Using Language to define a multi-continental Diaspora
Before we Begin
We use language to categorize groups, often failing to effectively — linguistically — describe the people we’re referring to in a single word. People contain multitudes. No one phrase is truly adequate to represent millions of people, especially when so many distinct cultures are lumped together; this is particularly true when it comes to Hispanic and Latino communities. Understandably, there’s always nuance and debate about the most inclusive terminology. Here are numerous terms used, misused, and associated with the Hispanic and Latino communities:
In the early 2000s, queer Latinxs began using the term on message boards and blogs. The trend accelerated after the 2016 massacre of 49 mostly queer Latinx people at Pulse, the Orlando nightclub. It built on the use of the machismo-resisting “Latin@s” or “Latino/a,” which pushed back against the Spanish language’s male-centric gendering. Latinx sought to cast an even wider net.
The “x” was already employed by many in Latin America to replace the male “o” and female “a” conjugations, yielding words such as “todxs,” meaning “everyone” in Portuguese and Spanish.
For some Latinos, particularly older ones, Latinx sounds weird. They find it hard to pronounce the “x” in English, though Spanish pronunciations of “Latin” and “x” can combine into a smooth “Latin-equis,” which rhymes with Dos Equis, the Mexican beer.
Others argue the term doesn’t do enough. Mexican historian and activist Citlalli Citlalmina Anahuac makes the case that both Latinx and Latino are anti-Indigenous, like the term Hispanic, often seen as centering Spanish colonizers. “The term ‘Latin’ is Eurocentric and centralizes whiteness,” she told me. “By adding an ‘x’ or an ‘e,’ we’re just playing with a colonial identity.”
But for many, Latinx feels like an important act of resistance against mainstream exclusion. Afro-Zapotec poet Alan Pelaez Lopez sees the “x” as symbolic of a wound, an important “reminder of the erasure of Black Latinxs,” among other traumas with which the community must reckon.
The letter “x” has a history in the civil rights movement as well. Latinx researcher Nicole Guidotti-Hernández points to Malcolm X, who adopted “X” to replace the white enslaver’s last name imposed on his family. She also points to Chicano civil rights activists who commonly replaced “ch” with “x” (Xicano instead of Chicano) as a nod to the Indigenous language Nahuatl.
Defenders of the term admit it isn’t perfect. Paola Ramos, a queer Latina and Vice News correspondent who wrote “Finding Latinx,” isn’t trying to force it on others. She just wants to normalize it. She gets inundated with hate and harassment for using the term — mostly from white, right-wing Latino men.
“When you’re a white Latino and you start seeing yourself next to a Black Latino, next to a transgender Latino, next to a queer Latino, next to an Indigenous Latino, you start to truly understand the diversity of our community,” she said. “That’s an image that a lot of people reject.”
The desire to dictate how Latinos can identify and exist comes predominantly from the right. But exceptions do exist. Tanya K. Hernández, an Afro-Latina of my mother’s generation and author of a forthcoming book on anti-Blackness among Latinos, says she’s had editors and colleagues — even some white ones — tell her she should default to the word Latinx, which doesn’t come naturally to her, even though she is not opposed to its use. She gently but firmly declines.
“People should have the right to describe themselves in the ways they find most appropriate,” she argues. Plus, she told me: “I’d rather talk substance as opposed to the formalities of the proper etiquette or the proper word on a particular day. We still have children at the border. We still have people in immigration detention centers. Let’s talk about that.”
Perhaps the debate about a word wouldn’t generate so much heat if it weren’t cast as either/or. Latinx strives for inclusivity. We don’t need to be pitted against one another, Latino versus Latinx. That’s exactly what far-right forces would like. Don’t fall for it.
We tend to view the term as an American English attempt to define the greater Pan-American Diaspora in English terminology. Which stands separate from the term "Latine" which was designed to be functional in the Spanish language. You will regularly see us use the terms interchangeably depending on the context and conversation.
The term "Latine" which was designed to be functional in the Spanish language. You will regularly see us use the terms interchangeably depending on the context and conversation.
Some people, particularly those who come from Spanish-speaking countries, also prefer the gender-neutral term “Latine” because it phonetically fits better with the Spanish language. For those interested in the current movement in Spanish-speaking Latin American countries to use “Latine” (vs. Latinx or Latino).
Chicano refers to the Mexican American community. The term originates from the 1960s Chicano Movement for civil rights as a way to reclaim and take pride in Mexican-American identity — in much the same way that other activists of the time reclaimed terms used to deride. Like Latino, Chicano is gendered with Chicano/a and Chicanx (gender-neutral, although the same criticisms of Latinx apply). You may have heard of MEChA, or the Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlan (the Chicano Student Movement of Aztlan), an organization active on many college campuses that promotes higher education, community engagement, political participation, culture, and history for their community. MEChA highlights ongoing discussions surrounding Chicano identity, with some embracing its activist origins and others seeking greater inclusivity for non-Mexican Americans.
Before the arrival of the Spanish, Taíno inhabitants called their island Borikén, or “land of the brave lord.” This term became Boriquén in Spanish (and eventually Borinquen) and has remained a symbol of the island’s rightful inhabitants, many of whom died within 50 years of the colonists’ arrival.
Over the centuries, “Boriqua” has evolved into a term that stands for a sense of pride, cultural identity and is known throughout the world today.
"Hispanic vs. Latino"
These two terms are often used interchangeably, but they actually have different meanings. “Hispanic” refers to Spanish-speaking people from Spanish-speaking countries, whereas “Latino” refers to those from Latin America including Central America, South America, and the Caribbean.
Hispanic was first used and defined by the U.S. Federal Office of Management and Budget's (OMB) Directive No. 15 in 1977, which defined Hispanic as "a person of Mexican, Puerto Rican, Cuban, Central or South America or other Spanish culture or origin, regardless of race." The term was formed out of a collaboration with Mexican American political elites to encourage cultural assimilation into American society among all Hispanic/Latino peoples and move away from the anti-assimilationist politics of Chicano identity, which had gained prominence in the preceding decades through the Chicano Movement. The rise of Hispanic identity paralleled an emerging era of conservatism in the United States during the 1980s.
Latino first emerged at the local level through media outlets in the early 1990s. The Los Angeles Times was one of the first major newspapers to use the term Latino instead of Hispanic. Some local panethnic institutions and Spanish-language media adopted the term for community unity and political organizing. The emergence of Latino resulted in increasing criticism over Hispanic. Many supporters of Latino argued that Hispanic was reasserting a colonial dynamic or relationship with Spain. Others argued that Hispanic failed to acknowledge mestizo culture and political struggle as well as erased the existence of Indigenous, Afro-Latin American, and Asian Latinos peoples throughout the Americas. Latino was also described as more inclusive.
No matter what term you self identify with, we believe that it's your choice on which term to use. In the end all we truly care about is that all peoples of the cultural diaspora feel represented in a way that is preferable to them.