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The terms Latino, Hispanic and Latinx are often used interchangeably to describe a group that makes up about 18 percent of the U.S. population. While it’s now common to use umbrella terms to categorize those with ties to more than 20 Latin American countries, these words haven’t always fostered a sense of community among the people they’re supposed to describe.
Before activists, the media and government officials worked to group these identities into one, they were seen as separate. Puerto Ricans and Mexicans, for example, lived in different parts of the country and had their own distinct political and cultural identities.
Yet, as long as there have been people from Latin American countries living in the United States, there have been words to describe them. Some have fallen out of favor, while others have evolved. And many of them have a history as complicated as trying to unify multiple nationalities under one banner.
READ MORE: Hispanic Heritage: Full Coverage
'Hispanic' Helps Unify Communities, Agenda
The first time the federal government used the word Hispanic in a census was 1980. The appearance of the term was borne from decades of lobbying. “It took the debates of the 1970s, the protests of the late 1960s to get us to 1980,” explains G. Cristina Mora, a sociology professor at UC Berkeley and author of Making Hispanics: How Activists, Bureaucrats, and Media Constructed a New American.
Before 1980, those of Latin American descent were considered Spanish-speaking, having Spanish origin or white on the census. The latter frustrated Mexican-American activists because they had no data to prove that their communities needed resources for programs, such as job training. The National Council of La Raza, known today as UnidosUS, led in lobbying the Census Bureau to change the way it categorized Latinos and uniting Puerto Ricans and Mexicans to “hammer out a Hispanic agenda.”
“In the late 1960s and early 1970s as people in the Census Bureau and bureaucrats in the Nixon administration were thinking about what this new group would be called, Hispanic became a term that people thought would probably be well-known because it was linked to hispano,” Mora says. “But Hispanic was helpful because it seemed more American.”
Hispanic refers to those from Spain and other Spanish-speaking countries, which excludes Brazilians. Grace Flores-Hughes, who worked as a secretary in what was then known as the Department of Health, Education and Welfare, has said she coined the term. However, as Mora explains, it’s possible that Hispanic was in use before then.
While 1980 marked a milestone, this pan-ethnic term didn’t really catch on until about the 1990s. By then, there had been two rounds of censuses and the media, particularly Univision and Telemundo, had helped to unite these communities.
“It wasn’t just activists and it wasn’t just bureaucrats,” Mora says. “It was certain figures like Telemundo, Univision, who had a huge vested interest in connecting their audiences across the country and having those audiences across the country see themselves as one market.”
'Latino' as Alternative to 'Hispanic'
While Hispanic may have utility, the term has been criticized for highlighting Spain, which colonized much of Latin America. Some have offered “Latino” as an alternative. This term refers to those from Latin America, meaning it includes Brazil but not Spain.
The word existed long before the 1960s. But Ramón A. Gutiérrez, a Preston & Sterling Morton Distinguished Service Professor of United States history at the University of Chicago, explains that it was previously a Spanish-language word that came from Latino America, which Colombian writer José María Torres Caicedo helped popularize.
“Latino is short for Latino Americano,” he says. “And it’s the result of what happens between 1808 and 1821 as the Latin American countries become independent.”
In the second half of the 19th century, the abbreviated words “hispano” and “latino” were in use in California among Spanish speakers, but eventually, other terms replaced them. By 1920, they had “virtually disappeared,” Gutiérrez writes.
The term Latino gradually re-emerged in English, appearing in books and even in a 1970 White House diary entry by Claudia “Lady Bird” Johnson. In another early example, a March 17, 1973 issue of the Black Panther Party’s newspaper described a program drawn up by an “action group composed of Blacks, Latinos and Whites.” By 2000, Latino was on the census, with the question, “Is this person Spanish/Hispanic/Latino?”
Though Latino deemphasized the connection to Spain, some still rejected the term as it attempted to group several distinct cultures into one. For example, a popular bumper sticker declaring, “Don’t Call Me Hispanic, I’m Cuban!” circulated in Miami during the early 1990s, according to Mora. In many cases, those who didn’t want to identify as Hispanic or Latino chose nationality.
According to a Pew Research Center 2013 study, only one in five respondents described themselves as Hispanic or Latino. Meanwhile, 54 percent used “their family’s Hispanic origin term (such as Mexican, Cuban Salvadoran) to identify themselves” and 23 percent used “American” most commonly.
Some Mexican-Americans Embrace 'Chicano'
For some Mexicans who shunned Latino and Hispanic, this meant turning to the word “Chicano.”
There are a few theories about the origins of Chicano, including that it comes from mexicano (pronounced meshicano), a word that some “groups of Nahuas (Indigenous speakers of Nahuatl) began calling their language,” writes David Bowles, an author and professor at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley.
Another possibility is that Chicano is a result of hypocorism. “It’s basically using baby talk,” Bowles says. “If you think about nicknames, Spanish nicknames, if you’re Ignacio, you’re called ‘Nacho.’ Graciela, you’re called ‘Chela.’ It’s possible that that could be some type of hypocorism behind the change from mexicano to Chicano—a playful kind of thing.”
One of the first mentions of Chicano in print is in Spanish-language newspaper La Crónica in 1911, where it was used as a slur against “less cultured” Mexican Americans and recent immigrants. But by the 1960s, the word had changed. While not every Mexican or Mexican American would use the term, it gained traction, including among Mexican Americans who were fighting for civil rights.
“Because the word was in regular use at that time,” Bowles says, “it was kind of this way of reclaiming the slur and using it for a political Latinx identity.”
