What Is Latinx?

Most Americans, regardless of their respective background, are likely familiar with the terms “Hispanic” and “Latino/Latina” to describe people of Latin American descent.

Most recently, another term, “Latinx” has popped up in mainstream media and other official documentation as a substitute to these more common and recognizable terms.

But what exactly does Latinx mean, and who does it describe? More importantly, is it on its way to being the preferred term to describe people within this demographic?

What Is Latinx?

Latinx

The term Latinx is a somewhat new, gender-neutral and non-binary term used to describe Americans of Latin American or Spanish descent and is meant to replace the terms “Hispanic" and “Latino/Latina."

Latinx has emerged in recent years in news and entertainment outlets, as well as within large corporations, colleges, and universities.

Presumably the term is used in places where the Latin American demographic, which is very racially diverse, is primarily made up of young people.

Although the term falls in line with progressive trends and advancements among younger demographics, the term “Latinx” has been met somewhat with ambivalence and reluctance when it comes to using it, particularly by those who it is meant to describe.

History

The term "Hispanic" first appeared in U.S. government use in the 1970s, after Mexican-American and other Hispanic organizations sought to collect federal government data on the population.

Right away, this term was met with resistance, as it implied a connection to Spain that actually doesn’t apply for much of this group.

In the 1990s, the term “Latino” emerged as an alternative, which continues to be listed alongside “Hispanic” on the U.S. Census. Latino serves to be more inclusive geographically, as encompasses Central and South Americans, as well as those from the Caribbean.

The term Latinx only emerged in the early 2000s, initially appearing in online searches and platforms. It saw a significant rise in searches after the June 2016 shooting at Pulse nightclub, an LGBTQ+ dance club in Orlando, Florida, which was hosting a “Latin Night” themed event on the night of the shooting.

Since then, the term has seen a rise in growth and usage, primarily by celebrities, politicians, educational institutions and other organizations. 

When to Use the Term

One thing many people might be surprised to learn is that the people the term “Latinx” is meant to describe are the least likely to use it.

According to 2019 research by the Pew Research Center, less than 1 in 4 (23%) Hispanic people have heard of the term and only 3% actually use it.

Young Hispanics between the ages of 18 and 29 are the most likely to have heard of the term compared to those who are 65 or older, and those who are U.S.-born are more likely to be aware of it than those who are foreign-born, especially if they are bilingual or speak mainly English compared to those who mainly speak Spanish.

When In Doubt, Just Ask

If you don't belong to the Latin American or Hispanic demographic and you’re about to use the term to describe a specific individual, your best bet is probably to ask how they prefer to be identified.

Some Latin Americans have also shared the sentiment that it's primarily White Americans and public figures who are pushing to use the term and that even if it's with good intentions, it's also contributing to racial division by attempting to rewrite the Spanish language.

What Is the Impact of Using the Term “Latinx?”

Spanish is largely a gendered language and it isn’t that surprising that native speakers are reluctant to adopt a term like “Latinx,” as the way the language is structured is rooted in culture and tradition.

If the term “Latinx” were to catch on in Spanish-speaking countries, speakers and writers would likely also seek to neutralize other gendered words (“la maestra” and “el maestro,” for “the female teacher” and “the male teacher,” or “Mexicano” and “Mexicana” for “Mexican man” versus “Mexican woman,” to give a couple of examples).

The Spanish language is also sometimes described as sexist by nature, because the known default is to use a masculine descriptor even if there is a majority of women in a mixed-gender group (for example, “los maestros” for a group of mostly female teachers and only one male). Even so, recreating the entire language to de-gender all of these words is unlikely to happen and likely to be met with even more reluctance.

Interestingly, according to ongoing Pew Research Center data, 50% of Hispanic or Latin Americans who have heard the term Latinx say they prefer using Hispanic to describe the Hispanic or Latino population.

Potential Pitfalls of Not Using the Term “Latinx”

The small percentage of those who ultimately do prefer to be described as Latinx are likely to describe themselves as feminists, and/or fall into the LGBTQ+ spectrum.

Again, while it’s your best bet to just ask anyone in the Latin American demographic how they would prefer to be described, it’s in everyone’s best interest if you do so when talking to someone who has confirmed that they fall into additional marginalized groups.

Chances are someone who is of Latin American descent and describes themselves as non-binary may be more apt to use the term Latinx if in English they prefer to use the pronoun “they” rather than “he” or “she.”

A Word From Verywell

Researchers say using the term can help to solidify solidarity with historically oppressed groups, but it’s always good to get input from those who will be directly impacted or affected by its use.

Simply asking someone their preference rather than making an assumption or decision will make you less likely to offend or minimize someone and will likely leave them feeling like they have your respect. 

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Article Sources
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  1. Pew Research Center. 3. Views on Latinx as a pan-ethnic term for U.S. Hispanics. Updated August 11, 2020.

  2. The Atlantic. Why Latinx can’t catch on. Updated December 23, 2019.

  3. NPR. Latinx is a term many still can’t embrace. Updated October 1, 2020.

  4. The New York Times. Another hot take on the term ‘Latinx’. Updated November 21, 2018.

  5. USA Today. Progressives, Hispanics are not “Latinx.” Stop trying to Anglicize our Spanish language. Updated October 25, 2019.

  6. Torres L. Latinx?Lat Stud. 2018;16:283–285. doi:10.1057/s41276-018-0142-y