Why Young People Use The Word Latinx — And How They Explain It To Their Parents
Latinx is so much more than a word — it’s an identity for those who've never felt that the terms Hispanic or Latino/a represented them. For older generations of Latinx people, though, there can still be a lot of confusion surrounding what it actually means, and why it’s necessary. Some people say that explaining the term Latinx to family members often leads to deeper conversations surrounding culture and identity. And despite any initial confusion or hesitation, that connection is a valuable one in fostering real inclusion.
Adriana Alejandre, a trauma therapist and founder of the Latinx Therapy podcast, tells Bustle that simply talking about the term can lead to discussions about self-esteem and acceptance. “When the term Latinx has come up, there have been beautiful conversations and tears about identity, and language necessary to feel supported," she says.
As Mother Jones reported, “Latinx” first appeared online in 2004 as an alternative to Latino and Latina, as well as the proposed gender-neutral term “Latin@” (pronounced as “Latino/Latina”). Since then, Latinx has become a staple term for younger generations wanting to be inclusive of queer, nonbinary, and gender non-confirming folks. Merriam-Webster officially added Latinx to its dictionary in September 2018, solidifying the ever-growing popularity of the term.
If you're wondering why "Latinx" is considered more inclusive than "Latino" or "Latina," let me take you back to 10th-grade Spanish class. As a refresher to Spanish grammar, all nouns are assigned a masculine or feminine gender, which typically shows up in the last letter of a word. There are exceptions, but in general, a word that ends in -a is "feminine" and a word that ends in -o is "masculine." When this rule is applied to people, the masculine version of a word is considered the neutral — “el doctor,” the doctor, versus “la doctora,” the female doctor — unless the word is describing a group of all women — “todo el mundo,” everyone, versus “todas las mujeres,” all the women. It's the case even if you’re describing a group of nine women and one man — you still use the masculine “neutral.”
And for this reason, many older Spanish speakers may be reluctant to adopt the -x ending, since the idea that -o is neutral is already an ingrained part of the language. But not only does using -o as neutral erase the experiences of women, it completely denies the possibility that a person may not identify as masculine or feminine. Saying Latinx instead of Latino or Latina, then, holds space for people who may identify outside the gender binary.
However, for older generations, the understanding and adoption of the word Latinx can be a struggle. As a first-generation CubaRican in the U.S., freelance writer Andrea Lausell tells Bustle via email that it seems as though her parents don’t fully understand the term. “My mom has continued to express her interest in learning more about [the word ‘Latinx’], and my father just ignores it,” Lausell says. “As for my other family members, they are more hostile when I try to explain it, and end up not engaging with learning about the word at all.”
Melanie Mignucci, a lifestyle editor at Bustle who identifies as Latinx and Jewish, says it's vital for "older generations in diaspora in the states" to begin to shift their language. Yet, she explains, “My parents and younger sister are more liable to say ‘Hispanic’ instead of Latino/a, even though I've explained to them the racist/non-inclusive history of the term. I think it's important to use Latinx both as an inclusive demographic identifier that doesn't have the baggage of Hispanic, and to hold space for people in our community who don't identify with -o or -a endings."
According to NPR, the term Hispanic became widely popular when added to the 1980 census after being championed by Hispanic people in President Richard Nixon's administration. But the term Latin American was considered "too foreign." Nowadays, Latinx and Indigenous activists say the word Hispanic erases the diverse dialects and Indigenous cultures of Latin America. Moreover, the term Hispanic refers explicitly to Spanish speaking countries, including Spain, and countries that were colonized by the European nation. However, it excludes non-Spanish speaking countries of Latin America, such as Brazil. The term Latinx is one way some people have chosen to reclaim their identity, who've never felt represented by the word Hispanic.
Laura Ozuna, the founder of Chronic Sad Girls Club, who identifies as Latinx and Mexicana, feels the word Latinx may force older generations to confront internal biases — or simply bring them to light, as it has with her parents. “I do feel empowered by the term Latinx, because it’s a statement to my continuous efforts to unlearn lots of what I’ve been taught. [...] I tried to make the conversation [with my parents] as casual and straightforward as possible and was met with resistance and defensiveness,” she tells Bustle. “They don’t favor the term Latinx, and barely tolerate it because there is a refusal to even acknowledge misogyny, transphobia, and internalized racism. I’m definitely an outsider in my own family (eldest daughter problems) because of my views.”
“I do feel empowered by the term Latinx, because it’s a statement to my continuous efforts to unlearn lots of what I’ve been taught."
Similarly to Ozuna’s parents, many critics of “Latinx” are vehemently opposed to the term even when the inclusivity of the word is explained. In an op-ed for Latino Rebels, Hector Luis Alamo called “Latinx” the “bulldozing of Spanish,” arguing that “Latino” is enough of a gender-inclusive term because the "o" ending in Spanish is considered a neutral, even though it's also used to describe "masculine" nouns. In a 2015 piece for the Los Angeles Times, writer David Hernandez even suggested using the antiquated term “Latin” as a gender-neutral alternative because it’s more pronounceable in Spanish. Critics also argue that "Latinx" is too Americanized, according to a 2017 article from NBC News. It's worth noting that a 2016 Pew Research Center report revealed that younger generations of Latinx people in the U.S. are speaking much less Spanish at home, which may partly explain why the term has risen in popularity. Mignucci, who’s bilingual, explains that while she doesn’t think the term Latinx “butchers Spanish,” it doesn’t need to necessarily “exist" the same way in Spanish.
“I recently had a conversation around the adoption of -e (as in todes versus todxs) with my family in Puerto Rico, and that was received a little better [than the idea of the -x ending], although I think there's still not enough understanding around why -o isn't an inclusive neutral,” Mignucci says.
Yet, many Spanish-speaking people still strive to accept the term Latinx, despite the difficulties surrounding translation and pronunciation. The founder of Therapy For Latinx, Brandie Carlos, was raised by her traditional grandmother, who immigrated to the U.S. from Sahuayo, Michoacán in Mexico. Throughout the years, Carlos says the pair had many difficult heart-to-hearts, challenging her grandmother’s conservative views. When Carlos’ grandmother first heard the word “Latinx” on Univision as a girl explained the importance of inclusivity, she embraced the term.
“My grandma told me that she was grateful to know about it, so that she wouldn't dismiss people's identity,” Carlos says. “I think these conversations are important to have — especially with the people we love the most. [...] Having older generations be a part of this conversation is important because it breeds more empathy, and acceptance.”
Having a term that someone can identify [with] wholly shifts their mental health in a positive direction.
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), close to 17% of Latinx people in the U.S. have a mental health condition, and those who are part of the LGBTQ community are twice as likely to have a mental illness. Alejandre says, “Having a term that someone can identify [with] wholly shifts their mental health in a positive direction.” For some, that word is Latinx. "I believe that not everyone has to identify as Latinx, but it is a word that we should respect when someone does identify themselves as Latinx," Alejandre says.
For Lausell, she says she will continue to have conversations with older family members about gender, the fluidity of language, and incorporating Latinx into their vocabulary. “No one is saying you can't say Latina/o; if that works for you, use it, but when you're talking about a group and you don't know everyone's gender identity, be kind and use Latinx.”
Words have power, and the ability to empower individuals, communities, and whole generations. Latinx is seen as an identity; it’s a term that serves to be more accepting, more inclusive, and more caring toward people who fall outside the gender binary. Though discussing the word Latinx with older family members may be difficult at times, the dialogue must continue.
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