'Latinx' Emerges as Gender-Neutral Term
Spanish is a gendered language. If there is a group made up of women, they can be described as “ellas.” If there is a group with men and women, it defaults to the masculine (ellos instead of ellas). The word “Latino” follows this convention, labeling nouns as either masculine or feminine. For those who fall outside the gender binary, this word fails to represent them, which is where the gender neutral “Latinx” comes into play.
Much like the other words used to describe those of Latin American descent, Latinx has faced some pushback—from arguments that it’s difficult to pronounce to the Real Academia Española, the institution tasked with maintaining the consistency of the Spanish language, saying it’s unnecessary. Some even argued non-Latino whites imposed the word on Latinos.
Bowles argues against this notion. “White people did not make up Latinx,” he says. “It was queer Latinx people... They are the ones who used the word. Our little subgroup of the community created that. It was created by English-speaking U.S. Latinx people for use in English conversation.”
Though it’s unclear when or how it began, it’s mostly tied to the early 2000s, with it reportedly appearing on Google Trends in 2004. There are a few possibilities about how the word came to be. One theory is that Latin American protests inspired the word. From the 1970s to the 1990s, as feminists protested, they would X out words ending in “OS” to “visually… reject the notion that the default is the masculine,” Bowles says. It could have also been a nod to the use of X during the Civil Rights Movement in the United States.
Despite the Pew Research Center finding in August 2020 that only 3 percent of Latinos use Latinx, it’s a term that gained momentum through the 2010s and up to 2020, cropping on TV shows and in politics.
Commentary: The history behind the debate over ‘Chicano’ and other labels goes as far back as 1848
What’s the difference between Chicano, Latino, Mexican American, Hispanic, Chicanx or Latinx?
Historically, the question of identification for Mexicans left in the U.S. after the U.S.-Mexico War ended in 1848 as to who we are and how we identify ourselves remains a generational “problem” or “issue,” to date. After 173 years, Chicanos remain a conquered, colonized, occupied, hunted and powerless people, due to this unresolved “problem” or “issue.”
Manifested by the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, Mexicans have been made strangers in their land, with thousands of babies and children incarcerated, a border wall, immigration raids and more Mexican youth in prisons than colleges. Conditions created by decades of institutional racism, discrimination and violence against Chicanos and Mexicans have stripped Chicanos of their history, language and culture, through the political tactics of divide and conquer.
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The Bible states, “If a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand.” So the historical question becomes: How did we as a group go from identifying as Mexicans to using an “x”? For the first two generations, identification was simple but dangerous. People were Mexicans, born and raised in and citizens of what was then Mexico. State-sanctioned violence, repression, police actions, vigilantism and hangings of Mexicans made it dangerous. In the 1920s, after three generations of oppression, colonization, segregation and systemic teachings that being Mexican was the problem, members of a new generation defined themselves as “Latinos,” incorrectly in my opinion. Things like schools, the English language, military service and public signs stating “No Mexicans, N------s or dogs allowed” confirmed their incorrect conclusion for me. After decades of this, “Latinos” were unable to fool anyone except themselves. Then World War II erupted in 1940.
White draft boards started to draft Mexicans for the war effort and began to define Mexicans with the hyphened label “Mexican-American.” The reason? White draft boards refused especially in Texas to print the nationality of Mexicans as Americans, which in the segregated U.S. meant White. Twenty-five years later, in the mid-1960s, for the first time in U.S. history, the children of Mexican Americans identified themselves as Chicanos. To counter the growing Chicano movement’s call for self-determination, the U.S. government imposed in 1970 a one-shoe-fits-all label by defining Mexicans as Hispanics, along with Cubans, Puerto Ricans, and Central and South Americans.
Today, nonsensical definitions have surfaced from White-controlled colleges, paid academicians and professors who have misled naive students to identify Raza as Chicanx and Latinx. So why Chicano instead of other labels for defined groups? To me, there are numerous reasons, including history, self-determination, historical struggle, self-respect and attempts at identification based on our Indigenous history, language and culture. As the old saying goes, he who defines controls. That is manifested by Latino, Mexican American, Hispanic, Chicanx and Latinx being defined by the White political system to control people.
Another practice of defining Chicanas and Chicanos was changing a child’s name. “My name was Ramón when I started kindergarten, but by the third grade, everybody called me ‘Raymond,’” Chicano great Ramón “Chunky” Sanchez sang in his song “Pocho.” Systemically, this changing of our names was the White system’s way of dictating who you were, what you learned and what you were going to be. In New Mexico, I witnessed as a child the disastrous results of dividing and conquering: persons identified themselves as Spaniards, Hispanos, Latinos, Mexican Americans, Mexicans and other terms. Ironically, their names, food and music were Mexican, but because of the division, one group did not speak to the others.
The greatest difference between Chicanos and the other defined groups, which continues today, is who has addressed the historical issues since 1519 (when Hernan Cortés conquered Mexico) that have afflicted Chicanos and Mexicans and created progress and opportunities for our people. “Latinos” whose agenda for over 20 years was to prove they were White? “Mexican Americans” who couldn’t be buried in White cemeteries after winning the Medal of Honor? “Hispanics” who were forced to change the name of the advocacy organization National Council of La Raza to UnidosUS because La Raza was unacceptable to racists? “Chicanx” and “Latinx” who have revised history by eradicating Chicano and Aztlán as they did with the name of the student group MEChA?
As Chicano historian Rodolfo “Rudy” Acuña wrote, organizational name changes don’t “further the building of a movement.” He wrote of the MEChA name change, “This is not done by wiping out the history of Chicanas/os, Aztlán, and rewriting the past.”
