Stop using ‘Latinx’ if you really want to be inclusive

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Melissa K. Ochoa, Saint Louis University

(THE CONVERSATION) Most of the debate over the use of “Latinx” – pronounced “la-teen-ex” – has taken place in the United States. But the word started to spread in Spanish-speaking countries – where it wasn’t exactly embraced.

In July 2022, Argentina and Spain issued public statements banning the use of Latinx, or any gender-neutral variant. Both governments have deemed these new terms to be violations of the rules of the Spanish language.

Latinx is used as an individual identity for those who are gender nonconforming, and it can also describe an entire population without using “Latinos”, which is currently the default in Spanish for a group of men and women.

As a scholar born in Mexico and raised in the United States, I agree with the official Argentinian and Spanish position on banning Latinx from the Spanish language – English too.

When I first heard Latinx in 2017, I thought it was progressive and inclusive, but quickly realized how problematic it was. Five years later, Latinx is not commonly used in Spanish-speaking countries, nor by the majority of those who identify as Hispanic or Latino in the United States.

In fact, there is a gender-neutral term that is already used by Spanish-speaking activists that works as a much more natural substitute.

Low usage

Although the exact origins of Latinx are unclear, it appeared around 2004 and gained popularity around 2014. Merriam-Webster added it to its dictionary in 2018.

However, a 2019 Pew research study and a 2021 Gallup poll indicated that less than 5% of the American population used “Latinx” as a racial or ethnic identity.

Nevertheless, Latinx is becoming commonplace among academics; it is used at conferences, in communication and especially in publications.

But is it inclusive to use Latinx when most people don’t?

Perpetuate elitism

The distinct demographic differences of those who know or use Latinx call into question whether the term is inclusive or simply elitist.

People who identify as Latinx or are familiar with the term are more likely to be American-born young adults, ages 18-29. They are mostly Anglophones and have a college education. In other words, the most marginalized communities don’t use Latinx.

Researchers, in my view, should never impose social identities on groups that do not identify themselves that way.

Once, a reviewer of an academic journal article I submitted about women’s experiences with catcalling told me to replace my use of “Latino” and “Latina” with “Latinx.” However, they had no problem with me using “male” or “female” when referring to my white attendees.

I was annoyed by the audacity of this reviewer. The objective of the study was to show catcalling, a gendered interaction, as an everyday form of sexism.

How was I supposed to differentiate my participants’ experiences of sexism by gender and race if I labeled them all as Latinx?

The X Factor

If a term is truly inclusive, it gives fair weight to extremely diverse experiences and knowledge; it is not a global identity.

Women of color, in general, are severely underrepresented in leadership positions and STEM fields. The use of “Latinx” for women further obscures their contributions and identity. I’ve even seen academics try to circumvent the nebulous nature of Latinx by writing “Latinx Mothers” or “Latinx Women” instead of “Latinas.”

Also, if the goal is to be inclusive, the “x” would be easily pronounceable and naturally applied to other parts of the Spanish language.

Some Spanish speakers prefer to identify themselves by nationality – for example, “Mexican” or “Argentinian” – instead of using generic terms like Hispanic or Latino. But the “x” does not easily apply to nationalities. Like Latinx, “Mexicanx” and “Argentinx” do not exactly come off the tongue in any language. Meanwhile, gendered articles in Spanish – “los” and “las” for the plural “le” – become “lxs”, while gendered pronouns – “el” and “ella” become “ellx”.

The usefulness and logic of it quickly crumbles.

‘Latin’ as an alternative

Many academics might feel compelled to continue using Latinx because they have fought to have it recognized by their institutions or have already published the term in an academic journal. But there is a much better gender-neutral alternative, which has been largely ignored by the American academic community and is already being used in Spanish-speaking areas of Latin America, especially among young social activists in those countries.

It’s “Latin” – pronounced “lah-teen-eh” – and it’s much more adaptable to the Spanish language. It can be implemented as articles – “les” instead of “los” or “las”, the words for “the”. As far as pronouns are concerned, “elle” can become a singular form of “ils” and be used instead of the masculine “él” or the feminine “ella”, which translates to “he” and “she”. It can also be easily applied to most nationalities, such as “Mexican” or “Argentinian”.

Because language shapes the way we think, it’s important to note that gendered languages ​​like Spanish, German, and French facilitate gender stereotyping and discrimination. For example, in German the word bridge is feminine, and in Spanish the word bridge is masculine. Cognitive scientist Lera Boroditsky asked German and Spanish speakers to describe a bridge. German speakers were more likely to describe him using adjectives like “beautiful” or “elegant”, while Spanish speakers were more likely to describe him in masculine ways – “tall” and “strong”.

Also, the existing gender rules in Spanish are not perfect. Usually words ending in “-o” are masculine and words ending in “-a” are feminine, but there are many common words that break these gender rules, such as “la mano”, the word for ” hand”. And, of course, Spanish already uses an “e” for neutral words, such as “estudiante” or “student”.

I believe Latine accomplishes what Latinx originally meant and more. Likewise, it eliminates the binary gender in its singular and plural form. However, Latin is not limited to an elite English-speaking population in the United States. It is inclusive.

Nevertheless, problems can still arise when the word “Latin” is imposed on others. “Latina” and “Latino” may still be preferable for many people. I don’t think the “-e” should eliminate the existing “-o” and “-a”. Instead, it could be a grammatically acceptable addition to the Spanish language.

Yes, Argentina and Spain’s ban on Latinx also included a ban on using Latine. This is where I deviate from their directive. For me, the idea that language can be purist is nonsense; language is always evolving, whether through technology – think emoticons and text language – or increased social awareness, such as the evolution of “domestic violence” to “domestic violence”.

Linguistic theory posits that language shapes reality, so cultures and communities can create words that shape the inclusive world they want to inhabit.

Language matters. Latin embodies this inclusiveness – across socio-economic status, citizenship, education, gender identity, age groups and nations, while honoring the Spanish language in the process.

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