What is “Latinx”?
An attempt to cohesively explain the Latinx identity, for confused gringxs and tired Latinxs who don’t wanna explain this anymore.
Latinx is an ethnicity (not a race) that encompasses all people whose familiar history is tied to the pre-colonial and post-colonial and/or diasporic experience of Latin America.
All people born in Latin America and people descended from people born in Latin America have a right to the label “Latinx”. Latin America traditionally encompasses South America, certain countries in the Caribbean/Central America and Mexico.
It is generally accepted that it includes Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Cuba, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Haití, Honduras, México, Nicaragua, Panamá, Paraguay, Perú, Puerto Rico, República Dominicana, Uruguay and Venezuela; but the inclusion of certain French-colonized lands (Guadalupe, Guayana Francesa, Martinica, San Bartolomé and San Martín) is still a subject of debate.
Why an ethnicity and not a race?
What is the difference between ethnicity and race, and why is “Latinx” the first and not the latter? While we all know that race (though a social construct) is tied to blood heritage, an ethnicity is “belonging to a social group that has a common nationality or cultural tradition”.
In the case of the “Latinx” ethnicity, the common nationality is “any country in Latin America”, and the cultural tradition is a shared connection to the colonial history of Latin America, meaning, that our historical, political and ethnic identity is shaped by the fact that our countries were colonized by Spain, Portugal or France (“latin” European countries).
What race are Latinxs, then?
Latin Americans and Latinxs can be of literally any race, because this ethnicity is mainly a geographical identity. This means that “Latinx” gives absolutely no information about a person’s race.
- Latinxs can be Indigenous Latin Americans (of any of the hundreds of American First Nations).
- Latinx can be of Black African descent (many from the slave-trade diaspora, many more having immigrated later).
- Latinxs can be white (either descended from colonizers or having immigrated at any point since).
- Latinxs can be Indigenous from other parts of the world (Pacific Islanders, North Americans, Filipino, Sami, etc).
- Latinxs can be South Asian, East Asian, South-East Asian.
- Latinxs can be Rromani.
- Latinxs can be Arab.
So y’all can get the gist, let me show you:
Alexis Bedel and Karla Souza are white latinas.
Bruno Mars is a Filipino-Puerto Rican latino. Harry Shum Jr, whose Chinese parents immigrated to Costa Rica and who was born there, could choose to identify as latino too. Alberto Fujimori, former Peruvian President, is of Japanese descent.
Salma Hayek and Emeraude Toubia are both latinas of Middle Eastern heritage.
Nona Gaye, Rosario Dawson and Don Omar are all Afro-Latinxs.
Gina Rodriguez and Daniel Elbittar Villegas are Latinxs of Jewish heritage.
Evo Morales and Rigoberta Menchú are Latinxs of Indigenous heritage. Frida Kahlo was half Indigenous.
Now, there is no simple way to categorize the race of many Latinxs outside of “mixed”. Due to colonization, white supremacy and internalized racism in Latin-America, entire generations of families have hidden their non-white heritage and covered their history, along with governments encouraging mixed-race people to register themselves as white in census and such to “whiten” the image of the country. This has led to many mixed-race Latinxs not knowing their exact heritage.
Of course, every country in Latin-America has a different history: some have bigger native populations, some are whiter, some have more Black people, some have had different immigration waves through the years. For example:
- Haiti, an ex French colony, whose uprising basically kick-started the independence movements across Latin America, is a majorly Black country.
- Brazil has the biggest Black population outside of Africa in the entire world.
- Chile and Argentina have rather small Black populations but, though the Mapuche people were evenly spread along all of Argentina and Chile pre-colonization, the genocidal “Campaign to the Desert” that President Roca decimated the Indigenous population in Argentina; while it’s still strong in Chile.
- Perú and Argentina have some of the biggest East-Asian populations in Latin America.
- Bolivia and Guatemala’s Indigenous populations are still the majority.
- Perú and Ecuador’s Indigenous population are still near half of the country.
Wait, I didn’t get that part about mixed Latinxs. What race are they?
Racial politics in Latin America are way different than racial politics in the US –not that racism doesn’t exist, it’s just that racial identity, specially that of mixed people, is regarded differently. While USAmerican racial politics demand that people have a clear racial identity –I know this has to do with segregation, but this is already long enough so I’m gonna let y’all google for yourselves– in most of Latin America, race is a subject that we “don’t talk about”, a taboo.
During revolutionary times, white politicians gained the people’s support by preaching that all Latin Americans were the same, a mass of multiracial people who were all equally oppressed by European rule. This rhetoric changed with the times and countries to adapt to the needs of the ruling (white) class, but it’s always been along the same lines: “we are all part white, we are all part Brown, we’re all mixed and thus we don’t need to discuss race or racism”.
This is a message that was used by most governments across all of Latin America to justify the massacre of Indigenous people, the oppression of Black people and the erasure and displacement of Brown communities as a whole. (If you read Spanish; [here] is a short essay on this as applied specifically to Argentina, with academic sources and all.)
You probably have heard of “mejorar la raza” (to better the race), a widespread philosophy across Latin America of trying to marry to whiter people to have whiter children. Across all of Latin America, our non-white heritage is a dirty secret for a lot of families. We’re just mixed/mestizx until we are white-passing enough to call ourselves white, and then we don’t talk about race anymore.
“Mejorar la raza” isn’t only an intra-familiar issue, though, but it’s been pushed by governments all over Latin America to slowly “cleanse” the racial identity of the country, trying to make us look whiter to gain the approval of the US and Europe. This has led to the erasure of any documentation that could keep registry of people’s heritages, for example; and to governments encouraging white passing people to register themselves as white so that the official demographics would better fit the desired image they wanted to project.
