What does ‘Latinx’ mean? A look at the term that's challenging gender norms

Fighting oppression through language.


If you’ve been online at all in the past year, you’ve probably seen the word "Latinx" and thought: What does it mean?

Latinx (pronounced “La-TEEN-ex”) is a gender-inclusive way of referring to people of Latin American descent. Used by activists and some academics, the term is gaining traction among the general public, after having been featured in publications such as NPR to LatinaBut where did Latinx originate, and is everybody on board with using it? 

Spanish is a gendered language, which means that every noun has a gender (in general, nouns that end in "a" tend to be feminine, and nouns that end in "o" tend to be masculine). While some nouns keep their gender when they become plural, others change based on the gender composition of a given group of people.

This approach, however, always defers to the masculine as the dominant gender. For example, if you had a room full of girlfriends, it'd be full of amigas, with the "a" denoting everyone's gender as female. But the entire group's gender changes as soon as one guy enters the room, making it full of amigos; the "o" denotes the presence of at least one man—no matter how many women are in the room. Some members of Latin American communities claim this gendered language reinforces patriarchal and heterosexist norms, so "Latin@" was later introduced as a way to push back against it.

this gendered language reinforces patriarchal and heterosexist norms.

Using “@” as a suffix became a way to represent male and female genders. Instead of amigas or amigos, it was amig@s. But the term, which was adopted by left-leaning activists and even used in academic texts, didn't include genderqueer and gender-nonconforming people. Consequently, Latin@ began to hit its limit, as those who didn’t conform to the male-female gender binary gained more visibility.

According to Google Trends data, Latinx began emerging as early as 2004, but really started popping up in online searches some time in late 2014. During this period, the term had mostly been used in left-leaning and queer communities as a way to promote inclusivity in language. But thanks to social media users on sites like Tumblr and Twitter, Latinx gained a foothold by mid-2015, and its use began spreading beyond LGBTQIA communities.

“Once the term ‘Latinx’ was made more visible, it certainly aligned with what I had been learning about gender non-conformity,” Filiberto Nolasco Gomez, founder of Latin American culture blog El Huateque, told NTRSCTN. “It seemed like the right direction for my website to embrace ‘Latinx’ as a political statement and a dismantling of binaries.”

By dismantling some of the gendering within Spanish, Latinx helped modernize the idea of a pan-Latin American experience—or Latinidad—one that reflects what it means to be of Latin American descent in today’s world. The term also better reflects Latin America's diversity, which is more in line with intersectionality, the study of the ways that different forms of oppression (e.g. sexism, racism, classism, and heterosexism) intersect.

“The use of the 'x' is really important to me,” Chicanx performance artist Artemisa Clark told NTRSCTN. “The 'x' shows a development of broader Latinx movements, one more actively concerned with issues of gender and queerness.”

In their takedown of an article that says "Latinx" denotes “a lack of respect for the sovereignty of Spanish,” professors María R. Scharrón-del Río and Alan A. Aja defend the term, arguing that it should replace "Latino" when referring to people of Latin American descent.

They say moving towards non-gendered language is a way to escape the ghost of colonialism that still haunts Latin American culture. "Latinx" actually represents the people the term is supposed to represent, so it's "a concerted attempt at inclusivity" that "fosters solidarity with all of our Latinx community," Scharrón-del Río and Aja write. 

moving towards non-gendered language is a way to escape the ghost of colonialism that still haunts Latin American culture.

Still, even with the gender inclusivity of a term like “Latinx,” there are still issues that arise when grouping a very diverse population—like that of Latin America—under one umbrella term. 

“I think there has been a lot of communication and travel between communities and countries within the Americas for centuries, and Latinx kind of gives that some coherence,” Ken Eby-Gomez, a San Francisco-based activist and graduate student,​ told NTRSCTN. “But ... it would be a mistake to essentialize any meaning or characteristics of Latinx."

In other words, creating a single Latin American identity can be problematic because it may lead to the erasure of marginalized identities (e.g. indigenous people), while highlighting lighter-skinned mestizos (i.e. people of mixed Spanish and indigenous ancestry). 

In a piece published late last year, writer Monse Arce argues that the identifier “Latino" erases indigenous history and culture from Latin America. Indeed, using a term like “Latino/@/x” emphasizes the privileges of mestizos, reinforcing colorism amongst Latin American people. “Latino/@/x” also implies a uniformity of experience, when in reality, people of Latin American descent have wildly different lives and narratives, she adds. 

“The root of [Latinx] bothers me in that it’s colonial, and my heart rages against [it],” Eusebio Ricardo Lopez-Aguilar, a Salvadoran activist and census worker based in Winnipeg, Canada, told NTRSCTN. “I haven’t used it to describe myself, but I also haven’t found a word that works.”

Many young people of Latin American descent are exploring their complex indigenous roots, and forging new, more personal identities. While some resist using "Latinx," others recognize it as the most inclusive option available, for now. “I guess first-level identification is ‘Chicanx’ [a political and cultural identifier for Mexican-Americans] and second-level is ‘Latinx’,” said performance artist Clark. 

"Latinx" is not the perfect identifying term, so it shouldn't be treated as the answer in the ongoing quest to develop a cohesive postcolonial identity. Given Latin America's turbulent history and the continued disapora of its people, the process of figuring out one’s identity is both deeply personal and political. Still, using "Latinx" is a positive step towards recognizing all of nuestro gente—our people—and will hopefully challenge every Latin American to think about what it truly means to be part of this complex culture.

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