The Chicano movement knocked opened the doors of opportunity, created Chicano Park and Chicano studies, and produced leaders who addressed historical issues such as Cesar Chavez for farm workers, Humberto Corona for immigration, Reis Lopes Tijerina for land, Rodolfo “Corky” Gonzales for Aztlán and José Ángel Gutiérrez for La Raza Unida Party.
This leaves young people with the question: What have Latinos, Mexican Americans, Hispanics, Chicanx and Latinx done, besides profiting from the Chicano struggle?
Baca is a longtime community activist and president of the Committee on Chicano Rights. He lives in National City.
Learn about some of our outreach and preservation efforts in Latinx communities on the Eastside and beyond.
Twentieth-century Mexican settlement in the Eastside can be traced to the 1910s and 1920s, during a period of rapid industrial development in the area known as Sonoratown within the City of Los Angeles.
Workers living in Sonoratown, the traditional barrio located near El Pueblo downtown, moved just east of the city limits to the newly established community of Belvedere, drawn by the availability of inexpensive housing and new job opportunities.
The 1910 Mexican Revolution also propelled the development of the area, as thousands of Mexicans immigrated to Los Angeles in the wake of the conflict. In the decades following World War II, the Eastside became predominantly Latinx as other communities moved to the city’s expanding suburbs.
Places such as the Boyle Hotel, Our Lady of Solitude, Wyvernwood Garden Apartments, and the Maravilla Handball Court demonstrate the unique character that this longstanding community has brought to the Eastside. Within unincorporated East Los Angeles, several distinct neighborhoods, including Maravilla, Belvedere, and City Terrace, have emerged over time, each with a unique cultural identity.
In addition to significant population shifts, the Eastside was the backdrop for the rise of an important resistance movement in the postwar era.
In the 1960s, activists organized to protest widespread social discrimination against Mexican Americans in what would be called the Chicano Movement. In 1968, students and teachers from East Los Angeles high schools carried out a series of protests known as the East Los Angeles Walkouts or the Chicano Blowouts, which focused largely on educational inequality in local schools, but also aimed to draw attention to other restrictions on residents’ civil rights.
A definitive moment in the Latinx history of the Eastside was the 1970 Chicano Moratorium.
After decades of discrimination, an increase in police brutality, and frustration over the disproportionate number of Mexican American soldiers dying in the Vietnam War, Chicanxs throughout Los Angeles organized the Chicano Moratorium as part of a national movement to protest the war and advocate for social justice at home.
Between 20,000 and 30,000 people participated in the peaceful demonstration that occurred on August 29, 1970 in East Los Angeles. The Chicano Moratorium began at Belvedere Park and followed a route along Atlantic and Whittier Boulevards, ending with a rally at Laguna Park.
Following reports of an incident unrelated to the Moratorium at a nearby liquor store, violence erupted between law enforcement and protestors, ultimately resulting in the death of three people, among them Ruben Salazar. Salazar, a noted Chicano journalist for the Los Angeles Times, was killed in the Silver Dollar Bar and Café by a Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputy.
One month after the Moratorium, Laguna Park was renamed “Ruben F. Salazar Park” in honor of the reporter, who was the first in the mainstream American media to write about the social unrest in the Chicanx community. A new plaque with information on Salazar’s life was unveiled on August 29, 2014 at Salazar Park, an effort spearheaded by County Supervisor Gloria Molina's office in collaboration with community activists.
The Eastside has long fostered a vibrant Latinx cultural scene that continues to enliven its historic places today.
Sites such as the Self Help Graphics and Art building, Estrada Courts, and El Mercado embody the artistic movements and rituals that define East Los Angeles and Boyle Heights to this day. For decades, the area has been the epicenter of Chicanx muralism in Los Angeles, with thousands of murals paying tribute to the community’s heritage and empowering locals through stories of both struggle and triumph.
The Chicanx rock scene brought the experiences of barrio life to broad audiences with the rise of Eastside bands such as Cannibal and the Headhunters and Los Lobos. Countless cultural traditions, including the annual procession in honor of Our Lady of Guadalupe at Soledad Church, continue today.
Note: The Conservancy uses the terms "Latinx" and "Chicanx" as gender-neutral alternatives to Latina/o, [email protected], etc. Though we recognize that different people and communities self-identify in different ways, "Latinx" and "Chicanx" are gaining ground in our cultural discourse as a way of acknowledging and respecting people who are transgender, queer, or gender fluid or non-conforming.
These terms may not always be appropriate when describing people and events in the past (ex. Chicano Moratorium), but we are incorporating them into our vocabulary as part of our commitment to inclusion. Learn more about this "lingusitic revolution" from the Huffington Post >>
The term Hispanic ( hispano or hispánico ) can be used to refer to someone from Spain, Portugal, Brazil, or the Spanish-speaking countries of Latin America, as well as to people of Hispanic descent (people with parents, grandparents, etc. who are Hispanic ).
- In the U.S., the term Hispanic is most commonly used to refer to someone from Latin America (Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Mexico, and Central and South America).
The terms Hispanic and Latino are considered interchangeable by some people, so don't be surprised if you see them used as synonyms.
Read: Latino, Hispanic, Latinx, Chicano: The History Behind the Terms
Hispanos & Latinos Unidos (HLU) is a student affinity group consisting of Latinx students and organization leaders. HLU members are committed to raising the awareness and cultural impact of the Latinx student community through education, programs, and exchange of ideas. Additionally, HLU addresses issues of mutual concern and challenges facing the Latinx student communities.
Hispanic Heritage Month
September 15 - October 15 marks National Hispanic Heritage Month. OIR honors and promotes this national celebration by scheduling events designed to honor the diverse cultures, history, and impact of Hispanic and Latinx cultures.
