When the final letter in “Latino” or “Latina” is replaced with an “x,” it’s hard not to notice.
The gender-neutral word “Latinx” is increasingly the preferred terminology to describe people of Latin American descent and has become so popular that it was added to Merriam-Webster’s dictionary last week.
Proponents insist that the word is necessary in the name of inclusion, especially for those who are LGBT and gender-nonconforming. But its use is still controversial and often prompts visceral reactions for some Spanish speakers, who sometimes encounter it online before they hear it used in person.
“The term was coined within queer Internet groups. That was where it was used first and foremost,” said María R. Scharrón-del Río, a professor of psychology at Brooklyn College who uses the pronouns they/them.
“Latinx” first surfaced in popular usage more than a decade ago, although Scharrón-del Río points out that the LGBT community used it long before then. According to data from Google Trends, which tracks the popularity of words in its search engine, “Latinx” spiked in popularity in 2016.
Peter Sokolowski, editor at large at Merriam-Webster, said the ‘x’ construction could become a model that spreads to other languages with grammatical gender agreement, such as Filipino or French. But the decision to add it to the dictionary was an objective one, he said.
“The job of the dictionary is to follow the changes in the culture that are expressed in the language,” Sokolowski said. “The only constant in language is change, and we want to keep up.”
Although the term has increased in frequency as an alternative to the collective Latino, Latino/a or Latin@, some argue that it’s insensitive to the Spanish language, in which all nouns carry a gender and there is no obvious way to pronounce the letter x. When Latinx-focused publications such as Remezcla use the term, it’s often met with criticism.
In a Facebook comment for a Remezcla story, reader Sandra Velez said the publication’s use of “Latinx” amounted to “Anglicizing the Spanish language.”
“Do they hate or revile their Hispanic/Latino ancestry so much they are willing (unwitting?) accomplices in erasing their own heritage? Because that’s exactly what’s happening,” she wrote.
Orietta Ramirez, a 56-year-old New Yorker who works in human resources, is a first-generation daughter of Chilean immigrants who prefers to use “Latina” for herself or “Latinos” in reference to a group.
“I am proud that our Hispanic language differentiates between male and female,” Ramirez wrote in a Facebook message. “Not a fan of homogenizing our sexuality into one word just to make others comfortable or one that would simplify our colorful, cultural descriptive differences, in my opinion.”
Ruby Corado, a transgender activist, prefers to identify as Latina because identifying herself with a gender-neutral word is fraught with complexity.
“I grew up fighting for my gender to be recognized as Latina,” said Corado, who was born in El Salvador but has lived in Washington, D.C., for decades. “That’s something that’s not going to change, but [Latinx] is something I’m adapting to as I’m doing work with millennials.”
Corado is an activist and founder of Casa Ruby, an LGBTQ bilingual and multicultural organization in Washington. She said that many of the younger people she works with prefer the term “Latinx,” a word she’s slowly adapting to.
“I come from the old school, so I actually like the term ‘Latina,’ ” said Corado, who speaks both Spanish and English. “But I embrace that term, [Latinx] as well. You have to understand, I came from a time when everything was gender-based.”
Whatever people choose to identify as, the Latinx issue is likely to be constantly evolving as part of the greater conversation in the community about machismo and increased visibility of those who don’t fit into neat categories of masculine or feminine.
“We need to see more and that’s part of what the ‘x’ does — it makes visible the fact that people aren’t included within the ‘a’ or the ‘o.’ And it’s really a linguistic intervention,” Scharrón-del Río said. “Just knowing that there is an ‘x’ makes you think about what that means and makes you question what you often take for granted.”