The power of language: How the word “Latinx” is challenging an entire culture
On a recent Friday, the popular barbershop D’Carlos was packed. About ten men of all ages gathered to get haircuts and chat on Manchester’s east side. When I approached them to ask about “Latinx” and its meaning, the debate started quickly. Some said they hadn’t heard the term, or what it meant. Others tried to explain it.
The barber, Carlos Abreu, disagreed with its use. He said “the world is taking wrong turns. God made women and men be together and not men and men," in an inaccurate conflation of gender and sexual orientation. Abreu thought the Spanish language should continue to reflect what he thinks.
But Jose Luis Rosario and other younger clients were open to using the term. Rosario said he already approved of all-gender bathrooms, another way advocates have pushed for a more gender-inclusive society. He said incorporating a simple, new word into his vocabulary made no difference at all.
Latinx emerged because Spanish is a gendered language. Almost every word has a masculine or feminine ending. But people with Latin American roots are changing their language to create a more inclusive way of communication.
The x in Latinx replaces the a or o at the end of Latina or Latino; the term includes queer, trans, and non-binary people. It’s a way of saying everyone is welcome, all genders and ethnicities, and embrace indigenous and Afro Caribbean people too, who have a different relationship to Spanish language and culture.
In 2016, after a mass shooting at an LBGTQ+ nightclub in Orlando, the word became popular on social media. In 2018, the term entered the Merriam-Webster dictionary. But just because the word has become prominent, doesn’t mean it’s commonly used. According to a study from the Pew Research Center, only 20% of Latinos in the U.S. have heard of Latinx, and only 3% use it.
People who use it tend to be those who are proud to be Latinx. One of them is Alissandra Rodriguez-Murray, who lives in Manchester and has Nicaraguan roots. They’re a barista and a program director of the New Hampshire Youth Movement. They came out as non-binary in 2017. The word Latinx makes a big difference in how they live their culture. Rodriguez-Murray said the word made them feel public power.
“It is a way to include myself in the community without forcing a gender expectation on me,” they said.
For Alissandra, the word Latinx is a form of resistance. While some of their family recognizes its use, the other half cites their Catholic faith as a reason for not doing so.
While identifying as Latinx is vital to Rodriguez-Murray, its slow acceptance in the mainstream can make them feel singled out. They say comprehension of the term is still low in New Hampshire, and they’ve experienced harassment related to their identity.
“It is still a journey to be accepted as Latino, let alone as a queer Latino,” they said.
But some critics say only white Latinos like Rodriguez-Murray use the term. It has a lot of pushback from some community members who say its usage destroys the Spanish language, something that Carlos Cardona has considered when thinking about whether to use the term.
“For me, it’s really hard to accept white culture telling us how to identify ourselves,” said Cardona, a member of the LGBTQ+ community and chair of the Laconia Democrats.
Cardona thinks the letter x in Latinx represents imperial oppression over the Spanish language, though he supports the meaning behind the word. Cardona says x is not commonly used in Spanish, and he prefers an alternative: the letter e, as in Latine. Latine is another gender-neutral option that originated in Chile and Argentina.
“I’m all about us as a community expanding and evolving; there’s room for growth,” Cardona said.
Holly Cashman, a professor at the University of New Hampshire, explores gender and its intersection with language and says people tend to oppose the term for more political than linguistic reasons.
She suggests that one group leading the change is young Latinas in the U.S., who more commonly speak Spanglish. Critics think they speak bad Spanish.
“The x is a powerful symbol, and people are saying language is flexible, language changes, and this is the way we want to use,” Cashman said.
But for some Latinxs, there is a way forward as these linguistic debates keep going. Rodriguez-Murray thinks the best way to maneuver the debate is to ask people how they want to be identified. Everybody should respect the life experience of others, they said.
What thousands of Latinxs or Latines worldwide are trying to say is that language matters. Both terms say “I am proud of my culture and willing to grow with it.”