COLUMN: Latinx or Latino, what to use


Rob Le Cates

Ian Palacios is a senior English major and can be reached at 217-581-2812.

Ian Palacios, Columnist

The term ‘latinx’, as Merriam-Webster notes, was created in the early 2000’s as a gender-neutral means of describing people of Latin American descent. And despite the good intentions of people using the term, there is significant pushback.

A 2020 Pew research article explains that, among people who have heard of the term ‘latinx’, 65% of people think we should not use it with 12% of those people expressing “disagreement or dislike of the term.” Pew goes on to show that despite the ‘latinx’ being known by ¼ of people of Latin American descent, only “3% say they use it to describe themselves.”

This debate is important because Spanish nouns and adjectives typically have a “grammatical gender” that English doesn’t have: For example ‘Camiseta’ (t-shirt) is feminine, and ‘perro’ (dog) is masculine.

There is no neuter gender. Thus, ‘Latina’, is the adjective used to describe a woman or girl of Latin American descent. The masculine equivalent is ‘latino.’ Last, when describing a group of people that has both men and women, the masculine term is used.

Here, I examine the reasons for and against using the term, concluding that we should use ‘latinx’ most–but not all–of the time.

First, I’ll dismiss a common–but rather weak–objection. “But ‘latinx’ isn’t even a real word,” the skeptic may claim. This objection misses the point. The question is whether or not we should use the term–not if we already use the term.

Furthermore, even if we all started using ‘latinx’ (thereby making it a “real word”), this still wouldn’t tell us if we should continue using it. Secondly, every word ever has, at some point, not been a word–which would, if the skeptic is correct, mean we shouldn’t use any words at all (which is obviously false).

Now, the Chad linguists reading this, however few they may be, may object by claiming that my argument is an example of “linguistic prescriptivism”–that I’m telling others how to use language when really we should be describing language use–and should therefore be rejected.

This objection fails because we aren’t doing science: we are choosing which word achieves our rhetorical goals and ethical obligations.

A more serious objection is that ‘latinx’ is an anglicism of a spanish word. Non-latinx people, the skeptic claims, are hijacking the Spanish language to impose their own liberal thoughts and values and appropriating the term ‘latino’ into ‘latinx’.

First of all, it’s not exactly clear that the skeptic’s claim here is even true. As the aforementioned Pew research shows, 14% of women ages 14-29 self-identify as latinx. So, even if the term originated as from white liberals, a strong percentage of latinx people use the term.

Secondly, maybe these alleged liberal thoughts and values being imposed on the word are not so bad.

We have an obligation to refrain from hurting people when it causes minimal drawbacks for us. Using necessarily gendered terms excludes gender non-binary persons from being represented.

So, by simply making a small change in our language, we can meet that obligation by including gender neutral terms. This might be a little awkward to use, but that is normal and expected.

In most cases, we have an obligation to use gender neutral terms to avoid excluding any gender non-binary people.

Now, there are some cases I think we should avoid using ‘latinx.’ For many native Spanish speakers, the term ‘latinx’ is alien and sometimes offensive (think back to the 12% who actively reject the term). For communities that would not understand the term or think negatively of those who use it, we should lean towards using ‘latino.’

Consider, for example, a government making a pamphlet for a new town hall building for a community with an 85% Spanish-speaking population. If the pamphlet uses ‘latinx’ for a community that actively opposes the term or does not understand it in the first place, it would not only make the readers frustrated, but cause more problems than it intended to solve.

So, we should use ‘latinx’ even if some people don’t like it, as long as we keep in mind who the audience is.

Ian Palacios is a senior English and philosophy major. He can be reached at [email protected] or 217-581-2812.