Americans have a hard time pinning us down. We’ve been branded with label after label, each tag trying but failing to sum up in a single word the 60 million of us with Latin American and Caribbean ancestry who’ve made a home here.
In just over half a century, appellations have been applied like stickers. First we were Hispanic, then Latino and, lately, Latinx.
More and more institutions are pushing back against the pressure from small, vocal groups to apply a term of identity that most don’t identify with.
The first time I heard that word, in the mid-2000s, I was teaching at a university in New York. I wasn’t quite sure I understood and laughed, thinking it was a joke. A colleague far more immersed in Latino issues than I was had used it offhandedly when we were chatting, and I had to ask him to explain it after I did a double take.
It soon became clear it was no joke. Latinx was becoming an official term on elite college campuses, popular among academics, progressives, young activists and LGBTQ groups who wanted gender-neutral terminology. (In Spanish words ending in “O” are masculine and those ending in “a” are feminine. When referring to a mixed-gender group, the plural word ends in the masculine “O,” so substituting that letter for “X” avoids preferencing the men.)
When I heard it, my first thought was that it wasn’t Spanish — but that it was pretentious. Many Latinos like myself see the ‘X’ as odd and off-putting because it doesn’t follow the traditional structure of Spanish, making it awkward and difficult to pronounce because in Spanish few words end with two consonants.
In fact, recent national surveys of Hispanics/Latinos show that the term Latinx is highly unpopular. Influential media and advocacy groups have started dropping the term or even arguing against its use to avoid offending those who dislike it. It might have been intended to be more inclusive, but it actually can feel exclusionary to everyday people.
“The reality is there is very little to no support for its use and it’s sort of seen as something used inside the Beltway or in Ivy League tower settings,” said Domingo Garcia, president of the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), the oldest Latino civil rights organization in America. He made the comment in announcing the group’s decision to drop “Latinx” from its official communications because it’s so unliked by most Latinos. “LULAC always rep Jose and Maria on Main Street in the barrio and we need to make sure we talk to them the way we talk to each other.”
That decision came last week after a new survey of 800 registered voters of Latin American descent showed that only 2 percent described themselves as Latinx. The poll, conducted in November by Bendixen and Amandi International, a Miami-based Democratic firm, also showed that 68 percent prefer Hispanic and 21 percent favor Latino. A whopping 40 percent found the word Latinx offensive.
“That’s the irony of ‘Latinx’ — it’s supposed to be inclusive but erases a crucial part of Latin American identity and language, and replaces it with an English word,’’ The Miami Herald said in an editorial reacting to the survey.
The political implications are considerable. Democrats, including President Joe Biden, have been deploying the word Latinx, apparently believing that a gender-neutral word that was born among liberal academics and progressive activists would appeal to Latinos.
“Why are we using a word that is preferred by only 2 percent but offends as many as 40 percent of those voters we want to win?” pollster Fernand Amandi told Politico.
Republicans wasted no time exploiting the survey’s results. Jason Miyares, the Republican attorney general-elect of Virginia, who is Cuban American, told Politico that the word offends Latino voters and suggests elitism. He called it an incorrect term and accused progressives of engaging in “a type of cultural Marxism.”
Even its defenders are conceding the term hasn’t fulfilled its promise. Latinx proponent Arnaldo Cruz-Malave, a professor at Fordham University, says the use of Latinx “has only picked up momentum with the struggles for queer and trans rights in the past decade both in Latin America and the U.S.”
Yet he acknowledges that “Latinx hasn’t become very popular among those it’s supposed to designate because it feels alien to them and doesn’t make much sense from a linguistic viewpoint.”
We want to be identified by our nationalities, each with individual histories, traditions, customs, languages and dialects.
Given the term’s lack of wide acceptance, Latinx could thankfully be on the way out. As the data makes clear, more and more institutions are pushing back against the pressure from small, vocal groups to apply a term of identity that most don’t identify with.
If there were any doubt that Latinx should be retired, Telemundo and Univision, the nation’s largest Spanish-language broadcast networks and experts in what their Spanish-speaking audiences like, have opted for Latino.
What’s in that name? Plenty of business considerations. The Latino/Hispanic market is huge and growing. It’s important for companies not to offend their consumers — though of course some of them will prefer Latinx for that reason as well. Says a New York-based media executive who has clients who prefer Latinx: “I personally prefer and identify as Latina, but I believe it’s a personal choice and should be respected either way.”
So how did all these choices — this Babel of labels — come about?
In the mid-1950s, Puerto Ricans activists in New York and Mexican organizers out West, mainly in California, created a united political movement that Washington could not ignore and, eventually in the 1970s, a new Census category was established for people of Latin American descent in the United States.
Hispanic was the designation, echoing the Spanish word “hispanos,” as in Spanish descendants. At the time, the Hispanic population was estimated at 9.1 million people, roughly 4.5 percent of the U.S. population.
A couple decades later, that term Hispanic began to lose ground as activists and intellectuals objected to the word’s reference to colonialist Spain. So along came Latino. But the term Hispanic didn’t go away, and they became synonyms.
While Latinx is now challenging their monopoly, in fact they are all poor substitutes for the way that we members of this large, complex and diverse group want to be characterized.
It’s no secret. We’ve spoken out repeatedly. Pew polling over nearly two decades consistently shows our preference. We want to be identified by our nationalities, each with individual histories, traditions, customs, languages and dialects. We are Mexican Americans, Colombians, Venezuelans, Salvadorans, Puerto Ricans, Brazilians, Hondurans and so on.
In one such example, Jorge Duany, director and professor at the Cuban Research Institute at Florida International University, told me he prefers to use the term “Cuba-Rican” in order to describe “my hybrid background as a Cuban-born person raised in Puerto Rico.”
Mark Hugo Lopez, director of race and ethnicity research at Pew Research Center, which found in 2020 that only 3 percent of the population call themselves Latinx, uses even more levels of specificity. He said he describes himself as Chicano with Mexican American audiences in California, but as Mexican American with audiences in Texas, and Hispanic with audiences of Cubans in South Florida. “Finally, if someone who isn’t American asks me about my identity. I say I am American.”
Admittedly, it would be a messy task for the Census to sort all of us out. It would confuse the media, which already has enough trouble differentiating between ethnicities, and it would be unproductive for ethnic and racial movements that depend on unity in numbers.
Yet we can’t always be lumped together under a collective name. We are a blur of colors and languages, histories and faces. No one word can capture that all, especially Latinx.