Dinner hosted by OIR, Hispanic & Latino Association, Latino Student Alliance Wepa and Multicultural Greek Council invites Latinx students and family members/friends. Alumni share their experiences as Monarchs and student leaders. Latinx student organizations hosts information table and resources.
Latinx Mentorship Connection
To promote student success and retention, Hispanic & Latino Employee Association and OIR invites you to join our mentorship program to be matched with an ODU Latinx faculty or administrator.
Latinx Cultures Mane Hub Connection
Relax and or study in the Latinx Cultures Mane Hub space located in the Webb Center near Subway eatery
Hispanic? Chicano? Latinx? What's In A Name?
What exactly does “Hispanic” mean? To whom does that term apply? Would “Latino” be preferable? What about “Mexican American,” or “Chicano”?
Palo Alto College has held platicas, or talks, in September and October to commemorate Heritage Month on campus. One platica focused on the different identifying terms used among Latino and Hispanic populations.
Norma Cantú is a folklorist, poet, author and professor of the Humanities, Modern Languages and Literatures at Trinity University.
As a graduate student in Lincoln, Nebraska, in the 1970s, she was tasked to talk to teachers about cultural acceptance after they found themselves dealing with an influx of Vietnamese immigrants.
“At one place, the superintendent introduced me as ‘Spanish,’ said Cantú. “I’m from Laredo, Texas. I have never been called Spanish. I may have been called ‘Mexican-American.’ Maybe at one point ‘Tejana.’ But never as Spanish.”
“I asked, ‘Why did you introduce me as Spanish?’” Cantú recalled. “So then the man tells me, ‘I didn’t want to insult you by calling you Mexican.’”
This angered her. The superintendent asked Cantú what she preferred to be called. “And for the first time in my life,” I said, ‘I’m a Chicana.’”
“Chicano” and “Chicana” are loaded words. They have come to mean be associated with political activism.
We’re now hearing newer labels. “Hispanic” and “Latino” were commonly used. Now we’re hearing “Latinx” and “Xicanx.”
The X implies gender neutrality. Gender weighs heavily in the Spanish language -- “El Chicano, La Chicana.” Most words imply a gender.
Maria López De León, executive director of the National Association of Latino Arts & Cultures (NALAC), said her organization leans towards “Latinx,” though she considers herself a Chicana.
“The idea that you are being punished, or you are being other-ed, just because you look different, just because you speak a different language, is something that really pushed me towards calling myself a Chicana,” De León said. “It was more than just my heritage, but it was about my positioning on policies and being an advocate and being a voice to join many other voices in our community.”
Student Andrew Salinas called himself a chameleon. He’s the president of Palo Alto College SomosMAS, a student organization that promotes civic engagement.
Salinas said his identifying word changes depending on his audience.
“In some circles I won’t feel comfortable saying Latinx,” said Salinas, who is openly gay. “As we all know, it’s not really ok for some people to be openly gay, lesbian, transgender, bisexual, any of that, within the Latinx community. I will either use that in a safe space, or. to rustle the feathers a little bit.”
The panel discussion was a Hispanic Heritage Month event, but the panelists avoided calling themselves Hispanic.
Cantú said the origin of the word lends weight to the European Spanish heritage in the Americas.
“There is no such thing as Hispanic culture,” Cantú emphasized. “I’m a folklorist. I study culture. There isn’t one language, there isn’t one food, there isn’t one music. It’s all of it. It’s very different when you superimpose that onto all of the Americas. For me, ‘Hispanic’ is a total misnomer. There is no such word.”
Even Palo Alto College cut the word “Hispanic” out of their Hispanic Heritage Month commemorations. It’s simply been called it “Heritage Month” for the last five years. A name change is in the works.
Lori Beth Rodriguez, coordinator of Mexican American Studies at Palo Alto College, said she identifies as Latinx.
“A lot of people don’t understand the ‘x,’” she said. “It’s like, does that mean I have some sort of sexual identity? No. It’s gender neutral. It’s respectful of all gender identities.”
Rodriguez said “Latinx” is a broader term with several categories under which she identifies.
“I am also Tejana,” she said. “Born and raised in South Texas with my roots going generations back. And Mexican American. And Chicana. Proud Chicana. ChicanX. It’s a long list. All of the above! Those are my preferences.”
And what about those who argue that we need to eliminate hyphenates and labels, and simply call ourselves “Americans”?
Cantú says there is no either/or. Latinos are American, she said, but they can also also be Chicano/a and Native American.
“Especially Native Americans,” Cantú said. “They are the true Americans.”
Digging Into the Messy History of “Latinx” Helped Me Embrace My Complex Identity
John Paul Brammer
In June 2016, a Muslim American man entered Orlando’s Pulse nightclub during its weekly Latin Night and gunned down 49 people, most of them gay or bisexual. In the dizzying aftermath of the tragedy, I was assigned to write an opinion piece for HuffPost about how then-presidential candidate Donald Trump was using the incident to drum up Islamophobia. As I pored over news reports, a word leaped off the page: “Latinx,” pronounced la-TEEN-ex, a gender-neutral way to describe people of Latin American heritage. As a gay Mexican American, I often write about LGBT or Latino issues. But this was the rare occasion that I needed to address both aspects of my identity at once. The word seemed clunky and mathematical, the “x” taking on the function of an algebraic placeholder, its presence chopping up the flow of the prose. I didn’t know how I felt about it.
I wasn’t alone in discovering “Latinx” because of Pulse. Google Trends shows a massive spike in searches for the term in the month following the massacre. Since then, the word has gained steam, especially among queer activists and student groups. In September, it earned a spot in the Merriam-Webster dictionary.
