Then, to my surprise, he looked at me, leaned in close and quietly asked, “It is more appropriate to say Hispanic or Latino?”
That memory boomeranged back at me the other day because of all the recent talk surrounding another word: Latinx. That whispered question, I realized, if asked today, might have to include a third choice: “Is it more appropriate to say Hispanic, Latino or Latinx?”
The word Latinx is not new. Neither are the debates it inspires (sometimes within the same family). But in the past week and a half, divisive online discussions about the word have been fueled by two events.
On Nov. 1, a market-research firm published the results of a survey on Medium under the title, “Progressive Latino pollster: 98% of Latinos do not identify with ‘Latinx’ label.”
And on Nov. 5, a New York Times opinion piece carried the headline, “Liberalism’s Latinx Problem: Why is Elizabeth Warren describing Latinos with a term that few would use themselves?”
Let’s start with that survey. The firm that conducted it, ThinkNow, said it grew out of a curiosity “about the appeal of ‘Latinx’ among the country’s 52 million people of Latin American ancestry.”
The Medium piece explained that the firm polled 508 people, presenting them with the most common terms used to describe that population. They were then tasked with picking the one that best described them. Their options: Hispanic, Latino/Latina, American, my country of origin, my country of origin + American, Chicano/Chicana, Latinx, and if all those felt wrong, “I don’t like any of these names/labels.”
The results reflected what you might expect because of some terms’ long-established places in our language wells. Most people chose “Hispanic” and “Latino/Latina.”
“Despite its usage by academics and cultural influencers, 98% of Latinos prefer other terms to describe their ethnicity,” read the piece. “Only 2% of our respondents said the label accurately describes them, making it the least popular ethnic label among Latinos.”
We could pause here and dissect the survey. We could try to pull it apart piece by piece.
We could also just give it what it’s worth: a shrug.
It’s not surprising that most people with Latin American roots don’t reach for that identifier first. Most didn’t grow up hearing it roll off the tongues of their abuelas. Some may have never heard it at all. I know some of my Mexican American relatives haven’t.
I also know that if I asked them to describe themselves, they would all reach for different words. One might say Hispanic. Another, Mexican. Another, Mexican American. And, because I have a BIG family, it’s a safe bet there are a few Latinxs in there.
Sure, some Latinos despise that “x” and have criticized it as crossing out their heritage. In an article by my colleague Rachel Hatzipanagos, a woman described it as “Anglicizing the Spanish language.” In that same article, Ruby Corado, a transgender activist in the District, who had to fight to be recognized as a Latina, said, “I come from the old school, so I actually like the term ‘Latina.’ But I embrace that term, [Latinx], as well.”
Picking a preferred identifier does not mean a person rejects all the other ones. I generally identify as “Latina” because it feels the most right to me and my experiences, but I wouldn’t snub my Chicana cousin or my Latinx nephew if they decide those are the labels that fit them best. I also understand why someone who graduated from my high school, which was majority Hispanic, might just call themselves “American.”
But that complex picture is not the one you would have been left with if you clicked on different media sites after that Medium piece published. Several outlets placed the survey in a political context, connecting it to Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s embrace of the word “Latinx.”
“Sen. Elizabeth Warren, one of the front-runners in the 2020 Democratic primary, frequently uses the term on the campaign [trail] including on the Democratic debate stage,” read a piece published that same night by the Washington Examiner. “In September, she celebrated ‘Latinx Heritage Month,’ which is usually recognized as National Hispanic Heritage Month, on Twitter.”
“Shocker! Latinos do not want progressives like Elizabeth Warren, Pete Buttigieg, and Beto O’Rourke messing with their language,” read a piece that ran the next day on the conservative site TheBlaze.
At the top of that piece was the headline: “Poll: Genderless woke label ‘Latinx’ is not popular among Latinos.” At the bottom, the last line ended with a very unwoke, “muy bueno.”
The New York Times column, written by Ross Douthat, noted the progressive nature of the word (which Merriam-Webster added to its dictionary in September 2018). The “x” provides a gender-neutral, non-binary alternative to the feminine “Latina” and masculine “Latino,” which makes it popular among the LGBTQ community.
“When spoken, ‘Latinx’ sounds like neither normal English nor conversational Spanish, and it looks like what it is, a word designed for ideological purposes rather than for felicity in speech,” Douthat wrote. He went on to argue that Warren’s “adoption” of the word “suggests that Warren is distinctively beholden to a hermetic academic-progressive world, to a point where she doesn’t know how to talk to the less-ideological, less-woke, maybe-even-somewhat-conservative Hispanics whose votes her party needs.”
Warren may not win the Hispanic votes she needs. None of the Democratic candidates may. But let’s be real — if that happens, it won’t be because Latinos didn’t like the word she used or what it suggested about her.
If that were true, then I wouldn’t still have relatives and former classmates with Hispanic last names who ardently support President Trump. He has described Latino immigrants as “rapists” and “animals.” More concerning, he has suggested certain citizens are not American. He described an Indiana-born federal judge as unable to be impartial because he was “Mexican.” And in September, he asked CNN contributor Steve Cortes, “Who do you like more, the country or the Hispanics?” As if one isn’t a part of the other.
In fairness, though, he did tweet about his love of Hispanics. Many people, I’m sure, haven’t forgotten when he wrote, “Happy #CincoDeMayo! The best taco bowls are made in Trump Tower Grill. I love Hispanics!”
I understand the urge to push back against political correctness and how “Latinx” may seem like yet another way for a person to unintentionally offend someone. There is an easy way around that concern: You can ask people how they want to be identified.
When that police official asked me which word he should use, I knew he did so with the best of intentions.
I assured him either was fine.
I didn’t have a poll to support that. I just knew that the Latinos/Hispanics/Latinxs gathered in that room — just like many of us now tuned in to the presidential election — had so many high-stakes concerns that it didn’t matter what he called them.