When Democrats in Connecticut introduced legislation to ban the word “Latinx” from government documents, they found themselves with unlikely allies: Republicans including Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders of Arkansas, who barred “Latinx” from state documents as her first official act.
Their reasons differ: Conservatives argue that the word, coined about 20 years ago as an inclusive, gender-neutral term to describe people of Latino descent, is a trope of liberal “wokeism.” But the bill making its way through Hartford was introduced by several Democratic members of the Black and Puerto Rican caucus. They argue, among other things, that the Americanized word disfigures the Spanish language and in doing so, is an act of cultural appropriation.
The situation has made for some of the oddest bedfellows in the culture wars. Ms. Sanders, who initiated her state’s ban in January, said the term “Latinx” was “ethnically insensitive and pejorative language.” Around the same time, she also forbade the teaching of “critical race theory” in Arkansas schools and the use of TikTok on state-issued devices — statements that have set the tone for her conservative administration.
“One can no more easily remove gender from Spanish and other romance languages than one can remove vowels and verbs from English,” she said.
In Connecticut, where the bill would bar the use of “Latinx” from government and state education documents, State Representative Geraldo Reyes Jr., who introduced the measure, called the term “offensive and unnecessary” in a statement. “The Spanish language has been around for 1,500 years, and it identifies male, female and neutral gender,” he said.
Representative Reyes, who represents Waterbury, cited the limited use of the word in Latin American countries and the lack of widespread discussion around its initial adoption.
His staff said the term has been used in state government documents, but infrequently.
He said that he did not intend his proposed legislation to be divisive, but the use of the word has stirred a passionate debate from Connecticut to Arkansas and beyond about “Latinx,” the value of inclusive language and the very idea of banning individual words.
The term “Latinx” emerged in the early 2000s. Its precise origins are unclear, springing from academia or activists or perhaps both.
It was created to address a characteristic of Spanish that doesn’t exist in English: Spanish is among the many languages where words are gendered, and the male ending — here, “Latino” — is typically used to refer to a group broadly, even if it’s mixed-gender.
The x in “Latinx” serves a similar function as it does in Mx., the gender-neutral version of the honorifics Mr. or Ms.; it creates an alternative to “Latino” and “Latina.” The word was first added to the Merriam-Webster dictionary in 2018. Alternative terms exist, including “Latine” and even “[email protected]”
“The origin was specifically referring to people who didn’t want to be pigeonholed in the traditional gender binaries, but now it is about Hispanic culture in general,” said Orin Hargraves, a lecturer in semantics at the University of Colorado Boulder. “It is in line with everything that has been going on since the turn of this century of equalizing gender, the #MeToo movement, all of that together is one big bucket that you can put ‘Latinx’ into.”
Meilene Belmont, the transgender services manager at Translatinx Network, a New York City-based advocacy and support group for transgender people, embraces the term for its sense of inclusion. She said “Latina” is her preferred term as a transgender woman, though she values “Latinx” for peers who feel differently.
“I believe that ‘Latinx’ is for anyone, for anyone who identifies as trans, gay, bisexual, cis gender — anyone,” Ms. Belmont said. “The X at the end stands for everybody.”
Some critics, like United States Representative Ruben Gallego, a Democrat who represents Arizona and has spoken out about his distaste for the term, reject “Latinx” not because of its attempt at inclusivity, but because, he says, it has been imposed by outsiders on a community. In an interview, Representative Gallego said he has asked his staff not to use it.
Others take issue with the “x” itself: It is not a plural ending original to the language, and they argue that the letter’s inclusion whitewashes a Spanish word. The Royal Spanish Academy, which oversees the most authoritative dictionary in the language, has not approved it.
But attempts to restrict the language via government decree have also drawn criticism.
“Hispanic, Chicano, Latino, Latinx, Latine, Latino American — none of those terms encompass everyone in our community,” John Lugo, the director of Unidad Latina en Acción, a Connecticut-based workers advocacy organization, said in a statement. He has called Connecticut’s effort to bar the term “an attack on our diversity.”
“We should not be policing the language that people are using to describe their identity,” Mr. Lugo said.
The word “Latino” was first added to the U.S. census in 2000; before that, starting in 1980, the survey’s questions about ethnicity used the word “Hispanic.”
“At the time, similar conversations arose about the appropriateness of that term," said Mark Hugo Lopez, the director of race and ethnicity research at the Pew Research Center. Critics then argued that “Hispanic” was a label foisted upon people, not one they selected for themselves. Today, respondents to Pew’s polls regarding how they define themselves prefer country of origin, like Mexican American, or Cuban American, Mr. Lopez said.
Some concerns about “Latinx” echo that 1980s debate: “It’s a very white term, and a white term shouldn’t represent a nonwhite population,” said Victoria Almazan, 20, a psychology student at the University of Connecticut, who supports the Connecticut legislation. (There is also a movement in Spanish-speaking countries to create gender neutral alternatives.) The Republicans in Arkansas, Ms. Almazan added, were right too — but for the wrong reasons.
“I think inclusivity is important, but it’s better to find a different word to use,” she said.
In December, Progreso Latino Fund, part of the Community Foundation for Greater New Haven, a philanthropic organization, voted on a change to its mission statement. Instead of “Latinx,” Progreso chose “Latine” as a gender-neutral term, said Liana Garcia, the fund’s staff liaison, because of its familiar Spanish word terminus — like the endings of “leche” and “carne,” Spanish for milk and meat.
“We decided that ‘Latine’ would be more in tune with the Spanish language,” Ms. Garcia said. “It was the way of equitably valuing everyone’s dignity.”
For all the political and academic debate, “Latinx” seems of little concern to many people who describe themselves as Latino or Hispanic. That’s mostly because it’s largely unknown: According to a 2019 poll conducted by the Pew Research Center, just about a quarter of Hispanic Americans were familiar with the term, and only 3 percent used it to refer to themselves.
About two years later, an Axios-Ipsos Latino Poll taken in partnership with Noticias Telemundo showed about half of the respondents of Spanish-speaking origins had no objection to being referred to as Latinx.
“If it’s more inclusive, that’s a good thing, I don’t see anything wrong with that,” Marvin Estrada, 34, a cook at a local restaurant, said on a recent afternoon in Stamford. “But honestly, I hadn’t heard the word until today.”
As debate over the bill continued at the Capitol in Hartford, Natalie Betancur, a nurse in Stamford, said she had heard the word, but only in the news and not among her peers. “If someone wanted to be referred to as Latinx, I would have no problem with that,” said Ms. Betancur, 39. “I would just ask that they have patience with me and not get mad as I get used to it.”
Trying the term’s unfamiliar syllables out for the first time, Briggit Barzola, 29, a restaurant worker in Stamford who grew up in Lima, Peru, said it might grow on her.
“We would just have to get accustomed to it, but we had to come to the United States and get accustomed to the culture here,” Ms. Barzola said. “We can get accustomed to new things — it just takes time.”
Wesley Parnell contributed reporting.
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