Latinx? Latine? Latino/a? Latin@? How do we refer to a non-binary individual of Latin American descent or to the Latin American community as a whole while being inclusive to all gender identities within the community? After all, languages can be tricky, especially a foreign or second language. Often we find it difficult to find just the right word in our own native language, let alone a language in which we don’t feel as confident. Still, words are important, especially words that categorize groups of people. So, as “Hispanic Heritage Month” gets underway here in the U.S., let’s demystify some Spanish terms so as to be as inclusive as can be.
Spanish Is a Gendered Language
Unlike English, Spanish (and all languages originating from the Latin of Ancient Rome) is a gendered language. Everything has to either be masculine or feminine. Usually, the orthographic spelling of the word determines a thing’s gender. That’s why a chair (silla) is feminine and a phone (teléfono) is masculine despite both of them technically being genderless, inanimate objects. The Spanish language simply forces a speaker to gender all things. However, people are not things, and people are also not limited to a dichotomy of only two genders. Thus, in a language that has historically only recognized “male” and “female,” inventiveness occurred to help Spanish-speaking folks of Latin American descent communicate beyond the binary.
Many of us are familiar with the masculine word “Latino” and feminine word “Latina” to respectively refer to males and females of Latin American descent, but as the times became more inclusive, so, too, did the Spanish language. One of the first adaptation was for folks to start using “Latino/a” and sometimes “Latin@” to include both the masculine “o” and the feminine “a.” While this was an improvement in recognizing women (since, in traditional Spanish, a group of people have to be referred to in masculine terms if even only one male is in a group of all females), it still was not fully inclusive of people whose gender identity were beyond just “male” or “female”. Enter “Latinx” (LAT-in-ex / la-TEEN-ex) and “Latine” (LAT-in-eh / la-TEEN-eh). By replacing the “o” and “a” with a gender-neutral “x” or “e,” non-binary, genderqueer, and all other folks could be acknowledged.
What About Hispanic or Chicano?
Nowadays, the word “Hispanic” is often used interchangeably with “Latinx”, but Hispanic means something very different. Though it does add more specificity, it is also more exclusionary. “Hispanic” has its roots in denoting Spain’s former colonies in the Americas. Aside from the colonialism inherent in the term, it also only refers to Latin American folks who descend from Spanish-speaking populations, leaving out people from Brazil, Belize, and many islands of the Caribbean. “Latinx,” on the other hand, refers to anyone descended from Latin America. Essentially, Hispanic is a linguistic determiner, while Latinx is more of an ethnic and cultural determiner.
“Chicano,” (Chicana, Chicanx, etc.) is an even more specific and nuanced term that gained momentum in the 1960s as an alterative to the colonial-tinged “Hispanic” and to the very general “Latino/a/x”. The origins of the word “Chicano” are not fully agreed upon by linguistic historians, but today it denotes a person of Mexican descent who was born in the United States. Be warned, though, as not all Mexican-Americans enjoy being called a Chicano/a/x. Similar to the word “queer,” certain individuals in the community regard the word as a slur rather than a word of empowerment.
So, Is It Latinx or Latine?
Really, it all depends on personal preference. Both Latinx and Latine are interchangeable and mean the same: a person of Latin American descent regardless of their gender or sexual identity. Latinx is generally the more popular and well-known of the two simply because it’s cross-culturally easier for non-Spanish-speakers to understand.
Think about it this way. Math is a universal language, and like in algebra, the “x” in Latinx stands in for something that is “unknown,” and could be used for any gender identity. So, when an English speaker sees an “x” at the end of “Latin,” the significance of the word is readily understood. However, the use of “e” as a gender-neutral alternative to “o” and “a” only readily makes sense in Spanish and is a bigger linguistic leap than using an “x”. For the sake of ease and clarity with folks who don’t speak Spanish, “Latinx” is more frequently used. Still, Latine is gaining popularity among Spanish-speakers, particularly among younger generations.
Though “Latinx” and “Latine” might not be “traditional” Spanish, they were created with inclusivity in mind as a way to be able to speak beyond the binary of male/female and ensure that all peoples of Latin American heritage are represented. Not everyone may prefer “Latinx,” but when in doubt, don’t be ashamed to ask. Just by asking, it shows you are being considerate and showing care in the identity of others… identities as diverse as the Latinx community everywhere.