In the midst of social movements led by American youth demanding equality — which manifests in many forms — I have been feeling disillusioned. The commodification of social justice into something consisting of clothing and accessories with particular sayings or phrases, social justice’s prominence and dissemination in social media and the flood of buzzwords into our everyday vocabulary has created a leviathan of forward-thinking young people hungry for change. But change can be harmful; change can sometimes be worse than what’s already in place.
The word ‘Latin’ as a denomination was created by French colonists in order to identify who was a part of French colonial projects and who wasn’t. The word found new usage in English-speaking Americans in order to maintain the racial imaginary — an argument for another day — that somehow people of Latin American descent were inherently different from them.
We were labeled as ‘Hispanics’ for a while in the 20th century. But that word, linguistically speaking, associated us too much with our estranged “Mother” Spain, so ‘Latino/a’ became the umbrella term. ‘Latina’ soon followed. Scholars in the latter half of the century tried legalizing ‘[email protected]’ as a gender-neutral phrase — to be pronounced awkwardly as ‘Latino/a’ when spoken. That never caught on. But that odd, mutated word is the predecessor to an even more befuddling term, ‘Latinx.’
First, I want to dispel any gathering suspicions you may have about my qualm with ‘Latinx.’ I understand why it exists. It serves a purpose in a society where many of us have realized that not everyone is a man or a woman. The gender neutrality of the term works for Latin Americans who don’t want to be gendered. It’s perfectly understandable why the word has caught on. The problem with ‘Latinx’ is multilayered and complex, never mind the fact that few would dare challenge the authority it has garnered among the politically and socially enlightened circles of academia. It’s quickly being adopted by people and institutions like NYU without a single inquiry into the implications of legitimizing it.
To start, the letter x does not exist as an ending in Spanish, which is gendered — like German, French and many other languages. And if we were really going to follow the logic of using x, important words like ‘el orgullo’ would have to be ‘xl orgullx’; ‘la Latinidad’ would be devolved into ‘lx Latinidxd.’ Not to mention all the other words in Spanish that don’t abide by typical rules for gendered words, like ‘la radio,’ and the sort of changes those words would have to undergo.
Such an ending cannot be introduced to a language that has developed a very specific way of functioning. It only gets worse when huge institutions like NYU start flinging the word in official, university-wide announcements. It legitimizes the word and gives it weight. The more it’s normalized, the less likely people are to realize that this is an instance of serious linguistic imperialism.
This word has been developed by activists in the United States to make the Spanish language more inclusive; I get that. But think of the millions of Latin Americans in this country — our parents and godparents and grandparents and cousins — that probably aren’t even aware we’re having this debate in the first place. They deserve to be included in the conversation because it’s their language as much as it is mine or yours. Until the Latin American community, as a whole, comes together to create a new word, letter, or perhaps even a third grammatical gender to suit our nonconforming members, we should eschew the use of ‘Latinx,’ lest we allow our language to be altered by English-speakers.
Instead, I think ‘Latine’ is perfectly fine. It’s not a masculine or feminine ending, and Spanish actually has words that end with e. And when we speak English, I think there’s some power in claiming ourselves as ‘Latin Americans’ or even just ‘Latins.’ After all, whether Europeans want to admit it or not, our languages and cultures are intertwined through a common ancestor, the Roman Empire. Languages like Italian and French are always hiked up onto pedestals as being extraordinarily romantic or beautiful. People with French and Italian accents never face the same scrutiny as people with a Spanish accent. It’s time to remind people that Spanish is just as beautiful of a language, and demands the same respect.
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A version of this appeared in the Monday, April 9 print edition. Email Alejandro Villa Vásquez at [email protected].