In a way, this is no surprise. Latinos are the largest minority group in the country, making up nearly a fifth of Americans. And they are identifying as LGBT in droves: 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.
In the 1980s, the US Census Bureau started counting an influx of Latin American immigrants using the new term “Hispanic,” connecting them by linguistic heritage. But the term didn’t do justice to Portuguese-speaking Brazilians, and it could include Spaniards. So in 2000, the word “Latino” appeared on the census, and it has since achieved widespread use as an umbrella term for people and communities south of the US border.
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 “[email protected]”—a symbol that combines the “a” and the “o.” But how do you pronounce that? According to Google Trends, “Latinx” first appeared in 2004. Princeton University scholar Arlene Gamio, author of Latinx: A Brief Guidebook, said the word “died down in popularity shortly afterward” but reemerged about 10 years later.
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.
In November 2015, the Phoenix, Swarthmore College’s student newspaper, published a widely shared rebuke of the term. Student authors Gilbert Guerra and Gilbert Orbea described “Latinx” as a “blatant form of linguistic imperialism”—and claimed it was an attempt to force American ideals onto people living in Latin America because it wasn’t tailored to native Spanish speakers. 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.”
Ed Morales, a lecturer at Columbia University’s Center for the Study of Ethnicity and Race and the author of the book Latinx: The New Force in American Politics and Culture, also resisted the word at first. But then he started to see it through a new lens. Queer scholar Gloria Anzaldúa, he notes, has written extensively on nepantla, a Nahuatl word that captures the concept of being caught between worlds. In her book Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza, Anzaldúa argues that the complex racial history of Latin America has created a unique mindset—a refusal to conform to racial and social binaries, and an identity based more on the mixing of cultures than on any one solid, static caste designation. “Latinx” is entirely in keeping with this tradition of mestizaje, Morales wrote in an email: “It occurred to me that refusal to conform to male/female gender binaries was parallel to the refusal to conform to a racial binary.”
María Scharrón-del Río, a professor at Brooklyn College who identifies as a genderqueer Puerto Rican, decided a few years ago to adopt the term. Whether it is loved or hated, Scharrón-del Río argues, the word at least makes readers think, and “thinking about something is the first step toward shifting anything that needs to be shifted.” When in doubt about whether to refer to someone as Latinx, just ask, suggests Princeton’s Gamio. That’s “the only way to know what to call someone or how to respect an individual’s identity.”
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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GUEST COMMENTARY: The History Behind the Debate Over ‘Chicano’ and Other Labels Goes as Far Back as 1848
What’s the difference between Chicano, Latino, Mexican American, Hispanic, Chicanx or Latinx?
Historically, the question of identification for Mexicans left in the U.S. after the U.S.-Mexico War ended in 1848 as to who we are and how we identify ourselves remains a generational “problem” or “issue,” to date.
After 173 years, Chicanos remain a conquered, colonized, occupied, hunted, and powerless people due to this unresolved “problem” or “issue.”
Manifested by the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, Mexicans have been made strangers in their land, with thousands of babies and children incarcerated, a border wall, immigration raids, and more Mexican youth in prisons than colleges. Conditions created by decades of institutional racism, discrimination, and violence against Chicanos and Mexicans have stripped Chicanos of their history, language, and culture through the political tactics of divide and conquer.
The Bible states, “If a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand.” So the historical question becomes: How did we as a group go from identifying as Mexicans to using an “x”?
For the first two generations, identification was simple, but dangerous. People were Mexicans, born and raised in and citizens of what was then Mexico. State-sanctioned violence, repression, police actions, vigilantism, and hangings of Mexicans made it dangerous.
In the 1920s, after three generations of oppression, colonization, segregation, and systemic teachings that being Mexican was the problem, members of a new generation defined themselves as “Latinos,” incorrectly, in my opinion. Things like schools, the English language, military service, and public signs stating “No Mexicans, N——s or dogs allowed” confirmed their incorrect conclusion for me. After decades of this, “Latinos” were unable to fool anyone except themselves.
Then World War II erupted in 1940.
White draft boards started to draft Mexicans for the war effort and began to define Mexicans with the hyphened label “Mexican-American.” The reason? White draft boards refused especially in Texas to print the nationality of Mexicans as Americans, which in the segregated U.S. meant White.
Twenty-five years later, in the mid-1960s, for the first time in U.S. history, the children of Mexican Americans identified themselves as Chicanos. To counter the growing Chicano movement’s call for self-determination, the U.S. government imposed in 1970 a one-shoe-fits-all label by defining Mexicans as Hispanics, along with Cubans, Puerto Ricans, and Central and South Americans.
Today, nonsensical definitions have surfaced from White-controlled colleges, paid academicians and professors who have misled naive students to identify Raza as Chicanx and Latinx.
So why “Chicano” instead of other labels for defined groups?
To me, there are numerous reasons, including history, self-determination, historical struggle, self-respect, and attempts at identification based on our Indigenous history, language, and culture. As the old saying goes, he who defines, controls. That is manifested by Latino, Mexican American, Hispanic, Chicanx, and Latinx being defined by the White political system to control people.
Another practice of defining Chicanas and Chicanos was changing a child’s name. “My name was Ramón when I started kindergarten, but by the third grade, everybody called me ‘Raymond,’” Chicano-great Ramón “Chunky” Sanchez sang in his song “Pocho.”
Systemically, this changing of our names was the White system’s way of dictating who you were, what you learned, and what you were going to be. In New Mexico, I witnessed as a child the disastrous results of dividing and conquering: persons identified themselves as Spaniards, Hispanos, Latinos, Mexican Americans, Mexicans, and other terms. Ironically, their names, food, and music were Mexican, but because of the division, one group did not speak to the others.
