Growing up, I was always confused by school forms which required me to check off a box for my race and ethnicity. I had purely identified as Cuban since my father was born in Havana, so words like "Hispanic" made no sense to me, and with his light skin, my father identified as white due to a history of racism in his home country. So did I need to check "white" or "Hispanic"? And what was the difference between race and ethnicity anyway? Things became even more confusing as I got older and forms started featuring "Latino." Now, which one was I? Not to mention that in recent years, confused kids and adults alike have yet another term to choose from: "Latinx."
Since 2015, curiosity about the word "Latinx" has steadily increased. In fact, just take a look at the rise in Google searches alone for the term:
While the difference between "Latinx" and "Hispanic" largely comes down to how you self-identify (more on that, below), "Latinx" has typically been adopted among people who are looking for a more inclusive and gender-free alternative to "Latino" or "Latina." (Spanish words are automatically gendered to signify a man or a woman, leaving no option for those who choose to identify as non-binary.) Even though having this alternative is progressive, its usage can still be confusing—which might explain why a 2020 report from the Pew Research Center found that only 23 percent of U.S. adults who self-identify as Hispanic or Latino have heard of the term "Latinx," and just 3 percent embrace the term for themselves. Those findings are consistent with the results of a 2021 Gallup poll, which reported that only 4 percent of respondents preferred the term "Latinx," while 15 percent preferred "Latino" and 23 percent preferred "Hispanic."
With that in mind—and, not to mention, Hispanic Heritage Month around the corner (mark your calendars for September 15 through October 15)—consider this your go-to guide for the meaning of "Latinx."
Where did the term "Latinx" come from?
The word "Latinx" originated in the mid-2000s "in activist circles primarily in the U.S. as an expansion of earlier gender-inclusive variations such as Latino/a (with the slash) and Latin@ (with the “at” sign)," says Joseph M. Pierce, an assistant professor in the Department of Hispanic Languages and Literature at Stony Brook University. "The 'x' does not imply a specific gender—as would the 'o' (masculine) or the 'a' (feminine) for nouns in Spanish—and is meant to disrupt the grammatical binary that is inherent in this romance language."
However, the history of using "x" is lengthier, says David Bowles, a writer, translator, and professor at the University of Texas Río Grande Valley in Edinburg, Texas, who is currently working on a book 0n the word Latinx. "Radical feminists in the '90s—and perhaps as early as the '70s—would literally "x" out the "o" at the end of words that were meant to exclude women and non-binary folk all together."
The word "Latinx" is ultimately a "non-gendered, non-binary, inclusive way of pushing back against the default masculine in Spanish," adds Bowles.
How do you pronouce "Latinx?"
Just as there are many different ways to use the term in a sentence (it can function as an adjective or noun, and it can describe individuals and groups), there are also several ways to pronounce "Latinx." While it is most commonly pronounced as "LAT-in-EX," it is also sometimes pronounced using the same pattern as the Spanish-derived Latino, so it sounds like "lah-TEE-nex," and rhymes with Kleenex. "A few people even say 'lah-TEENKS,'" says Bowles.
However, "Latin-equis" (as you would pronounce the letter "x" in Spanish), is not typically used, adds Pierce.
Is "Latinx" capitalized?
"It's capitalized in English, but not in Spanish," says Bowles. This is because, as Pierce explains, the word "Latinx" is a proper noun used to refer to a group of people—so you would capitalize it in the same way that you would capitalize Black, Indigenous, etc., when referring to a group. It is also capitalized when used as an adjective, says Pierce.
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And is "Latinx" in the dictionary?
The inclusion of the term "Latinx" in the dictionary is a bit polarizing: In 2018, the term was added to Merriam-Webster, as well as the Oxford English Dictionary the following year, but it is not found in The Royal Academy of Spanish (RAE), which is the foremost authority on the language."The Royal Academy of Spanish (RAE) refuses to include any use of -x or -e," says Bowles. "They insist there is no connection between grammatical gender and gender oppression."
While Pierce argues that "inclusion lends legitimacy to the term and marks it as more than just a passing fad," others believe that whether or not the term is included in the dictionary is irrelevant. "Being in the dictionary isn't a benchmark we can aspire to when we are defining categories that describe us, identify us," says Dr. Luisa Ortiz Pérez, Executive Director of Vita-Activa.org. For her, and many other self-identified Latinx people, the ability to select the terms we want to identify as is more important than a simple dictionary inclusion.
What is the difference between "Latinx" and "Hispanic?"
There is a simple explanation and, as with many things dealing with race, culture, ethnicity, and history, there is also a more complicated version. The easiest way to understand the difference between "Latinx" and "Hispanic" is, as Ortiz Pérez puts it: "Latinx is an ethnic and cultural category, whereas Hispanic is a linguistic division. Brazilians are Latinxs, but they are not Hispanic. Spaniards are not Latinxs, but they are Hispanic."
