Is ‘Latinx’ Being Inclusive or Canceling Our Culture?

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This article first appeared on LinkedIn

The debate around LatinX as a label among all people of Latin American descent rages on stronger than ever and I’ve realized that most brands, companies and the media don’t even bother to notice.

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I was introduced to this term a few years back and have been following the conversation ever since. I’ve really enjoyed the dialogue. It not only highlights how unique and diverse our culture is, but sheds some light on the grand challenges we face. Last summer—in maybe a knee jerk reaction to the George Floyd incident we had a surge of mainstream brands, companies and non-Latinos using it. I’m seeing it written in client emails, proposals, and used frequently by other non-Latinos. While LatinX serves a good purpose of being inclusive of non-binary individuals in the community, the word sparks a list of problems and backlash from the majority of the people it’s meant to represent. Numbers are now showing that it’s evolved to be an offensive term for many. Some even call it a “racial slur.” Recent data from ThinkNOW research shows that 60% of Latino/Hispanics dislike or find the term LatinX offensive.

“The Latino Community does not need to be exed,” said Al Martinez, a history professor at the University of Texas at Austin. “Most Latinas, Latinos, Hispanics did not ask for it.”

So what gives about this term that sparks so much debate?

QUICK BACKGROUND

For those that don’t already know, LatinX is meant to be a gender neutral solution to Latinos, in a language that uses masculine and feminine noun classifications. It’s especially meant for those individuals who identify as being non-binary, not forcing them to identify as either Latino or Latina.

The origins of LatinX are still unclear. On social media, I’ve heard it all. It’s from Argentina, Chile, Brazil, Puerto Rico. I’ve also heard that it stemmed from the Chicano/X movement. David Bowels wrote a great article noting that the intention was never to pronounce the “X” but more of making a statement. But even this is just a “theory.” We do know that the first time it was published was in 2004 in a Puerto Rican psychological periodical to challenge the gender binaries encoded in the Spanish language. From there we saw the word pick up in an academic setting, with many U.S. universities and activists adopting LatinX. While the word ultimately began trending on Google in 2016, you might be surprised to hear that word is still new to a lot of people in the community. In fact, a 2020 poll by Pew Research shows that 76% of the Latino/Hispanic population doesn’t even know what “LatinX” means. 

“But Henry, I know someone that uses it and they are Hispanic,” or “I know a Latino media outlet who uses it,” or even worse, “They use it in DEI.”

Yes, there are about 3% of Latinos/Hispanics that do use the term, so it is being used by some. And yes, the younger Millennial and Centennial generations are pushing for even more inclusion and the degendering of words. But the reality is that it’s still a very small percentage of people within a very large and diverse population. This is all very much an evolving conversation happening within the community.

To further highlight that point, here are some other interesting stats to share from Pew Research:

Not many young Latino/Hispanic people are using it

  • Among those Latino/Hispanics that use “LatinX,” only 7% are age 18-29
  • 5% are college graduates

LGBTQ+ Latinos/Hispanics also have a small percentage of usage

  • About 3% of LGBTQ+ Latinos preferred LatinX as an Identifier. Hispanic was the preferred label overall.

COMPLEXITY ROOTED IN OUR CULTURE / LANGUAGE 

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I use culture and language interchangeably because language is deeply rooted in the culture. It’s an important identifier for many U.S. Latinos/Hispanics. Some proponents of LatinX argue that “language evolves all the time,” and “the X is just a way of rejecting the gendering of words.” I’ll be the first to admit that the Latino/Hispanic community has its fair share of challenges with machismo. Unfortunately, culture is much more complicated than simply removing a letter and replacing it with an X. 

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Many Latinos/Hispanics feel that taking away the Spanish language in the name is like taking away part of their culture because that’s part of their identity.

Additionally, Spanish is a romance language (like French, Italian and Portuguese). While it makes sense and may not be a big deal to most English speakers to use “LatinX”, people who understand Spanish might be reluctant because their first reaction is:

“We already have an inclusive word for this…. It’s LATINO” (the “o” is already meant to be the general neutral).