The greatest difference between Chicanos and the other defined groups, which continues today, is who has addressed the historical issues since 1519 (when Hernan Cortés conquered Mexico) that have afflicted Chicanos and Mexicans and created progress and opportunities for our people.
“Latinos” whose agenda for over 20 years was to prove they were White? “Mexican-Americans” who couldn’t be buried in White cemeteries after winning the Medal of Honor? “Hispanics” who were forced to change the name of the advocacy organization National Council of La Raza to UnidosUS because La Raza was unacceptable to racists? “Chicanx” and “Latinx” who have revised history by eradicating Chicano and Aztlán as they did with the name of the student group MEChA?
As Chicano historian Rodolfo “Rudy” Acuña wrote that organizational name changes don’t “further the building of a movement.” He wrote of the MEChA name change, “This is not done by wiping out the history of Chicanas/os, Aztlán, and rewriting the past.”
The Chicano movement knocked opened the doors of opportunity, created Chicano Park and Chicano studies, and produced leaders who addressed historical issues, such as Cesar Chavez for farm workers, Humberto Corona for immigration, Reis Lopes Tijerina for land, Rodolfo “Corky” Gonzales for Aztlán, and José Ángel Gutiérrez for La Raza Unida Party.
This leaves young people with the question: What have Latinos, Mexican-Americans, Hispanics, Chicanx, and Latinx done, besides profiting from the Chicano struggle?
Herman Baca is a Chicano activist best known for grassroots community organizing. He was a key figure in the Chicano Civil Rights Movement since the 1960s. His writings and personal documents have been preserved at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD).
Hispanic, Latino, Latinx — A Question Of Belonging
Above: Arianna Andrade is pictured in this undated photo.
Arianna Andrade lives in two worlds.
As a rising UC San Diego Sophomore who grew up in City Heights, they are stepping into their identity as genderqueer. Among their classmates and friends they identify as Latinx or Chicanx, and feel the freedom of having their gender identity be seen and understood, but there’s also a loneliness to it.
Listen to this story by Cristina Kim
“I’m looking around right now and I don’t see anyone that looks like me, so sometimes I do feel out of place on campus,” Andrade said. “But then I go back home and I see everyone in the community who looks like me and has the same traditions as me, but they continue to see me as her.”
At home with their family and community, they feel another part of their identity is seen, but at the expense of another.
“I have no idea how to tell them or how to explain it to them because my mom even had the argument that using the 'X' is the colonizer language,” said Andrade. “She’s very much against the 'X' and she’s like, 'just use Latino.'”
UC San Diego Professor Ariana Ruiz, who teaches courses on Latinx identities, said Andrade’s journey represents a relatively new project in American history to more accurately identify everyone who falls within Latinidad, a term used to describe the Latin community writ large.
And like so many other things that traverse cultures and generations, the effort is both exciting and controversial.
“Older generations, older communities, and here, I am thinking about my parents or even grandparents, if they’re familiar with the term Latinx, they’re not quite going to understand it, as if I were to go on a college campus,” said Ruiz.
A brief history
Up until the latter part of the 20th Century, Mexican Americans, Puerto Ricans and others of Latin descent were counted as white on the U.S. Census and were largely identified by their countries of origin.
That began to change during the 1960s civil rights era, when Mexican-American activists in Southern California established the Chicano movement. That was followed by a push during the 1970s for a Hispanic Census category, which came to fruition in the 1980 Census. Hispanic refers to anyone with cultural ties to countries where Spanish is spoken.
Beginning in the 1990s, the terms Latino and Latina gained popularity. Latino refers to anyone with roots in Latin America and is not tied to the Spanish language. Latin America broadly consists of Mexico, Central America, South America and the Caribbean islands.
Often used interchangeably, Hispanic and Latino can have different connotations and regional uses. Hispanic, for instance, is often associated with more politically conservative individuals and groups, according to Geraldo Cadava, author of “The Hispanic Republican.”
More recently, the term Latinx, which is a nonbinary and nongendered way of saying Latino, have become increasingly used by Universities and media outlets, including by NPR and KPBS, in order to be more inclusive.
The "X" in Latinx, however, doesn’t resonate with everyone. According to a 2020 survey by Pew Research Center, only 3% of adults surveyed identify as Latinx.
KPBS audience weighs in
The KPBS newsroom knows Latinx is not definitive or all encompassing by any stretch of the imagination, but we wanted to hear more about how our audiences identify and their thoughts on the term Latinx.
So, we asked. In the span of a month, we received nearly 200 unique responses from people across San Diego County.
Professor Ruiz isn’t surprised by the outpouring of responses.
“It's the politics of labeling. And with that politics, of course, are conversations around race, sexuality, gender, all of those components come into play,” she said. “It's one that people have strong feelings about and will lead to very lively conversations and debate.”
Photo credit: Prizila Vidal
Prizila Vidal is pictured in this undated photo.
Among the responses to KPBS’ callout, a few commonalities emerged. Some like Prizila Vidal, who grew up in San Diego and identifies as nonbinary, have come to really embrace the term Latinx.
“I just don't identify as male or female. I feel very gender neutral,” Vidal said. ”And so the whole term Latinx feels like that. But it also feels like it's own movement and it's own community.”
Vidal first heard the term Latinx from the LGBTQ community. They remember googling it and immediately feeling like it made sense. Vidal said all their close friends, the majority of whom are part of drag group called Queer Novela, also use Latinx.
