At the beginning of each school year, La Casa Cultural at Yale holds a Cafecito, a safe space for a discussion led by peer liaisons and deans, with the theme: “Am I Latinx Enough?” Because identifying as “Latinx” encompasses connotations of race, cultural upbringing, ethnicity and personal identity, it can be helpful to discuss how different aspects of Latinidad interact.
But before discussing what being “Latinx” means, the conversation first raises a key question: what exactly is “Latinx”?
“It’s a gender-neutral term, which is useful to allow a little bit of fluidity to a language that’s very gendered,” explains Maclovia Quintana ’11 FES ’14, interim assistant director of La Casa for the 2016-17 school year. For those of you who never took L1, a quick crash course in Spanish: all nouns and corresponding adjectives are gendered; generally, masculine nouns start with “el” and end in “o,” while feminine ones tend to start with “la” and end with “a.” “La casa” is feminine; “el carro” is masculine.
The gendering of objects is often arbitrary. There’s no particular reason why “house” needs to be feminine but “car” is masculine. However, gendering takes on more meaning when it’s applied to individuals, as one must choose a distinct gender to identify themselves. Herein emerges the power of “Latinx”: “It is more inclusive for those who do not identify as either male or female,” said Jaden Morales ’19, who identifies as Latino.
In addition to creating an identifier for non-binary students, the term strives to eliminate male dominance in conversation. If 100 female students were in a room, it would be grammatically correct to use feminine articles when referring to the group: “las estudiantes.” However, if one man entered the room of 100 female students, the only grammatically correct way to refer to the entire group would be to use masculine articles : “los estudiantes”. “Why are men cherished so much that we have to change the words we’re using as soon as one of them shows up?” wondered Trinidad Jeria-Leon, a third-year student at the Universidad Católica de Chile. Therefore, “Latinx” becomes a reprieve from male dominance in often patriarchal Latin-American culture.
“Latinx” has been widely embraced by La Casa as the go-to way to describe people of Latin-American descent, using the term frequently on its website, on t-shirts and for campus and community events.(Still, the institution remains officially titled “The Latino Cultural Center at Yale.”)
Neither Quintana nor Eileen Galvez, assistant dean of Yale College and director of La Casa, remember when the center started adopting “Latinx” so widely. The center has always strived for inclusivity and has used similar gender-neutral terms in the past, such as “Latino/a” or “Latin@.” “Latinx” has gained popularity recently because it’s easier to pronounce than “Latino/a” or “Latin@,” Quintana said.
Still, there is a lack of consensus as to how to pronounce the term. Some opt for “la-TEEN-x,” others, “lA-tin-x,” and still others, “la-TEENX.” The term, which isn’t recognized by Merriam-Webster or the Oxford English Dictionary, has yet to reach a consensus. Perhaps it works better on paper than in spoken conversation.
Besides its lack of recognition as an official word, “Latinx” presents another more pressing problem: the term isn’t neutral and has sparked debate among those it intends to describe.
In fact, it demands a lot from students, asking its proponents to recognize and accept a level of incongruence in the Spanish language.
“The language is inherently gendered, so this change would actually require changing Spanish, which many see as a loss of culture,” Galvez said.
Plus, revisions to the word can’t be isolated; changing its gendered ending would also change the gendered articles, adjectives and nouns that surround it.
When applying the logic of a de-gendered word like “Latinx” to Spanish, Leo Sanchez-Noya ’18 asked, would a gendered word like “las estudiantes” become “lxs estudiantxs”?
Because the term does not flow with the Spanish language, it can be widely misunderstood by the larger community of Latin-Americans. Many students said “Latinx” can create tensions between being Latino in a privileged space like Yale and being Latino in less progressive spaces, raising questions of elitism, community, activism and belonging.
“[‘Latinx’] is often used by those with a higher education, which has led to criticism that these changes are inaccessible to the general population,” Galvez said.
Nicole Chávez ’19 shares these concerns. Though she appreciates “Latinx” for its ability to be gender-neutral, she worries that the term “seems like it’s coming from an ivory tower.”
Sanchez-Noya learned to speak Spanish from his family and friends in South Florida. He said he feels it would be inappropriate for him to bring this term home from Yale. “For me to go home and tell them how to use the Spanish language? I would get laughed out of Miami,” he said.
