Updated: Feb 9, 2021
Race is a social construct; however, the biological consequences of racism are very real*. Therefore, racial and ethnic descriptors are crucial to recognizing a person’s identity and realities. The United States has been built on racial disparity, therefore not doing so can result in color-blind racism. Ethnic markers like Hispanic, Latino, and Latinx are important to a person's identity. But it is important to remember that these are not racial descriptors, such as White or Black. Racial differences within the Latinx community exist and should be acknowledged in order to avoid the erasure of Black and Afro-Latinx communities as a result of the adoption of Mestizo culture in Latin America ***, *****.
Then, why are ethnic markers like Hispanic, Latino, and Latinx important? The American based terms were created in order to ensure funding and representation at a governmental level in new immigrant communities. Before the 1970’s, Latin American immigrants were categorized as White Spanish speakers, grouped in the same demographic as Italian and Irish Americans in the U.S. Census. This erased their ethnic heritage and unique needs, causing underfunding and underrepresentation********. Although the addition of the term Hispanic onto the census in the 1970’s helped funding and community programs in their neighborhoods, it also created opportunities for exploitation at the hands of corporations trying to capitalize and benefit from Immigrant communities*********. Upon acknowledgment of this newly defined Spanish-speaking group, the U.S. grappled with the terms Hispanic versus Latin, and eventually Latino, which came to the forefront around the 1980’s, upon a push for reformation of the term Hispanic**.
But what's the difference between them? The term Hispanic refers to a linguistic background. It can apply to anyone that was born in or is a descendent of a Spanish-speaking country ****. This includes Spain but excludes Brazil. The term is not widely accepted because of its broadness and direct links to Spain, the colonizer of Central and South America. It is criticized for highlighting and glorifying Whiteness in the community rather than indigenous or African roots. ‘Hispanic’ labels us in reference to the colonizer, dismissing the rich cultures that existed pre-colonialism.
The origin of the terms Latin or Latino can be traced all the way back to Ancient Rome. As the empire expanded, so did its official language of Latin; thus, countries today that speak the Romance Languages are named as such because they developed from Latin, spread by the Roman Empire. Fast forward to the 1850s, when French economist Michel Chevalier was credited with the first use of the term “Amerique Latine,” which translates from French to “Latin America,” to distinguish between people colonized by European countries of Latin descent, including Spain and Portugal, versus those colonized by Northern European, or Anglo-Saxon countries, such as England and France********. All that to say, the origins of Latin and Latino refer to geography through the lens of colonialism.
Latino is used to describe a person that descends from a Latin American country. The use of the term was spurred by the rejection of the Spanish rule so evident in the word “Hispanic” and the desire for the indication of independence of Latin American countries ******. However, this notion disregards the European traces of any word derived from the stem “Latin-.” The term Latino, more often used in the United States, should not be confused with Latin American, which describes someone who lives in a Latin American country.
What about Latinx? By this point in time, anyone who’s seen the internet has come across newer, gender-neutral terms such as Latin@, Latinx, Latine, and Chicane (American-born person with Mexican descent). The terms “Latinx/e,” and “Chicanx/e,” are ethnic descriptions that include folks who do not identify with the gender binary and have Latin American roots. Many argue that, in the Spanish language, Latino already accounts for all genders. However, Spanish is a gendered language that uses the masculine form in umbrella terms. By using the masculine form of a word as the umbrella term, the Spanish language has caused the erasure of womxn and non-binary folks. Gendered terms like Latino are not inclusive and should not be used when referring to large audiences, in order to ensure everyone is addressed and folks aren’t misgendered. Some argue that the “x” in Latinx breaks Spanish conventions and anglicizes the language in a negative way. However, Latin American citizens may use the ungendered ending of an “e,” already existent in the language, rather than an x to flow better in their native tongue of Spanish ******.
If you are not familiar with Spanish conventions or with gender-neutral terms, these seemingly infinite combinations of letters might seem confusing and intimidating at first. And that is completely understandable. Changes in language can be stressful or overwhelming to keep up with, but it is important to remember that language is a social construct. It is ever-changing and does not need to adhere to rules or regulations. We saw this decades ago in the evolution from Hispanic to Latino. The movement for Latinx/e/@ is simply our generation’s new wave of seeking more accurate, more inclusive terms for our people. However, we should acknowledge that as long as our terms include “Latin,” they will include a reference to colonialism. With this in mind, language is ours to mold and evolve, to represent and empower.
Will we see more terms for our people in our lifetime? What should they look like? Let us know what you think below!
*Ackermann, R., Athreya, S., Bolnick, D., Fuentes, A., Lasisi, T., Lee, S., . . . Nelson, R. (2019, March 27). AAPA Statement on Race & Racism. Retrieved from https://physanth.org/about/position-statements/aapa-statement-race-and-racism-2019/
**Bodenheimer10.29.20, R. (n.d.). Hispanic vs. Latino vs. Latinx: A Brief History of How These Words Originated. Retrieved from https://remezcla.com/features/culture/latino-vs-hispanic-vs-latinx-how-these-words-originated/
***“Communality as an Epistemology of the South. Contributions and Challenges” From: “La comunalidad como epistemología del Sur. Aportes y retos.” By Alejandra Aquino Moreschi; translated by Adam W. Coon
****Hispanic vs. Latinos vs. Latinx Explained. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.yesprep.org/news/blog/featured/~board/blog/post/hispanic-vs-latinos-vs-latinx-explained
*****Indigenismo to Zapatismo: Theory and Practice in Mexican Anthropology Author(s): Roberto J. González Source: Human Organization, Summer 2004, Vol. 63, No. 2 pp.141-150 Published by Society for Applied Anthropology
******Simón, Y. (2020, September 14). Latino, Hispanic, Latinx, Chicano: The History Behind the Terms. Retrieved from https://www.history.com/news/hispanic-latino-latinx-chicano-background
*******Slemp, Katie (2020) Latino, Latina, Latin@, Latine, and Latinx: Gender Inclusive Oral Expression in Spanish. Electronic Thesis and Dissertation Repository. 7297. Retrieved from https://ir.lib.uwo.ca/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=9794&context=etd
********Why Do We Say "Latino"? (2020, July 23). Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZQPAJ-2LsMY
*********Yasmin Anwar, M., & Anwar, Y. (2015, July 09). I say Hispanic. You say Latino. How did the whole thing start? Retrieved from https://news.berkeley.edu/2014/04/29/hispanic-label/