Meanwhile, Bowles explains it this way: "Latinx is focused on geography." That means to be considered Hispanic, you or your ancestors must have come from a Spanish-speaking country formerly belonging to the Spanish Empire, which includes Argentina, Cuba, Colombia, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Mexico, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Panama, El Salvador, Bolivia, Chile, Ecuador, Paraguay, Peru, Uruguay, Venezuela, and, of course, Spain. In that case, to be considered Latina/Latino/Latinx, you or your ancestors must have come from a Latin American country, including Mexico, Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Cuba, French-speaking Caribbean nations, Central or South America (though English-speaking regions). "Your people might speak French, Portuguese, or Spanish," adds Bowles.
However, it's not as simple as that, because both Hispanic and Latinx/Latino/Latina come with their own histories. "This is an important distinction because it relates to how people name themselves, on the one hand, and on the other, how particular groups are understood by government institutions such as the U.S. census, as well as the geographies, histories, and cultural expressions—such as food, music, film, and literature—that are imagined as unique and cohesive," says Pierce.
Still confused? Here's a longer explanation.
And what about "Latine"? Is that different from "Latinx"?
While the word "Latinx" was created with inclusivity in mind, not everyone supports the term (more on that, below). One of the chief complaints: By replacing the "o" in "Latino" or the "a" in "Latina" with an "x," English speakers are imposing a term on the Hispanic and Latino population that doesn't make sense for them and is difficult to pronounce in Spanish—meaning it could alienate non-English speaking people of Latin American descent. "Perhaps the most ironic failure of the term is that it actually excludes more groups than it includes," students Gilbert Guerra and Gilbert Orbea argued in an op-ed for Swarthmore College's campus newspaper.
Enter the term "Latine" (pronounced "la-tee-neh"), which some have offered as an alternative in response to the "Latinx" criticism. Not only does it sound less awkward in Spanish, but it can also be used in a gender neutral fashion.
Who uses the term "Latinx"?
Whomever feels that the term accurately defines their background—though the 2020 Pew Report, which surveyed 3,030 adults suggests, indicated that only a small portion of the U.S. population does. According to the research, just 3 percent of surveyed adults who self-identify as Hispanic or Latino said they consider themselves Latinx. What's more, almost three out of four of those same adults had never even heard of the term.
The survey found it was more commonly known among those born in the U.S. than in other countries (32 percent versus 16 percent), as well as Hispanics who were predominately English-speaking or bilingual (29 percent of respondents in both groups) than those who were mainly Spanish speaking (7 percent).
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According to Pew, those mostly likely to identify as "Latinx" are between the ages of 18-29, a college graduate, and Democrat-leaning. Additionally, women were more likely than men to use "Latinx" to describe themselves (5 percent versus 1 percent), though it is worth noting that the Pew survey did not include any self-identified non-binary respondents, which is important given that gender neutrality and inclusivity is one of the intentions of using "Latinx."
Why do some people not like the term "Latinx?"
There is no denying that the Spanish language is gendered (for example: a group of 20 people with 19 women and 1 man is considered "Latino"), which is precisely why some have begun to embrace the term "Latinx" for its inclusive nature. However, with change can come backlash. "Hatred generally comes from conservative members of the community that still believe everything cultural needs to be sanctioned by the RAE, which is outdated," explains Ortiz Pérez.
Spanish-language purists argue that the word "Latinx" is simply about political correctness and that the word (and similar constructions) will "destroy Spanish," as Bowles puts it. "I promise you, Spanish language has already evolved tremendously over the past 500 years and can withstand more."
A common misconception is that it is about sexual orientation, since its usage initially sprung up amongst LGBTQIA+ circles. But Pierce emphasizes that it is about gender identity and expression. "It does not imply any particular sexuality," he says. "Nor does 'Latinx' apply to everyone as an identity category. Instead, it expands the possibilities for expression that people have at their disposal. People who have been marginalized because of the gendered dynamics of Spanish view this shift toward the 'x' as one of inclusivity and openness."
At the end of the day, using the term "Latinx" is a personal choice. "My feeling is that we should allow one another to use the labels each of us selects," says Bowles. "I'm comfortable with Mexican-American, Chicano, and Latino. Others might have different preferences. It's a personal choice. No one can tell you to use Latinx...but no one can tell you not to, either."
Personally, I have embraced the term—but not everyone in the Latino/Latinx community has. And, as Bowles says, that personal choice should be respected and accepted.
Irina Gonzalez is an editor and a freelance writer based in Colorado, covering parenting, recovery, and Latinx culture. In her spare time, you can find her exploring her colorful state with her husband and spunky toddler. Follow her on Instagram at @msirinagonzalez.