Or

“Just use Latin”

As John Mcwhartor, a linguistic professor at Columbia university wrote in The Atlantic,

“Latinx may solve a problem, but it’s not a problem that people who are not academics or activists seem to find as urgent as they do. Now as always, imposing change on language is wickedly difficult from above, even change with wisdom in it”.

With such strong ties to their cultural traditions, it’s difficult for the community when they see a word that takes away its connection to Spanish language and broader Latin American culture.

LAS PROBLEMAS GRANDES – THE BIGGEST PUSH BACK FROM THE COMMUNITY

While the word has good intentions it seems to be missing the mark among most Latinos/Hispanics. Some in the community feel that it’s a step in the wrong direction. Alejandrina Gonzalez, a Mexican-American Stanford University student, suggests, “Millennials who view Latinx as liberating have it backwards. Changing our language is the opposite of empowering.” 

Below are the 4 major themes that are causing the most pushback for LatinX:

  1. It comes across as another form of colonization – a forced upon term by white, corporate America.
  • For those not familiar with colonialism, colonizers impose their religion, language, economics, and other cultural practices on indigenous people. The foreign administrators rule the territory in pursuit of their interests, seeking to benefit from the colonized region’s people and resources. While some can argue, that’s exactly what the Spaniards did to indigenous people in Latin American, many U.S. Latinos/Hispanics still value that as part of their cultural experience. As one Mexican friend told me “A lot of people don’t realize that Spaniards and Aztecs are what made Mexicans. No matter how they try to paint it, Spaniards are part of our history.” 
  • The reality is that the majority of Latinos/Hispanics are hearing this word for the first time from those outside their own community (e.i., from brands, corporate america or other other non-Latinos). The immediate reaction is typically first, confusion, followed by, “why are you trying to change my culture?” In a sense, the feeling is that this is a forced upon term by white, corporate America (whether that’s the truth or not). Cristobal Salinas, a professor at Florida Atlantic University who has researched the use of the term “Latinx,” said the term is sometimes seen as US-centric — and just another way that the US is exerting its influence on Latin America.

See below some of the reactions on social media with the word LatinX:

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2. It’s Non-inclusive of Spanish Speakers 

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I get it if you are a non-Spanish speaker. It seems like an easy solution. But for the 39 Million + U.S. Latinos/Hispanics that speak Spanish in their homes (and the millions who speak it in other countries), it gets a little complicated. The more it’s feeling “forced” on the audience, the more people are calling it “linguistic imperialism” or superimposing a non-Spanish, Anglicization of the culture.

Student authors Gilbert Guerra and Gilbert Orbea in their published article explaining…

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“By replacing o’s and a’s with x’s, the word “Latinx” is rendered laughably incomprehensible to any Spanish speaker without some fluency in English. Try reading this “gender neutral” sentence in Spanish: “Lxs niñxs fueron a lx escuelx a ver sus amigxs.” You literally cannot, and it seems harmless and absurd until you realize the broader implication of using x as a gender neutral alternative. It excludes all of Latin America, who simply cannot pronounce it in the U.S. way. It does not provide a gender-neutral alternative for Spanish-speaking non-binary individuals and thus excludes them. It excludes any older Spanish speakers who have been speaking Spanish for more than 40 years and would struggle to adapt to such a radical change. It effectively serves as an American way to erase the Spanish language.”

 

In speaking to members of the LGBTQ+ community, one Latina friend told me:

“It’s an American thing. X in Spanish doesn’t have the ‘ex’ sound it does in English. X is a soft J in Spanish. Primary example: Mexico. For us, it’s pronounced Me-ji-co, or with an S sound, Xochitl – So-Chil (the T is silent.) So we are not fans of it.”

