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What Hispanic, Latino and Latinx mean and why it’s important to know the difference
It’s been over 30 years since the official proclamation of Hispanic Heritage Month and so much has changed in the Latino/a/x community. One of the most notable changes is perhaps the shift from “Hispanic” to “Latino/a” to now “Latinx.” You may have seen the term “Latinx” popping up in corporate statements or in other social media posts. Although the term seems to be picking up speed in online communities, according to Pew Research Center about one-in-four U.S. Hispanics have heard of Latinx, and only 3% use it.
Let’s dive into the history of how Latinos and Hispanics identify themselves and how they are identified by others. For decades, Latinos have been “othered” by the general population. Latinos with parents or grandparents born in the U.S. may notice that their birth certificates classify their family members as “White” “Black” or “Other.” This classification process was based on skin complexion and varied from state to state to create an inconsistent identity among Latinx people. Because most modern Latinos can be a mix of European, African, Indigenous, and Asian ancestry, we are difficult to categorize.
The earliest label, “Latin America” actually came from the French during colonial days. It wasn’t until hundreds of years later in the 1970s that the term “Hispanic” was created by Grace Flores-Hughes to describe peoples from countries of Spanish origin. At the time, the term greatly helped with representation of the Latino community. However, this term did not align very well with American Latinos. The term only addresses those who have ancestry from countries that speak Spanish. This excludes many Caribbean nations, Belize, Brazil, and includes Spain which is extremely culturally different from most of Latin America. The terms “Latino” and “Latina” arose in the 1990’s but did not gain popularity in the U.S. for 10 years or so.
Although “Latino” is proven to be a more inclusive term the majority of Latinos (61%) say they prefer “Hispanic” to describe the Hispanic or Latino population in the U.S., and only 29% say they prefer “Latino,” according to the PEW Research Center. The term “Latinx” was coined in 2004 in an effort to make “Latino” more gender-inclusive. Like many romance languages, Spanish has masculine and feminine forms. The “x” in Latinx is meant to address gender non-conforming folks and other LGBTQ+ community members.
The lack of affinity for the term “Latinx’’ among Latinos is often attributed to the idea that “x” is an Anglicism of the Latino community. However, the same counter argument can be made that many Indigenous peoples identified as Two-Spirit, transgender, and non-binary and did not subscribe to modern ideals of gender. In short, concepts of gender identity and sexuality were forcibly placed on Indigenous people by Europeans in the first place. Much like the Spanish language.
NPR reports the following on usage of Latinx: “It is young people, people ages 18 to 29 who are most likely to be aware of the term [Latinx]. Forty-two percent of them, for example, say that they’ve heard the term Latinx. Interestingly, only seven percent of that group actually use the term to describe themselves.”
NPR and Pew conducted further surveys and also found that, “Another group that uses it more than others are college-educated people. U.S.-born English speakers are also more likely to use it. And interestingly, the one group that uses it the most is young Hispanic women ages 18 to 29. About 14 percent of Hispanic women say that they use the term to describe themselves. That’s almost one in seven people, and that’s one of the highest shares of use that we see among the data that we collected.”
We’ve seen the evolution of self-identifying terms and forced labels in cultures across the U.S. For example the switch from “Colored” to “Black” to “African-American” and back to “Black” has been going on for centuries. So it’s hard to say if the term Latinx will gather momentum within its own community.
Although Latinx is well-meaning and is a big step in inclusion, it’s important to remember and respect how members of a community self-identify. If someone says Latinx isn’t their gig, that’s okay. If someone is mixed race but has only been culturally exposed to one side of their heritage and doesn’t feel comfortable identifying that way that is also okay. So this Hispanic/Latino/a/x Heritage month let’s celebrate and uplift a culture that is rich with complexity, pain, history, art, beauty, triumph and unity!