At first blush, the word Latinx –the gender-neutral, non binary term used to describe the nation’s diverse Hispanic population– seems ubiquitous.
It pops up regularly in press releases, in news headlines, in social media posts, in campaign mailings. But scratch below the surface, and you find little substance under the semantics.
According to a by now widely cited study undertaken by the Pew Research Center and published in August, only one in four Latinos are even aware of the term Latinx, and just 3% say they use it to describe themselves. The results run across demographics: Even though use of the term Latinx is greater among younger Latinos, only 7% of those ages 18 to 29 say they use it; among those 30 and older, that percentage drops to an abysmal 2%.
“The population it’s meant to describe isn’t even aware of it,” says Mark Hugo Lopez, Director of Global Migration and Demography research at the Pew Research Center, and one of the authors of the August 11 study. “It’s a striking finding.”
And it mirrors what we see in the Latin music universe. Although the term “Latinx” can be often found in English-language press releases, especially when pertaining to U.S. born or raised artists, it’s a rarity in Spanish language releases. Most telling, very few (if any in recent memory) Latin artists self-describe as Latinx, even when directly asked what term they prefer to use.
And a recent, informal survey of more than 30 Latin music executives found that only one preferred the term Latinx over Latin.
“The artists, especially those coming from Latin America, don’t identify as Latinx,” says Matthew Limones, SoundExchanges’ Miami-based manager of artists & label relations, who deals with on a daily basis with Latin acts of all stripes and levels of fame. “Those who are born here, who are raised here and understand the mentality of inclusion, they understand what it means. But I don’t find they use the word.”
Latinx is a term born from noble intentions. Like “Latin” and “Hispanic” it’s not only pan-ethnic, but gender neutral (in Spanish), and is meant to be a term of inclusivity — one that can be used by those who identify as Latin or of Latin American descent but prefer not to be identified by gender. The inclusiveness of the term seems particularly appropriate at a time of divisiveness and strife.
So why isn’t it used by the very people it’s meant to refer to?
It boils down to culture and language.
Difficult to pronounce in Spanish (words ending in X are preceded by a vocal), and in English (where speakers vacillate between pronouncing it “La-tinks” or “Latin-ex”), “Latinx” to many, feels alien and imposed, an invention of U.S. academics and marketers that isn’t grounded in the reality, culture or origins of the bulk of the people it’s meant to represent.
In the open-ended responses provided in the Pew study, for example, the biggest criticism expressed of the term Latinx was the fact that it doesn’t work in Spanish, a language that is gendered — and is an intrinsic element of the Latin cultural identity, whether people are actually fluent in it or not.
“Latinx sounds ugly,” one 22-year old, bilingual, bisexual singer told me. “It’s not like they/them, which is self-explanatory. How do you use the pronoun with the X? There would have to be a reform in the way the language is used around the world. It’s too much.”
Plus, in many countries, including Mexico and Colombia, “X” (pronounced e-kees in Spanish) is also akin to saying John Doe; a non entity, or someone so bland that he or she is not worth remarking about. “People constantly ask me, ‘Why should I be an X, a no one?’ They take it personally,” one journalist told me.
The second criticism is that many from the Latin world are wary of the term’s origins. “[It is seen] Essentially as a term coming from an English-speaking country that is insensitive to how Latin America sees itself,” says Pew’s Lopez. “A very important element about our identity research is people want to choose how they describe themselves. People have very detailed, sophisticated views of how they see their roots, their ancestry. But it varies from person to person.”
“Latinx” swept those distinctions away. As if by decree, the entire U.S. Latin population suddenly started to be described as Latinx by brands, by TV hosts, by writers — by a lot of organizations that aren’t Latino-focused, says López.
In Billboard, the preferred term used to describe the population of artists with Latin American roots has long been “Latin.” However, how artists (or anyone, for that matter) self-identify always takes precedence — which is why “Latinx” being imposed jars, especially when seen applied to those who don’t call themselves “Latinx.”
I personally self-describe as Colombian of Lebanese roots. My children identify as “half-Colombian.” Bilingual and bicultural, they’re both familiar with the term Latinx, yet “no one I know identifies as Latinx,” says my 21-year-old son of his bilingual, bicultural friends in Miami, where he was born, and in Los Angeles, where he went to school.
“I identify as Latina because I identify as a woman,” says Billboard senior writer Griselda Flores, who also has a master’s degree in social justice from Northwestern. “That said, I don’t think it’s my place to say whether or not I like the term Latinx. If someone who is gender noncomforming prefers I use this gender-neutral term when identifying them, then I will.”
How to inclusively describe the vast and nuanced population that hails from 16 Spanish-speaking countries has long been a source of intense debate here in the United States. In Latin America (América Latina in Spanish), the collective population is referred to as “hispanos” or “latinoamericanos” and its shortened term, “latinos.”
Here in the United States, depending on who you are and where you live, some people prefer “Latino” over “Hispanic,” with its allusion to Spain. Many Mexican Americans prefer the term Chicano, and still others self-identify by race (for example Afro Latino) or origin (Colombian, Cuban, Puerto Rican).
However, the difference between all those terms and Latinx, is that most people are familiar with them. Here in the U.S., use of the word Latinx and Google searches of its meaning are on the rise, and yet, it still hasn’t caught on with the bulk of the people it’s supposed to help self-identify.
“I think well-intentioned progressives simply use it to be politically correct, but in reality they’re misusing the word,” adds Flores. “‘Latinx’ and ‘Latina’ are not interchangeable. It’s a label that doesn’t fit all.”