Mexican X Part X: What the Hex a ‘Latinx’?

“Why do people keep writing ‘Latinx’? And yikes, how do you pronounce it?”

Alright, deep breath. Here comes the 10th and final edition of my Mexican X series for 2018. It’s a long one.

Let’s start with the land we all live on in the Western Hemisphere. There aren’t any perfect indigenous words to use. “Turtle Island” has been proposed as a term some members of First Nations in “North America” feel comfortable with for their continent, as it ties into their beliefs. But not all of them agree. As it’s a term from the Iroquois people, many feel it would be appropriation to use it in a “pan-Indian” sort of way.

Turtle Island? Cemanahuac?

The Anahuacah (also Nahuatlacah or “Aztecs”) thought of the world as being surrounded by a great cosmic sea. They called that contiguous land mass “Cemanahuac” (seh mah NAH wahk), literally “all [the land] beside the waters.” Some folk suggest it as an alternate term for the “Americas.”

The Guna people of Panama and Colombia call this hemisphere “Abya Yala”: “land in its full maturity” or “land of vital blood.”

I’m guessing none of these names is going to replace “the Americas,” however.

You probably have heard the origin of the word “America.” Amerigo Vespucci, a naturalized Castilian, was the first European to realize (through a couple of journeys along the coast) that these two connected continents weren’t part of Asia. In Latin his name is Americus. The female version is America. German cartographer Martin Waldseemüller added the name to his 1507 map of the world. Spain liked that.

However, though the continent(s), might be America, a good chunk of them, after Conquest, were simply part of the Spanish Empire, known historically as la Monarquía Hispánica or The Hispanic Monarchy. Why “Hispanic”? Because the Latin word for “Iberia” was “Hispania.” Spain liked that, too.

It was a big empire. To manage it, the monarchs set up divisions, like the Viceroyalty of New Spain, which included what is now Mexico, plus the current U.S. Southwest and Louisiana, part of British Columbia, Central America, the Caribbean, the Philippines, and Guam. A ton of territory to control, divided up further into “captaincies.”

The Spanish Monarchy

Well, as time went by, things began slipping through the monarchs’ fingers. Finally, after war had gripped Europe in the late 1700s and democratic revolutions spread, the remaining territories of New Spain won their independence in the first two decades of the 19th century.

Now here’s the deal. What do you call all these newly independent nations? They each have a separate identity, but because of Conquest and mestizaje, they also share an elusive “something.” Imposed Spanish language and culture, blended with indigenous cultures and adapted to each region, but similar.

Hispanic America? That was the initial name, but never sat right with folx. Hadn’t they broken with Spain?

In the 1830s, a French dude named Saint-Simonian Michel Chevalier started saying the citizens of these countries were a “Latin race” that should ally with “Latin Europe” against “Teutonic Europe” and “Anglo America.” This idea percolated for a while, and in 1856 Chilean politician Francisco Bilbao spoke about “los destinos de la raza latino-americana” while Colombian writer José María Torres Caicedo also used “Latin America” in his poem “The Two Americas.”

It caught on.

Now, this umbrella term had a purpose. It was the label used by the French Empire of Napoleon III during its invasion of Mexico. You see “Latin America” included France as a nation that could validly influence the former Spanish territories. It also excludes Anglophone countries, keeping the US and England out.

Napoleon III had reasons for wanting to foster cultural ties with the former New Spain. He wanted France to become the key cultural and political force in Latin America, especially since he was looking to set up Maximilian of Habsburg as emperor of the Second Mexican Empire (as he did, briefly).

So you see, Latin America is as fraught as Hispanic America had been. Still, it stuck. Remember, light-skinned “criollos” (of mostly Spanish descent) were still at the helm in most of these countries, and lots of them were IN LOVE with France, French art and literature, Parisian clothing, etc.

Try reading books written in Spanish from the late 19th century. Everyone keeps dropping je ne sais quoi and mon Dieu and shit. It’s pretty hilarious how obsessed they are.

Okay, fast-forward several decades. A nice chunk of Mexico has become a part of the US (damn border crossed right over our tatarabuelos), but with the influx of our primos from the rest of Latin America, there’s a need for an umbrella term, even for the existing raza. Otherwise, Anglo Americans were going to keep using our own internal colorism to pit us against each other, dangling the appellation “white” in front of us so we’d stay in line.

Before this point, we had tejanos (from Texas), californianos (from guess where), and hispanos (from New Mexico). Unifying those is what gave us the labels Mexican American and Chicano. But another term was needed.

After WWII, some of us tried “Latin American Citizens” (see LULAC) to emphasize assimilation. But the government really preferred to link us to Spain, so it was more common to hear us referred to collectively as Hispanic or Spanish American. But it wasn’t until the 1970 Census that the identifier “Hispanic” was used and data collected on the number of “Hispanics.”

But for the same reason “Hispanic America” had been rejected a century and a half earlier, lots of us rejected “Hispanic” as a label. To be sure, others rejected it (and continue to do so) because they don’t want to be lumped together with people whose ancestors came from different countries.

One solution was to use “Latino” as a sort of shortening of “latinoamericano.” The term had come into its own during the 1960s among revolutionary groups like the Young Lords (alongside the more problematic English “Latin/s”).

If you or your family came from a Latin American country, then you qualify as Latino, the argument goes. It’s no longer about connection to Spain, but to a place in this hemisphere. Obviously, a given Latino person would also be Mexican or Cuban or Peruvian or whatever. Latino was never meant to replace people’s primary ethnic identifier.

