to the 16th century when Spain established its first branches in Florida and New Mexico; that between 1846 and 1848 Mexico and the United States were in a territorial war with each other and that in 1848 with the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo Mexico ceded seven states to the United States, which today form the southwestern United States. The wealthy Mexicans were granted the protection of their civil rights and property. In contrast, the poor Mexicans received citizenship, but one of the second class. They and their descendants were contemptuously called "Chicanos", which was considered a synonym for poor or immoral.

During the civil rights movement of the 1960s, the term "Chicano" was proudly used as a self-term and popularized by Mexican students, farm workers and their descendants. Alongside the African American and other minorities, the Chicano movement called for inclusion, equal rights and equal opportunities as enjoyed by white society. That decade brought profound changes to American society and also influenced government at the state and federal levels. In an attempt to redress the social and economic imbalance from which the white population had benefited in the past, various presidential decrees affirmed the affirmative action program. This program was created so that the government and private companies would maintain fixed quotas to ensure equal opportunities for minorities.

A supposed pan-ethnic identity

To document the success of the Affirmative Action Program, the government ordered a statistical record of all residents with Latin American roots and those originally from Spanish-speaking countries for the first time in 1976. This should make their economic and social advancement in comparison to other immigrants and the white population visible. In this case, the 1977 census bureau officially used the term “Hispanic”, or “Hispano” in Spanish, to define a kind of pan-ethnic identity. For example, in the 1980 census, “Hispano” referred to all people born in Latin America or Spain and all descendants of at least one person born in Latin America or Spain.

The term “Hispanic” does not refer to a uniform ethnic origin, although the ethnic origin is next to the white and African American in the form RaceComponent becomes obvious. By imposing an identity of this magnitude, there is a risk that the persons concerned will react negatively to this classification. Indeed, it happened to the so-called Hispanics, who have very strong and diverse national affiliations, make up different population groups, and have very different basic economic, social, political and cultural experiences. The dissatisfaction with the ascribed term was not long in coming.

In big cities like New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles, the term Hispanic appeared, as Suzanne Oboler did in her book La identidad latinade ayer y de hoy (Eng .: The Latino identity yesterday and today) writes that the colonial structures in Latin America are only to be strengthened. In this sense, it seemed that the complex Latin American identity was being ignored and a departure from the black and indigenous minorities on the continent was taking place - in the name of Spanish heritage, Catholicism and an alleged cultural unity.

The alternative to “Hispanic” was then “Latin”, “Latino”. This term was intended to avoid any racist appeal, as if it were a real possibility in the United States, where everyone other per se according to race - i.e. racist - is classified. Calling yourself Latino in such a country was aimed at a clear political agenda - for example in relation to the right to vote, fair living, bilingual education - that would be difficult to implement if each individual community insisted on belonging to its respective national identity.

At first glance, Latino seems like an acronym for Latin Americans. From this perspective this is problematic, as it means that from the Rio Grande to Patagonia there is an ethnic and linguistic homogeneity that is derived from Spain, Portugal and France. This view also excludes the indigenous peoples, blacks and all other population groups who come from this region. In this sense, it is not surprising that the term Latino is not well received by various groups who feel that their identities have been made invisible. For their part, white Latinos believe that their belonging to Europe, especially Spain, is being misunderstood.

New names - new dissatisfactions

Since the 2000 census, the terms “Hispanic” and “Latino” have been used as synonyms in popular culture, the media, everyday communication, and educational institutions. As reported by the Pew Research Center in 2011, 51 percent of those registered stated that they preferred to identify with their home country or the country of origin of their families. Only 24 percent of the people concerned identify themselves as Hispanics or Latinos. It is clear that neither “Hispanic” nor “Latino” can conceptually satisfy an ever-growing population, by 2018 they made up 18 percent of the United States' population. This dissatisfaction arises because no matter how much a person appears to be culturally integrated, they are still seen as alien, regardless of whether the family has lived in the United States for generations or just crossed the border yesterday.

Panethnic terms such as Hispanic and Latino are still in use, but that does not rule out the possibility of finding new terms that represent greater inclusion. This is what the name "Latinx" stands for. Juliana Martínez and Salvador Vidal examine in their essay Latinx Thoughs: Latinidad with an X the possibilities that this term brings with it. In their opinion, it was already used in online forums in the 1990s and since 2015 it has also been used by academics and human rights campaigners as well as in social networks. The success of this designation is related to the term's ability to embrace the sexual, ethnic and social diversity of Latinos and to challenge the prevailing culture and norms by adding an “x” at the end to a gender-neutral, inclusive name.

Critics of the "Latinx" term see this term as another colonial lid that is blurring the history of people with traditional gender roles. They claim that it distracts from problems that really affect society. For others, the term is just a fad with no wider reach. As Martínez and Vidal observe, the term “Latinx” creates discomfort, especially among conservative, heterosexual Hispanics / Latinos who see a destabilization of the structure within which they have held power through marginalization and violence against minorities.

So we can come to the conclusion that it is just as illusory to create a pan-ethnic category like Hispanic, Latino or Latinx as to speak of a unified Latin American identity. Yet it remains indisputable that these labels, while problematic, have enabled the emergence of solidarity movements that give visibility and scope to the largest minority in the United States.
  • Print article