3. It’s seen as elitist and a form of assimilation.

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Academia is definitely a privilege (at least that’s how it’s perceived by a lot in the Latino/Hispanic community.) And because a lot of universities have changed curriculum courses to reflect the “LatinX” label, in some instances forcing people to use it, many in the community feel like this is an academia problem. That they are trying to fix something that wasn’t really an issue in the first place.

And while there are some Latinos/Hispanics who will use the LatinX at school, they still refuse to use it at home or with friends.

One 2020 study conducted among College Latinos/Hispanics concluded that participants perceive higher education as a privileged space where they can use the term Latinx. Once they return to their communities, they do not use the term. Due to the variations in understandings of the term, the author contends that one should consider using the term Latin*

4. It’s dividing rather than unifying

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When you talk about Latinos/Hispanics, you are talking about people with different countries of origins, acculturation levels, language preferences and regions.

In a way, we still have not solved the fact that the community is not as unified or vocal as we can be. Now add a term like LatinX in the mix.

According to Priscilla Leiva, a Chicano/Chicana Studies professor at Loyola Marymount University, umbrella terms will always have their limitations and benefits.

“The battle over this term, in a lot of ways, is highlighting the fact that we still have a lot of work to do in our communities,” Leiva said.

Many in the community find themselves targets of racial stereotypes all the time. One Salvadorean L.A. resident mentions… “Sometimes people tell me that I’m Mexican. They say, ‘Hey, you Mexican. Are you from Mexico?’” Manuel Figueroa said. “I say, ‘I’m from El Salvador.’”

There is also the problem that we still overlook our Indigenous and African population. Archaeologist Kurly Tlapoyawa argues that “Latinx” erases people of indigenous and African origin, writing in an essay for Medium that the “Latin” aspect is what’s more problematic. Tlapoyawa notes that the idea of “Latin America” is rooted in colonialism and was championed by the French. He wrote that he identifies as “Mazewalli,” a term in the Nawatl language meaning “indigenous person.”

“If one is serious about non-gendered terminology, why cling to a European language as the basis of one’s identity? Why not simply adopt an indigenous term?” 

BRANDS AND THE MEDIA ARE BEING CALLED OUT

The main problem for marketers and media is that when it’s used, it becomes a distraction. The majority of the attention goes towards the usage of the word “LatinX” and the key messages of the article or the brand communication gets lost. An LATV writer wrote in this article:

“More often these days, it’s getting in the way of my messaging. It is increasingly preventing me from making crucial points about our community to the more middle-road and otherwise ‘unwoke’ section of the Latino community. As soon as they see the term Latinx, they dismiss every other thing I am trying to say as progressive nonsense, whether they might agree with it or not.”

Since last Hispanic Heritage month, we’ve seen a plethora of big brands use LatinX in their advertising and people in the Latino/Hispanic community have been voicing their opinions. Check out the below examples from Apple, IGN, Ritz Crackers and DC Comics.

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Latina blogger Luna Salinas wrote on her blog this past Hispanic Heritage Month that LatinX is “a bastardization of a Culture and its language” and calls out brands like Ulta Beauty for using it.

Latinx isn’t a term that should be thrown around by brands and companies, and it shouldn’t be the word used to describe Latinos or Hispanics. How can a brand claim to care about and celebrate Latinos, when the majority of them don’t self-identify as such, or even think the term should be used as an official classification?”

Other Latinas were not shy to jump in on the conversation via social media.

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LATINE: A POSSIBLE SOLUTION DRIVEN BY THE COMMUNITY

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There is a word that is picking up steam, especially in Latin America. Users say the word does a better job of being more inclusive of Spanish speakers and being more driven by people in the community.

That word is “Latine” (pronounced La-Teen-Eh).

Illustrator Terry Blas, told Remezcla in an interview “Latinx is a term that I find fascinating and confusing, and I encountered people who didn’t know what it meant.” He makes an argument in this comic for Latine saying “It’s inclusive and easy to pronounce” and “It rolled off the tongue.”

