Click here to watch a conversation with Evan Crochet and Roxanne Bellamy on this topic.
Over the last decade, ‘Latinx’ has become a blanket term of reference for all people of Latin American heritage. While many people have adopted this term with the positive intent of using more inclusive language, I’m here to give you a Cuban American perspective on why your organization should avoid using ‘Latinx’ almost entirely, and give a few suggestions for alternative ways of communicating the same thing.
First, I need to reiterate that I don’t speak for all Hispanic people. The context of my life shaped who I am today – the fair-skinned son of a Cuban mother and an American father. There are incredible differences within our community that most people fail to address when coming up with catch-all terms to describe us. Assimilation to American culture; religion; immigration status; skin color; education; ability to speak, read and write in English; and several other factors contribute to the many ways Hispanic people may see themselves within our society, and more specifically, within the hierarchy of a workplace environment.
Where Latinx comes from
Also, let’s talk about why Latinx exists in the first place. The Spanish language uses gendered nouns, meaning that all people, places, and things have either a masculine or feminine gender. Paper, for instance, is masculine (el papel) and houses are feminine (las casas). Men are Latinos, women are Latinas, and if you’re referring to a group of people who represent many different genders, the correct noun to use is the masculine one (Latinos), even if that group contains 1,000 women and only 1 man. In an effort to create a more inclusive term that would include all genders – not just men and women but also people who are non-binary – mostly-White activists in the United States started using the term Latinx around the year 2004.
However, according to historian David Bowles, who is currently working on a book about the word Latinx, the history of using ‘x’ as a genderless letter goes much farther back. “Radical feminists in the ’90s—and perhaps as early as the ’70s,” says Bowles, “would literally “x” out the “o” at the end of words that were meant to exclude women and non-binary folk all together.”
Unpronounceable and manufactured
The problem with Latinx is – and always will be – that it is unintelligible as a Spanish word, and is more like a form of internet-speak spoken solely between academics and people who consider themselves allies to underrepresented or historically marginalized groups. In my opinion, it’s an empty gesture that speaks over my people on their behalf. And, it’s a word that is now being put to use as an inauthentic marketing tool, even though according to a recent poll by Bendixen & Amandi International, only 2% of people of Hispanic and Latin American descent choose Latinx as their ethnicity.
While pronouncing ‘Latinx’ (that is, “lat-in-EKS”) may come naturally to some American-raised Spanish speakers or those who are from northern Latin America, the fact is that this ‘x’ sound is exceedingly uncommon in the Spanish and Portuguese languages and throws off the vast majority of Spanish and Portuguese speakers.
Imposing this type of language onto those already at a cultural disadvantage in the workplace, compared to their White American coworkers, is not only counterproductive but also carries the risk of doing the opposite of what’s intended. In the frantic hunt to manufacture inclusion out of thin air within a gendered language, we somehow landed on a word that cannot even be properly pronounced or conjugated in Spanish.
The Colonial Linguistic Context
Here is one undeniable fact: ‘Filibusteros’ like William Walker spent literal decades in the 1800s pirating, pillaging, and stoking rebellion among the former Spanish colonies with the goal of annexing them as additional slave states of the U.S. and forcing the English language on the populace. In modern times, we have the “this is America, so speak English” crowd and left-leaning activists who needlessly colonize our language by creating terms of identification that none of us have asked for. I find both extremes to be equally damaging to bridging cultural gaps and see them as undeniable examples of enforcing language as a tool of oppression.
Angel Eduardo, a columnist for the Center for Inquiry, seems to agree with me. In fact, he considers the use of Latinx as “lexical imperialism,” arguing that “it’s actually imposing a foreign worldview on an entire people. It’s telling them, in essence, ‘We’re going to take your savage, backward language, force it to adhere to our superior gender norms, and impose this change upon you so that you can be good, right, and just—like us!’”
To me, it’s clear that there is a perpetual cycle of abuse between the Western political elite and the Latine people that needs to be put on notice. I see great irony in imposing Westernized linguistic phrases and terms on people who want to preserve their culture, language, communities, and heritage. This negative connotation may not be intentional, but still, it exists. Positively, I see a few clear ways to bridge the gap and find common-sense solutions that will work for everyone.
Simple fixes and actions you can take
One recommendation is to simply ask your Spanish- or Portuguese-speaking colleagues how they identify. Many of us are proud of our heritage and wear our countries’ flags with pride. For instance, I am proud to be part of the Cuban American community and would prefer to be referred to as Cuban American rather than as a “member of the Latinx community.” If a colleague asked me “May I ask you your ethnic heritage and how you identify?” I’d say “I call myself Cuban American.”
Second, transition your team from using ‘Latinx’ to using the term ‘Latine’ (pronounced lat-in-AY) instead when referring to the Hispanic community as a whole. This word is actually listed in the Spanish Royal Dictionary under this context, so it is a much more accurate and culturally sensitive word to use. As Andrea Merodeadora pointed out in a 2017 article on Medium, “Latino, Latinx, Latine: The grammatical gender neutral in Spanish,” the ‘e’ termination used in “Latine” already exists as a gender-neutral grammatical form in Spanish nouns and is a common sound in the spoken language. Remember, this rule is for referring to the Latine community as a whole. The exception is when an individual makes a point to refer to themselves as Latinx, Latin, or Hispanic. If that is what the person uses in reference to themselves, then organizations and teammates should mirror their language.
As Merodeadora points out, Latine allows for a natural conjugation that a terminal ‘x’ could never offer without compromising the language and shifting it into something unpronounceable for Spanish speakers. I consider it the fairest compromise — especially considering the nuance of how Brazilian, Surinamese, and Guyanese people are Latine but simultaneously not Hispanic, since they do not speak Spanish yet originate in Latin America.
Lastly, if you are working to embrace inclusive language through your organization, please consider the feelings, cultures, and customs of those you are trying to help. Many of us in the Latine community are tired of being pressured about what to say, what to feel, and how to think. Many of our family members were political prisoners in our homeland for having a nuanced opinion or changing their minds, so this debate over language can be uncomfortable for us all.
In short, we are all humans trying our best to navigate this complex landscape with respect for other people and for their unique, complex experiences. With that in mind, I urge you to be kind and patient as people learn and expand their perspectives.
What’s important is not that we always get things right but that we continue to try to find the most respectful ways of referring to both demographic groups and to every individual within them. Inclusive language is a living thing, and although at first we may feel exasperated by its many changes and unique cases, it helps to remember that on the other side of those phrases are unique humans who deserve to feel included and respected.
Evan Crochet is the Chief Visual Storyteller at The Diversity Movement. A Cuban-American, he’s on a mission to incorporate the realities of geopolitics as well as historical context to the practice of DEI. When he’s not working, you can catch him shooting nature photography and hiking the local trails.