He noted that segments of the Latin-American community absent from elite spaces are being left out of the conversation about how to identify the very community they belong to. Galvez echoed the worry that this exclusion creates barriers, so that a term meant to unify historically marginalized people might create further divisions within the community itself.
Perhaps this incongruence in the Spanish language could be remedied if those debating the term crafted a solution that would work well in Spanish. Sanchez-Noya suggested “Latini” or “Latinai,” terms that do not correspond to a specific gender but might flow better in Spanish conversation.
As a student in Chile, Jeria-Leon agreed that another term might have more chance of catching on in Spanish conversation.
“Chile is a very machista country, so it’s going to be hard for the older generations to understand the idea that a person can be non-binary or that men don’t need to dominate groups,” she said. “Something that flows better in our language, like ‘Latini,’ would at least only fight one battle at a time.”
Chávez, on the other hand, said she appreciates the term’s awkwardness. She said she still does not feel completely comfortable using the term at home, but hopes that she can use her family’s initial discomfort with the word to have fruitful conversations about its meaning.
Others downplay the confusion surrounding the term. As Yale Linguistics Professor Claire Bowern noted, “I don’t think that the term being difficult to understand is a reason why a term would or would not be used — that would imply that there is a correct way to use the word.”
Rather than having one distinct way to use the language, Topiltzin Gomez Juarez ’18, co-Moderator of Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlán de Yale, a multi-ethnic student organization focused on social justice and community empowerment, suggests that Latinx reflects a natural shift to modify the Spanish language for Latin-Americans in the United States.
“U.S. Latinos have established their own language to navigate their circumstances. Some of it will inadvertently be unpronounceable in the mother tongue,” he said.
At Yale, the term fosters uncertainty.
Many students note that the term “Latinx” is an inherently political one, rather than a simple or neutral descriptor. However, its political significance remains unclear.
The “x” at the end itself is up for debate. For Chávez, the “x” serves as a way to recognize indigenous roots that were destroyed by Spanish colonists.
“Before the colonists came and imposed a gender binary, there was a record of people in Mexico with understandings of additional genders,” she said. Although x’s are uncommon in romantic languages, they are prevalent in indigenous tongues. Her use of the “x” in “Latinx” simultaneously acknowledges that gender is more than a simple binary while also rebelling against the influence of colonialism.
For Jaden Morales, while the “x” questions the gender binary, it also feels like a Western imposition to the Spanish language.
The debate as to what the “x” means only scratches the surface as to what other political significances the term holds, including feminist and transgender advocacy. Combined with the linguistic confusion about the term, Chávez said, the word can hurt relationships between generations, which have different perceptions of its underlying radicalism.
Sanchez-Noya also noted that as it tries to encapsulate many different movements, the term “Latinx” becomes “almost useless.” It may be too much to expect one word to encompass a variety of distinct political views, he added.
Still, while acknowledging the limitations of “Latinx,” Gomez Juarez said he doesn’t think one should shy away from the term.
“The term’s complexity should not be an excuse to hold onto the status quo,” he said. “Rather than heavily policing the language of others, we should aim to have fruitful conversations that help build a political conscience founded on respect for others, regardless of gender identity.”
In the end, is La Casa’s move to use “Latinx” helpful, productive and inclusive? It certainly forces students to navigate their political and personal identities both within and outside of Yale’s elite space. But as transgender, female and Latinx rights come under attack in the Trump era, perhaps it’s time for marginalized communities to think about their identities in relation to one another.
Topiltzin pushes against a blanket judgment of the term “Latinx.”
“I personally am skeptical of strong dogmatic frameworks for determining what term is good and what term is evil,” he said. Rather, he emphasizes that individuals have the capability to develop their own political conscience. Many students interviewed agreed that the term’s unstable meaning pushes for constant conversations.
Amid the linguistic, political and cultural complexities of these conversations, one thing is certain: “Latinx” is far more than an easy “safe space.”
It should be noted that the majority of sources interviewed in this piece hope that their quotes would be understood from the perspective of someone with privilege as, for example, a cis-queer Latino male, and that it may not be their place to answer some of these questions or offer suggestions.