This is why a lot of diasporic Latinxs, and even many Latinxs living in Latin America, have no clear racial identity outside of being Latinx: because being proud in one’s non-white racial heritage has historically been shamed in our communities, not because we don’t have a race besides “Latinx”.
So… do Latinxs experience racism?
Yes, Brown and Black Latinxs experience racism both in and ouside of Latin America.
When we talk about anti-Latinx racism, we mean racism against Brown and Black Latinxs. Anti-Latinx sentiment is a racialized kind of xenophobia, because it works on the assumption (by white gringxs) that all Latinxs are Brown/Black. But! Just because anti-Latinx xenophobia is racialized, that doesn’t mean that white Latinxs suffering anti-Latinx xenophobia are racially oppressed. They’re just experiencing xenophobia.
A white Latinx benefits from whiteness while still sharing the struggles of being Latinx, a Black Latinx faces anti-Blackness while still sharing the struggles of being Latinx, multi-racial Latinxs have hundreds of varied identities depending on their particular heritage, Asian and Middle Eastern and African and Pacific Islander and Rromani Latinxs all have different experiences because of their race, but share certain things due to their Latin American experience and/or their Latinx heritage.
Latin, Latino, Latinx, hispanic… What is the difference?
“Latin”, the original word that “Latin America” is derived from, is used to describe the Latin language. The European countries who now speak Romance languages (Spanish, Portuguese, Italian and French) might be called “latin”. Latin America is called this way because all of the countries in it were colonized by European latin countries, and thus forcibly assimilated into Romance languages.
“Latino” does not come directly from “latin” but is, instead, an abbreviation of “latinoamericano”. It is a label coined by diasporic Latin Americans living outside of the continent, mainly in the United States, as a way to identify their shared struggle. This word was meant to be a way to unite Latin American in community with each other and in opposition against the imperialistic power of the US and Europe. So, while etymologically speaking it has a connection to “latin”, its historical and political meaning is removed from Europe and strongly tied to latinoamericanista and chicanx movements.
“Hispanic” means, “from Spain”, and became a synonym with “Latin American” when the USAmerican government started labeling Latin American immigrants that way. As @thisisnotlatinx fantastically puts it, “calling Latinx people ‘Hispanic’ ties us back to Spanish colonizers. Don’t do that. You may call yourself that, but when you’re speaking about others, don’t. Hispanic is specific for Spanish-speaking countries, not all of Latin America. Hispanic does not include Brazil, Haiti, or many other nations that are important to Latin American history, Latinx does.”
Another way to differentiate between “Latinx” and “hispanic” is that “hispanic” represents a sense of community through our connection to Spain while “Latinx” implies a sense of community through our history of colonization. “Latinx” is a label created by Latinxs and for Latinxs to express the complexity of our identities, while “hispanic” is a label created by white gringxs to simplify and homogenize us.
You might now ask, “why Latinx, then, if the word is ‘latino’?” For those who are not familiar with Romance languages, Romance languages are gendered, and they have historically used the masculine ending “-o” as a gender neutral. The “-a” / “-o” gendering system is deeply binary, so queer Latinx movements in the last century have started finding ways to eliminate the default masculine and include non-binary identities. “Latinx” is one of those ways, and the most popular at an international level.
So, anyone born or descended from LatAm is Latinx?
As a general rule, yes! But, and there is a but:
There are also people from Latin America (and of Latin American heritage) who do not identify as Latinx for a multitude of reasons. Many Black and Indigenous groups, specially, prefer to identify with their race/nations over the “Latinx” label.
The main reason for this is that, as much as Latinx pretends to be an identity of siblinghood and decolonization, it also erases racial differences, leaving an open door for privileged Latinxs to erase the struggle of the people who have suffered the impact of colonization the hardest.
We can’t pretend that white, Indigenous, Black, Asian, dark skinned, light skinned, etc. Latinxs all share the same struggle, because we don’t, but many (white and white passing) Latinxs have used the idea of pan-americanism and decolonization as a masquerade to ignore intra-community racism.
- Caribbean people (Haitians, Dominicans, Cubans, Puerto Ricans) are Latinx, but some might not self-identify as such or prioritize “Caribbean” as an identity.
- Some Latinxs (especially those living in the US) do self-identify as “hispanic” and they have a right to do so individually, but they still shouldn’t apply that label to others.
- Latinxs living in Latin America often identify first with their nationality and/or race, and keep the “Latinx” label for political discussions or for international contexts.
What language do Latinxs speak?
Though most Latin American countries were colonized by Spain and thus have Spanish as their official languages, there are also countries who speak Portuguese (Brazil) and French (Haiti). Plus, there are hundreds of Indigenous languages across the continents.
Wait, I’m still confused. Are Spaniards/Portuguese/French/Italians… Latinx?
No, they are not. The only Spaniards/Portuguese/French/Italians who can be Latinx are those who were born in Latin America or are descended from people born in Latin America.
For example, Morena Baccarin is Brazilian but part of her family is Italian. Kaya Scodelario was born in England, but part of her family were Europeans immigrants who spent a couple generations in Brazil (she is still white, by the way).
Unless they are born or descended from people born in Latin America, people from Spain, Portugal, France or Italy are not Latinx. They do not have a right to the label, they do not share the identity and they have no other relation to Latin America that being the ones who colonized us.
Ok, one last time, short and clear…
Latinx is an ethnicity, not a race. Latinx means “person born in, or descended from people born in Latin America”.
Latinxs can be of literally any race. Yes, this includes white. White Latinxs experience xenophobia but not racism.
Latinxs are not “hispanic”, among other reasons, because not all of us speak Spanish.
Spanish, Italian, French and Portuguese people are not Latinx.