Hispanic, Latino, Latinx — A Question Of Belonging
Arianna Andrade lives in two worlds.
As a rising UC San Diego Sophomore who grew up in City Heights, they are stepping into their identity as genderqueer. Among their classmates and friends they identify as Latinx or Chicanx, and feel the freedom of having their gender identity be seen and understood, but there’s also a loneliness to it.
“I’m looking around right now and I don’t see anyone that looks like me, so sometimes I do feel out of place on campus,” Andrade said. “But then I go back home and I see everyone in the community who looks like me and has the same traditions as me, but they continue to see me as her.”
At home with their family and community, they feel another part of their identity is seen, but at the expense of another.
“I have no idea how to tell them or how to explain it to them because my mom even had the argument that using the 'X' is the colonizer language,” said Andrade. “She’s very much against the 'X' and she’s like, 'just use Latino.'”
UC San Diego Professor Ariana Ruiz, who teaches courses on Latinx identities, said Andrade’s journey represents a relatively new project in American history to more accurately identify everyone who falls within Latinidad, a term used to describe the Latin community writ large.
And like so many other things that traverse cultures and generations, the effort is both exciting and controversial.
“Older generations, older communities, and here, I am thinking about my parents or even grandparents, if they’re familiar with the term Latinx, they’re not quite going to understand it, as if I were to go on a college campus,” said Ruiz.
A brief history
Up until the latter part of the 20th Century, Mexican Americans, Puerto Ricans and others of Latin descent were counted as white on the U.S. Census and were largely identified by their countries of origin.
That began to change during the 1960s civil rights era, when Mexican-American activists in Southern California established the Chicano movement. That was followed by a push during the 1970s for a Hispanic Census category, which came to fruition in the 1980 Census. Hispanic refers to anyone with cultural ties to countries where Spanish is spoken.
Beginning in the 1990s, the terms Latino and Latina gained popularity. Latino refers to anyone with roots in Latin America and is not tied to the Spanish language. Latin America broadly consists of Mexico, Central America, South America and the Caribbean islands.
Often used interchangeably, Hispanic and Latino can have different connotations and regional uses. Hispanic, for instance, is often associated with more politically conservative individuals and groups, according to Geraldo Cadava, author of “The Hispanic Republican.”
More recently, the term Latinx, which is a nonbinary and nongendered way of saying Latino, have become increasingly used by Universities and media outlets, including by NPR and KPBS, in order to be more inclusive.
The "X" in Latinx, however, doesn’t resonate with everyone. According to a 2020 survey by Pew Research Center, only 3% of adults surveyed identify as Latinx.
KPBS audience weighs in
The KPBS newsroom knows Latinx is not definitive or all encompassing by any stretch of the imagination, but we wanted to hear more about how our audiences identify and their thoughts on the term Latinx.
So, we asked. In the span of a month, we received nearly 200 unique responses from people across San Diego County.
Professor Ruiz isn’t surprised by the outpouring of responses.
“It's the politics of labeling. And with that politics, of course, are conversations around race, sexuality, gender, all of those components come into play,” she said. “It's one that people have strong feelings about and will lead to very lively conversations and debate.”
Among the responses to KPBS’ callout, a few commonalities emerged. Some like Prizila Vidal, who grew up in San Diego and identifies as nonbinary, have come to really embrace the term Latinx.
“I just don't identify as male or female. I feel very gender neutral,” Vidal said. ”And so the whole term Latinx feels like that. But it also feels like it's own movement and it's own community.”
Vidal first heard the term Latinx from the LGBTQ community. They remember googling it and immediately feeling like it made sense. Vidal said all their close friends, the majority of whom are part of drag group called Queer Novela, also use Latinx.
They’ve also started to hear people using the term "Latine," which some find easier to say in Spanish. Vidal doesn’t think Latinx applies to everyone and isn’t surprised that some people don’t like it. But for them, it’s the label that makes them feel included and empowered.
Rodrigo Tapia of Chula Vista understands that people are trying to be more inclusive, but he personally doesn’t like the term Latinx.
“It’s a little bit of whitewashing insofar as the language is concerned,” Tapia said. “To me Latino, Latina or even Latinx means you’re identifying with a culture that holds Spanish in a special place within our community.”
For Tapia, his identity is wrapped up in speaking Spanish with his family, listening to Spanish music, or just being able to go to a local store in Chula Vista and speaking in Spanish.
It’s a part of who he is and so for him, Latinx seems to challenge that which he holds dear. He doesn’t feel included by the term. Tapia prefers Hispanic but will occasionally use the term Latino as well.
“I think it’s better to say Latino or Latina, it just comes off better, and like you understand the community,” Tapia said.
The many paths to Latinx
Michael Inzunza of Chula Vista identifies as Latino sometimes but is first and foremost a Chicano. He believes Chicanos in San Diego County, mere miles from the border, occupy a unique space because they are ni de aquí, ni de allá (not from here or there).
“We just go three minutes into Tijuana, where a lot of our relatives lived and all of sudden we aren’t Mexican. We’re labeled American gringos,” Inzunza said. “On this side of the border it’s the same issue. The greater Anglo community doesn’t refer to us as American in general.”
Inzunza, like Tapia, feels like the term Latinx is something that non-Latinos say and use to describe his community, which makes it feel disingenuous.
“I’ve never heard anyone use it. I’ve never heard anyone identify with it,” said Inzunza. “I don’t know if it’s going to stick or not, but it’s not from us.”
According to Professor Ruiz, the origin of the term Latinx is a source of confusion because there’s no single origin story.
“The use of the 'X' is one that is discussed as coming out of indigenous communities throughout Latin American and it’s one that we have seen used within Latin American feminist circles as well,” said Ruiz. “When we’re talking about Latinx within the U.S. it’s tied especially to the LGBTQ community.”
Even those most against using the "X" believe individuals have the ultimate choice on how they identify and how they would like to be identified.
“I respect it. And if they choose to identify themselves, I support it 100%,” said Inzunza. “They tell me I want to be identified as Latinx then I’ll call them Latinx.”
As terms like Latinx become institutionalized and used by media outlets and corporations, however, a new power dynamic emerges that extends beyond the personal.
It can begin to feel like someone is telling you who you are, which is what makes Inzunza and Tapia critical of Latinx. And even for those that have adopted Latinx or Chicanx, it’s pervasive use can feel, what Ruiz calls, “performative” i.e. a form of virtue signaling that’s not rooted in breaking down binaries.
Professor Ariana Ruiz cautions that institutions need to be more intentional about the labels they use and that places that use Latinx need to question why they’ve adopted the term.
“Are you actually doing the work that’s related to these questions of sexuality, to these questions of gender? Or are you using it as a placeholder for Latino, which was doing the same work,” Ruiz said.
In the end, there’s no single right identity label that will be wholly inclusive of everyone and Ruiz said that’s a good thing because it forces people to be intentional and opens up opportunities for richer discussions.
“We want to think about it as embracing the tension and really leaning into the messiness that is a term like Latinx, like Latino, this question of Latinidad, it’s not one singular thing,” said Ruiz. “But one that is multifaceted and has lots of different history and experiences tied to it.”
As for Arianna Andrade, they are still figuring things out. They are still having discussions about identity and the use of "Chicanx" with their mom. They haven’t totally reached a shared understanding, but Andrade is hopeful they will get there.
“You know, maybe in the future,” Andrade said laughing.
For now, Andrade is enjoying being near their family who supports and love them as well as the new community and sense of belonging they are finding at school.