But “Latino” ensured a sort of political solidarity. Strength in numbers. Common cause en la lucha. It was a solid secondary identifier.

So of course the government co-opted it, right? The US Census Bureau officially adopted the term in 1997. But not in place of “Hispanic.” Alongside it. Check out their reasoning:

“Because regional usage of the terms differs — Hispanic is commonly used in the eastern portion of the United States, whereas Latino is commonly used in the western portion.”

Huh? Okay. Way to not get it, US Government.

Okay. Almost there, raza. Hang on. Let’s take stock of these two terms.

Hispanic.

You/your ancestors came from a Spanish-speaking country formerly belonging to the Hispanic Monarchy. Argentina, Cuba, Colombia, Puerto Rica, the Dominican Republic, Mexico, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Panama, El Salvador, Bolivia, Chile, Ecuador, Paraguay, Peru, Uruguay, and Venezuela.

And, yeah, Spain. Yikes.

(This is why I personally dislike this term. It is too linked to colonialism for my comfort.)

Latino.

You/your ancestors came from a Latin American country. That means you’re from Mexico, Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Cuba, French-speaking Caribbean nations, Central or South America (including Brazil, excluding English-speaking regions). Your people might speak French, Portuguese, or Spanish.

(Personally, of the two options, I prefer this.)

Countries that, uh, qualify? you as Latinx.

Now, given those two (admittedly imperfect and fraught) options, there are other dimensions to the use of “Latino.” It’s marked masculine. So we began to include “Latina” in English (much like folx might shout “brava” to an opera singer in the US, despite clearly not knowing Italian). Good first step.

But think about gender coding in English. Once it was fine to say “mankind” or “every student brought his book.” But, yeah, screw that. It’s “humanity” and “every student brought their book.” Men are not the most important gender. They shouldn’t be the default. And unimportant inanities like pronoun-antecedent agreement shouldn’t be used to shut down the dismantling of this bug in our language.

Spanish (differently from many indigenous languages … Nahuatl, for example) marks gender in most nouns. And that’s okay, generally speaking. But the big defect in Spanish is that there is no gender-neutral way of referring to a group of mixed-gender people. The plural masculine is used.

  • la mexicana — the Mexican woman
  • el mexicano — the Mexican man
  • las mexicanas — the Mexican women
  • los mexicanos — the Mexican men OR the Mexican people

Which, okay, it’s a deep feature of the language, but that’s no reason to just accept it, right? Why? Tradition? Whose? Linguistic evolution? Are we really going to use the fact that something evolved naturally as a moral defense of it? That’s a dark, dark path.

This bug in the language was first noticed by Spanish speakers in Latin America. Different ways to get around it have been devised. “Las ciudadanas y los ciudadanos,” a politician might say (“female and male citizens”). “Ciudadano/as” was form used in written text beginning in the 90s. Then it became “ciudadan@s” for some.

Also in the late 90s (many people from outside the US have claimed), anarchist youth and feminist protesters in parts of Latin America (mainly Argentina / Uruguay) and Spain started just crossing out the vowel “o” or just replacing it with an “x” on their posters and in their graffiti. “Ciudadanxs Unidxs,” these messages might’ve read, for example.

I have less solid evidence for this, beyond individual claims. Nonetheless, regardless of whether the “x” began in Latin America or not, 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. They figured that shit out for themselves long before we did.

Of course, no one intended for this replacement “x” to be pronounced as a /ks/ sound. In fact, some in Latin America started pronouncing it /e/ or straight-up using an “e.”

The above bit of data will come as a shock to those of you who insist the “x” of Latinx is some Anglophone or assimilated leftist “Hispanic” invention to destroy la lengua materna or some such nonsense. It is very likely that US folx adapted it, but didn’t invent it. Even if we did, Latin America was already hip-deep in efforts to dismantle the masculine default.

This dismantling is called inclusive language. And it doesn’t just stop with wanting to find a plural form that will include male and female genders. Not all human beings are male or female.

There are non-binary / genderqueer folx, too. So, in the US, as we struggled to find a way to make Latino/a plural, we hit upon a solution that includes our non-binary siblings as well.

Latinx.

Great book, btw.

It can be pronounced several ways: using the same pattern as Latino (lah TEE nex, my preference) or in English (LAT in ex). A few people even delightfully say “lah TEENKS.”

And guess what? YOU DO NOT HAVE TO USE IT.

You don’t have to use Hispanic. You don’t have to use Latino or Latina or Latinx or (please let this win out) LATINE.

You can be Chicano or Mexican American or Boricua or WHATEVER THE HELL you want to be.

But, get this, friend. You don’t have the power / authority to stop others from using WHATEVER THE HELL they want for themselves or to refer to the nebulous collective we [mostly] mestizo folx from Cemanahuac make up.

I mean, we’re all willing to hear your suggestions. Just don’t be assholes.

Here’s one example. Activists in Mexico and the US Southwest have suggested “Nican tlacah,” Nahuatl for “the people from here.” But my concern is that, like Turtle Island, that would just be imposing another non-universal language on the rest of the Latin Americans who don’t have any “Aztec” heritage.

There are no easy solutions to this, amigxs, amigues mies, queridas amistades. But that doesn’t mean we should stop trying. And we should do it all with a spirit of respect, a desire to understand, a big-heartedness and acceptance of differences.

Give it a shot, raza.