The Malleable X: On Queer Origins of “Latinx”

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John Paul Brammer (@jpbrammer) writes (here) in Mother Jones how Digging Into the Messy History of “Latinx” Helped Me Embrace My Complex Identity. Here is an excerpt:

A June 2018 survey found that Latino millennials are the least likely bracket in their generation to consider themselves straight. But the term “Latinx” is considered fraught, even reviled, by some. And at best, it has been unevenly adopted. A November story in the New York Times, for example, listed the eight books “reshaping Latinx literature.” A review in the same publication—about a book called Latinx—refers to the “Latino community” and “Latinos” and “Latina.” The newspaper uses the term on a case-by-case basis, according to editor Concepción de León, as conversations about the term and its usage continue to evolve. (Mother Jones does its best to honor an individual’s preference.)

To understand where “Latinx”—and the debate over it—came from, it helps to know a little history about the word “Latino.” Chicano writer David Bowles, who teaches literature at the University of Texas-Rio Grande Valley, laid it out in a thread on Twitter: The part of the Americas colonized by the Spanish Empire was known historically as the Monarquía Hispánica, or the Hispanic Monarchy, because the Latin word for Iberia (home of the Spaniards) was “Hispania.” When these territories eventually won their independence from the Spanish crown, they became home to distinct cultures shaped by mestizaje, the mixing of European, indigenous American, African, and other ethnicities. Scholars trace the term “América latina” to 1856, when it was used by Chilean writer Francisco Bilbao and Colombia’s José María Torres Caicedo. For these thinkers, the phrase helped unite the southern regions below the United States in anti-­imperialist sentiment. * * *

Because Spanish is one of many languages that ascribe a gender to nearly everything, “Latino” (male) was paired with “Latina” (female). At some point in the late 1990s, people who felt they didn’t fit into one of those two descriptors started searching for a more inclusive one. First came “Latin@”—a symbol that combines the “a” and the “o.” But how do you pronounce that? * * *

These days, “Latinx” pops up most frequently in stories about the LGBT community, and it’s often to describe young people, says Brian Latimer, an associate producer at MSNBC who identifies as nonbinary. “I think it’s fascinating—it shows a generational divide in the Hispanic community,” Latimer says. And though it has lightly peppered conversations in Latin America, it has been most championed by people of Latin American descent living in the United States, a fact that has colored the pushback against it. * * *

Though the letter “x” in Spanish can take on a pronunciation similar to the English “x,” it can also take on an “s” sound, or an “h” sound, as with the Mexican state of Oaxaca. “By replacing o’s and a’s with x’s, the word ‘Latinx’ is rendered laughably incomprehensible to any Spanish speaker without some fluency in English,” they wrote. “It does not provide a gender-neutral alternative for Spanish-speaking non-binary individuals and thus excludes them.” (And even English speakers say everything from la-TEEN-ex to LAT-in-ex to la-TEENKS.)

Writer Hector Luis Alamo echoed the frustration in an
opinion piece for the media outlet Latino Rebels titled “The X-ing of Language: The Case AGAINST ‘Latinx.’” Alamo, an Afro-Latino whose family hails from Honduras and who is the founder of Enclave magazine, argued that the term constitutes a “bulldozing of Spanish.” It’s “an academic word, and that group always thinks it knows what’s best for the rest of us,” Alamo told me via email. “Activists and people who want to appear liberal have adopted the word (and are calling out people for not using it).” It’s a critique that has also been leveled at terms like “cisgender” and “nonbinary”—all were devised and propagated by elite academic circles—but “Latinx” carries the added whiff of imperialism. “I want to caution everyone reading against the arrogant supposition that Latin Americans needed US Latinx folx to teach them that Spanish has sexist elements,” Bowles wrote in a Medium post in December. “They figured that shit out for themselves long before we did.”

Whether it is loved or hated, the word at least makes readers think. * * * As the biracial son of Mexican immigrants, I have, at various stages of my life, described myself as Latino, Mexican American, Hispanic, and Chicano. None of these words ever felt quite right; none of them painted the whole picture of how I see myself or how I want to be seen. I felt I had inherited a chaotic identity with too many facets; language, race, geography—which one should win out? But mestizaje tells us it is precisely this struggle, the search for a cohesive identity, that defines us as a people. The “mixedness” is not a halfway state of being, but a complete state of being unto itself. I can think of no better extension of that sentiment than “Latinx,” a word that concedes to malleability, the “x” willing to become whatever it needs to be for the person who wears it.

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