Generally, “Latine” sounds much more natural in Spanish and solves the bigger issue of Spanish getting a gendered language. It will be much easier to implement the “e” into the language vs. an “x” as this Tik Toker describes in her video.

Another factor here is that Latine gets more acceptance from Latin people in the U.S. being that it’s origins stem from a credible place, Latin America, unlike LatinX where it’s pushed more by non-Hispanic people.

Having said that, in the U.S., Latine is still very much in its infancy and not adopted by everyone either. Critics of the word still say “we don’t need it” but at least many understand how it “could” work.

SO WHAT SHOULD I USE AS A BRAND / MARKETER?

Speaking directly to an individual of Latin descent, if you want to know what label you should use, the obvious suggestion is, ask them. Some will not care. Some might say LatinX. The majority will probably prefer to be called by their country of origin. The Latino/Hispanic community is so diverse and every individual (regardless of ethnicity) has their own right to identify with how they would like.

When it comes to labeling this audience at large, this get’s tricky.You have to consider how you will be using it. Who is your target (outside of just Latino/Hispanic)? Is this for a social media post? Internal company correspondence? A spot on digital radio? While, no term will ever satisfy every single person, here is some guidance:

Pair Hispanic with LatinX 

If you insist on using LatinX and especially if your brand targets U.S. born, young Millennials and Centennials, LatinX could be appropriate to use given that this audience is more accepting of the degendering of words. Nonetheless, pair with the word Hispanic (e.i., Hispanic/LatinX) so that you avoid confusion or better yet, offending anyone in your audience.

Of course, if your core target is LGBTQ+, then it is fair to use LatinX on its own but caution that according to data, even this audience prefers Hispanic over LatinX.

Hispanic or Latino 

Using these two interchangeably still work. Data shows that the most preferred label among the audience is still the old word “Hispanic.” It could be that this word has been around so long and expanded generations that it’s most commonly understood. Hispanic also leaves no room for critics to say it’s not gender neutral so this may be the safest bet.

Hispanic does get some push back due to it being more about its ties to Spain and leaving out the connections to indigenous people in Latin America. This was also a word created by the U.S. Government which can be off putting to activists. Generally speaking though, the majority is not offended.

You might also find it surprising to know that Latino actually is gender neutral. In Spanish when you use Latino, it can include anyone. So Latino would also be a pretty safe bet and it’s more inclusive of our “brown” audiences in Latin America.

Just plain, Latin

If you are a brand/marketer that does get pushed back on Hispanic or Latino or still not comfortable using it due to concerns from the non-binary community, plain old “Latin” is a pretty safe solution for you. Latin is an abbreviation for “Latin American,” or “Latinoamericano” and includes anyone of Latin American descent.

A lot of critics of LatinX feel that this was always the solution. You are also not likely to get any pushback on this word.

Example: “This year, are team reaching out to our Latin owned businesses” 

Taking a leap with Latine

For the ultra progressive brands, who engage with more younger audiences, you may first want to have internal organizational conversations about the word “Latine.” It is still new for many in the Latino/Hispanic community so ask what people think. Inquire if this could be a good solution.

If you are a Hispanic brand (e.i., Jarritos, Goya, Tajin, etc), you have the credibility to be able to test the waters a little more. Maybe use in a few social media posts.

 

Time will tell if the term fully catches on. “LatinX” is however, helping the community have important conversations about the culture. With such a large, diverse group of people being lumped together, the best label to use is best to be decided and pushed by people in the community. Not white, corporate America.

Simply put, ‘LatinX’ does not = “You get me.”

The most important thing for brands and marketers is to truly understand your Latino/Hispanic audience. As a brand, reach out to them. Talk to them. A better start would be to be inclusive of other sometimes forgotten segments like the Spanish speakers, the Indigenous and Afro-Latins. Most important, help uplift and empower them. That’s how to really build a relationship with this audience.

 

Featured image: Nathaniel Levine/Sacramento Bee

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