They’ve also started to hear people using the term "Latine," which some find easier to say in Spanish. Vidal doesn’t think Latinx applies to everyone and isn’t surprised that some people don’t like it. But for them, it’s the label that makes them feel included and empowered.
Rodrigo Tapia is pictured at his home in Chula Vista, Calif. June 2, 2021.
Rodrigo Tapia of Chula Vista understands that people are trying to be more inclusive, but he personally doesn’t like the term Latinx.
“It’s a little bit of whitewashing insofar as the language is concerned,” Tapia said. “To me Latino, Latina or even Latinx means you’re identifying with a culture that holds Spanish in a special place within our community.”
For Tapia, his identity is wrapped up in speaking Spanish with his family, listening to Spanish music, or just being able to go to a local store in Chula Vista and speaking in Spanish.
It’s a part of who he is and so for him, Latinx seems to challenge that which he holds dear. He doesn’t feel included by the term. Tapia prefers Hispanic but will occasionally use the term Latino as well.
“I think it’s better to say Latino or Latina, it just comes off better, and like you understand the community,” Tapia said.
The many paths to Latinx
Michael Inzunza of Chula Vista identifies as Latino sometimes but is first and foremost a Chicano. He believes Chicanos in San Diego County, mere miles from the border, occupy a unique space because they are ni de aquí, ni de allá (not from here or there).
“We just go three minutes into Tijuana, where a lot of our relatives lived and all of sudden we aren’t Mexican. We’re labeled American gringos,” Inzunza said. “On this side of the border it’s the same issue. The greater Anglo community doesn’t refer to us as American in general.”
Michael Inzunza is pictured in Chula Vista, Calif. June 4, 2021.
Inzunza, like Tapia, feels like the term Latinx is something that non-Latinos say and use to describe his community, which makes it feel disingenuous.
“I’ve never heard anyone use it. I’ve never heard anyone identify with it,” said Inzunza. “I don’t know if it’s going to stick or not, but it’s not from us.”
According to Professor Ruiz, the origin of the term Latinx is a source of confusion because there’s no single origin story.
“The use of the 'X' is one that is discussed as coming out of indigenous communities throughout Latin American and it’s one that we have seen used within Latin American feminist circles as well,” said Ruiz. “When we’re talking about Latinx within the U.S. it’s tied especially to the LGBTQ community.”
Even those most against using the "X" believe individuals have the ultimate choice on how they identify and how they would like to be identified.
“I respect it. And if they choose to identify themselves, I support it 100%,” said Inzunza. “They tell me I want to be identified as Latinx then I’ll call them Latinx.”
As terms like Latinx become institutionalized and used by media outlets and corporations, however, a new power dynamic emerges that extends beyond the personal.
It can begin to feel like someone is telling you who you are, which is what makes Inzunza and Tapia critical of Latinx. And even for those that have adopted Latinx or Chicanx, it’s pervasive use can feel, what Ruiz calls, “performative” i.e. a form of virtue signaling that’s not rooted in breaking down binaries.
Professor Ariana Ruiz cautions that institutions need to be more intentional about the labels they use and that places that use Latinx need to question why they’ve adopted the term.
“Are you actually doing the work that’s related to these questions of sexuality, to these questions of gender? Or are you using it as a placeholder for Latino, which was doing the same work,” Ruiz said.
In the end, there’s no single right identity label that will be wholly inclusive of everyone and Ruiz said that’s a good thing because it forces people to be intentional and opens up opportunities for richer discussions.
“We want to think about it as embracing the tension and really leaning into the messiness that is a term like Latinx, like Latino, this question of Latinidad, it’s not one singular thing,” said Ruiz. “But one that is multifaceted and has lots of different history and experiences tied to it.”
As for Arianna Andrade, they are still figuring things out. They are still having discussions about identity and the use of "Chicanx" with their mom. They haven’t totally reached a shared understanding, but Andrade is hopeful they will get there.
“You know, maybe in the future,” Andrade said laughing.
For now, Andrade is enjoying being near their family who supports and love them as well as the new community and sense of belonging they are finding at school.
San Diego news when you want it, where you want it. Get local stories on politics, education, health, environment, the border and more. New episodes are ready weekday mornings. Hosted by Anica Colbert and produced by KPBS, San Diego and the Imperial County's NPR and PBS station.
Racial Justice and Social Equity Reporter
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‘Latinx’ and the History of Shifting Terms (OPINION)
Screen grab from a 1980 Univision ad encouraging U.S. Latinos to complete the census.
In 1934, University of California economist Paul S. Taylor described an obscure new term that was budding in South Texas.
“The term… is as yet little used…. [It] conforms more closely to the ideas which the group holds for its people, and is used consciously by them.”
The term: Mexican American.
The earliest uses were few and far between in the late 1910s, but it had grown slowly through the 1920s and 1930s. Mexican Americans had adopted this new identity in response to demographic and political upheaval on both sides of the border.
At first, very few people adopted it. In fact, many people were angered by it and openly mocked it. They believed that Mexican Americans were absurd and reflected a self-absorption and lack of perspective.
“Some [Mexican Americas] are conceited, living with a sense of superiority that they are American citizens. I think that they try to show it more than they actually feel it,” wrote the Mexican consul in San Antonio, Enrique Santibáñez.
The author and journalist Conrado Espinoza described Mexican Americans in the ‘20s as “families that, in terms of appearance, have lost their Mexican identity and are in terms of language (horrible Spanish and horrible English), in terms of their customs (grotesque and licentious), in terms of their desires (futile and fatuous ambition) a hybrid group which adapts itself neither in this country nor in our own.”
