Is there a difference between the three terms Latino, Hispanic, and LatinX? Why are there so many different options to describe the same group of people, and which one should we use? Even for a Latina, Puerto Rican Muslim like myself, it gets a bit confusing. So, to understand the origin of the terms let us explore how they came about and why.
The term Hispanic originated in the 1970s. It was used to classify those of Spanish-speaking origin, both non-immigrants and immigrants, after organizations that served this demographic lobbied the United States government to address issues that were of concern to them. It was a way to unify this community under one common label. Hispanic comes from the Spanish word for Spain, Hispania (belonging to Spain) or España. Thus, the term Hispanic includes all Spanish-speaking nations, 21 countries total, where Spanish is the official language. Prior to the label Hispanic, individuals would simply identify themselves through their country of origin; Puerto Ricans were Puerto Ricans, Mexicans were Mexicans, Cubans were Cubans, etc.
The term Hispanic eventually met with some resistance because it fails to acknowledge the varied cultures within Latin America and other Spanish-speaking lands. Hispanics have a rich multiracial background consisting of European, African, Asian, and Native American heritages, and some indigenous tribes maintain their own distinct cultures and languages. Critics argue the word Hispanic only acknowledges European or Spanish heritage. Thus, it is inherently racist.
Soon, activists began to campaign for a new term to be used and the word Latino was proposed as a more comprehensive option. Since the word Latino refers to languages derived from Latin, such as Spanish, Portuguese, French, and Italian, it included people who were from the same region, but who did not necessarily speak Spanish, such as Brazilians and Belizeans. The U.S. Census officially adopted the term in 2000. It was well received and accepted in universities and other educational institutions, where “Latino Studies” or courses on Latin American history, politics, and culture, were taught as part of their programs.
Because the Spanish language, along with about one-quarter of the languages in the world, is gendered, by default, the word Latina also began circulating as a descriptor and identifier for women of Latin American origin. Latina is the feminine version of the word Latino. Both were used interchangeably. Later expressions like Latino/a and more recently, Latin@, emerged to include both genders in media, both print and online.
Modern feminist and gender-fluid activists have more recently sought to eradicate the binarism of male and female and rejected the terms Latino and Latina, along with its later counterparts Latino/a and Latin@. This prompted the coining of the new label LatinX. There is no consensus on who came up with the term, but it first appeared in 2004 and began gaining traction on social media in 2014. Other terms like simply Latin or even LatinUs have been proposed, but neither have been as popular or marketed as aggressively as LatinX.
According to the Center for Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity, “’Latinx can be defined as a political identity that centers the lived experiences of queer, non-binary, gender non-conforming/creative and/or trans* individuals.” The “X” seeks to wipe out gender all together, supposedly to make it more inclusive to everyone, no matter what gender identity they subscribe to. It is a word that no longer seeks to unite Latin Americans under one label, but rather acquiesced to the whims of certain vested interests. Activists have focused similar attention on the French language. And other languages, even Arabic, could see the same criticism.
As Latin American Muslims where do we stand in this debate? First and foremost, as our religion has taught us, we must educate ourselves about what is “trending” before jumping on any bandwagons. Social media trends have distorted our perceptions of reality. Just because we are made to believe that “LatinX” is the new normal does not make it legitimate. As a matter of fact, the results of a bilingual survey of U.S. Hispanic adults conducted by Pew Research Center in December 2019, determined that “only 23% of U.S. adults who self-identify as Hispanic or Latino have heard of the term LatinX, and just 3% say they use it to describe themselves.”
What is obvious is that the issue of Hispanic/Latino vs LatinX is no longer about classification, but an issue of identity politics and a cultural shift that does not merit our support. We hold the power to take our identity into our own hands, and not have a label shoved down our throats. As far as the Spanish language being gendered, that has nothing to do with the politics of today or with certain vested interests, and everything to do with linguistics.
As a Puerto Rican woman, I will not accept the term LatinX because there is nothing in my language or culture that needs to be X’ed out, and because it will open the way for more debates and changes in our languages. I prefer the terms Hispanic, Latino, Latina, Latin, or simply Latin-American. If those are not specific enough, then we can identify with our countries of origin if needed. I urge my brothers and sisters in the Muslim community and in humanity to join me in rejecting the term LatinX.
Wendy Díaz is a Puerto Rican Muslim writer, award-winning poet, translator, and mother of five. She is the co-founder of Hablamos Islam, Inc., a non-profit organization that produces educational resources about Islam and culture in Spanish. She is also the Spanish content coordinator for the Islamic Circle of North America’s WhyIslam Project and a columnist for MuslimMatters.com. Díaz has also written, illustrated, and published 10 children’s books and is a frequent speaker at major conferences.
Díaz is taking a step further to call for a halt to the term LatinX. What began only a few years ago as a movement on social media can likewise be stopped in its tracks by the same means. Use hashtag #CancelLatinX to join that effort.
Sources used and for further study:
Cultural Insights for Planners: Understanding the Terms Hispanic, Latino, and Latinx
By Ivis García, assistant professor at the University of Utah)