Santibáñez’s and others’ disdain of the new term could have been pulled from the current debates surrounding “Latinx.” Much has been written about Latinx, with authors claiming it is elitist, useless, and an attempt to Americanize the Spanish language. Some have intoned that it is a word for people who have lost touch with the cultures and language of Latin America and are more-or-less Americanized social justice warriors.
A recent poll by Pew found that only 3 percent of the population uses the term. While Pew surveyed a larger group, an earlier and smaller poll from November 2019 found similar results, showing just 2 percent preferred the term. These polls aren’t vindication or evidence that the term has come to the end of its run.
Latinx is a relatively new term and the debate surrounding it is far from over.
Communities creating, debating, and adopting new labels is not a new phenomenon. There is a long history of diasporic communities using new terms to situate themselves within their cultural contexts and political circumstances. In the past and in our present, new terms reflect the communities wielding the languages available to them to articulate their sense of belonging. And while those terms may be unpopular at first, they can grow into important identities over time.
In the first decades of the 20th century, people of Mexican descent in the U.S. needed a new term that would situate them in changing political circumstances. In the 1910s and 1920s, they saw increased racial violence. In the 1930s, citizenship became increasingly important as many ethnic Mexicans were deported, both citizens and foreign nationals. Access to New Deal programs depended upon proof of citizenship as well. They felt there was a dire need for their community to be recognized as primarily American, not a foreign “other.”
Their success in convincing their co-ethnics to adopt the term was uneven.
In surveys conducted in the 1930s by University of Texas political science professor Oliver Douglas Weeks, he found that the local San Antonio LULAC chapter had only 60 members out of an ethnic Mexican population of over 40,000. Even if some not in the group used Mexican American or Latin American, the percentage of people using those terms was still well below 1 percent. In Falfurrias, members who subscribed to the term only comprised a little over 3 percent of the ethnic Mexican population.
Nonetheless, the term grew in importance. By the 1950s and 1960s, Mexican American politicians had won elected office from California to Texas. In 1959 the Mexican American Political Association was created to address the needs of the ethnic Mexican population in California. The term while not widely used was accepted and politically relevant.
When a new group of activists started calling themselves Chicanas and Chicanos and began demanding social change, Mexican Americans were irritated and angry.
Politicians like Henry B. Gonzalez couldn’t stand the term or the young activists. LULAC member Jacob Rodriguez wrote disparagingly: “The term ‘Chicano’ was, and is, an insult, no matter how it is used…. It can’t even be dignified ‘kitchen-Spanish’ since all it is, is ‘gutter-Spanish.’”
Rodriguez went on condescendingly, “the younger generation doesn’t know any better. It still has a lot to learn…. Our youngsters’ lack of living, practical experience and comprehension is impelling them to ‘identify’ with something and —unfortunately for them and all the rest of us— they don’t even know what with or why.”
Chicana and Chicano activists, educators, and academics went on to challenge exclusive policies in politics, housing, and education, but they never convinced the majority of their own community to adopt the term either. Few people in the 1960s and 1970s identified as Chicana or Chicano, but the term and identity was important in creating alternative ideas of belonging, political resistance, and cultural affirmation.
By the 1980s, politics had shifted again and the terms changed to reflect this. The Decade of the Hispanic and the Reagan Revolution overlapped, and governmental and corporate power merged even more. Hispanic was a new term that could patch together disparate nationalities residing in the U.S. into a singular demographic powerhouse. In its alchemy, it turned Puerto Rican employees, Mexican American dollars, and Cuban American business ownership into data points that explained “Hispanic” socioeconomic standing. The introduction of Hispanic into the 1980 census solidified the term in the national consciousness as millions of people checked the box to identify themselves.
In response to the perceived corporate origins of Hispanic, but seduced by the pan-ethnic solidarity that it provided, Latino gained popularity in the ‘90s. And in response to the sexism that plagued higher education, corporations, Supreme Court nominations, and the White House, many academics and activists offered a corrective that meant to delineate the contributions and activities of women in society. They sought to politically and linguistically pull women from the shadows of men, to decenter mankind in favor of constellations of humanity. Instead of a singular Latino, they began writing “Latina/o” or “[email protected]”
The new addition did not sit well for many people. Some disliked it because it could not be pronounced and was clunky. Others claimed that it was unnecessary because in Spanish grammar the masculine form includes men and women.
The Chicano author Dagoberto Gilb was critical about it even in a 2010 interview. He claimed that feminist Chicana professors were “making people write the slash in: ‘Chicano/a.’” He added, “It’s a phase…. I don’t want that slash shit anymore. I hate it. So you just call me a Chicana writer.”
And now Latinx has emerged from the long history of finding new words to describe the new worlds our communities imagine are possible.
The term inherits the activist politics of the Young Lords and the Chicano Movement. The term embraces the ideas and actions of the feminist and gay rights movements. It also recognizes the importance of pan-ethnic labels in building diverse coalitions. Because of this, Latinx has transgressed the politics of previous activists.
For this, Latinx activists are derided as “wokosos,”young snot-nosed kids who are talking out of turn and not respecting their elders. The claim that Latinxs are political ingénues who don’t appreciate the actions of those who came before them is a criticism that was also hurled at Chicanas and Chicanos. The claim that the “x” is unpronounceable or does not follow Spanish language rules was also made against Latina/o. The notion that Latinxs are overly Americanized in their concerns and affects was also used against Mexican Americans.
In this way, the debate over Latinx isn’t new. What is new, in the case of Latinas/os/xs, is that now people outside their communities are paying attention to their intra-community debates. And that shows that the Latina/o/x community is slowly moving from marginal to mainstream.