Columns, Opinions

Fernandez ’21: The language of Latinx

By
Staff Columnist
Tuesday, October 16, 2018

A discussion I have been particularly interested in and that I have seen arise constantly among students and faculty at Brown is the discussion on the intricacies of language, especially in regard to its essential role in framing the way we view and interact with our circumstances. Recently, these questions about language have been reflected in the widespread and heated issue of the label of “Latinx” to refer to people living in the United States who have Latin American heritage. It is a term that has become extremely popular, especially among college students, and one that has, nevertheless, been a major point of controversy across several fields. The term Latinx and its associated discourse raise questions about identity, authority and privilege that are complicated and reliant on a vast and varying knowledge of distinct cultural realities that very few people possess. However, while the answer to exactly how we should react to a label like Latinx is uncertain, one thing becomes exceedingly clear: The language we use affects the ways certain peoples are perceived and treated. Furthermore, an active consciousness about this fact is essential in order to responsibly participate in any discussion about the implications of the language of Latinx.

Americans have always possessed a strong desire for an umbrella term for immigrants from Latin American countries. The appropriateness of a term of this nature has been under scrutiny for decades. It is not specific to the new label of Latinx, but was discussed for previously popular labels such as Latino and Hispanic. I will exclude this discussion for the time being for two primary reasons. First, I think there exists some degree of solidarity among immigrants from different Latin American countries that might warrant this kind of term. Take the existence of the Latin-American Students Organization at Brown, for example. Second, I would prefer to focus instead on the more recent arguments that have emerged in specific reference to the language of Latinx.

The term Latinx appeared in the academic world to promote gender inclusivity as an alternative to the limiting “Latino” or “Latina” that imply male or female gender, respectively. This effort not only stems from good intentions, but has also sparked a productive discussion about the problems associated with heteronormativity. However, Latin Americans across the United States have expressed concern over other implications the Latinx label denotes that are worth mentioning. The primary critics understand and respect the push toward inclusivity, but highlight the potentially exclusionary exercise of the term. Opponents point out that Spanish is an inherently gendered language that provides a gender to all nouns. Changing from Latina to Latinx involves the imposition of English syntax onto a Spanish word. Furthermore, such a change is inaccessible to native Spanish speakers with little access to English, a characteristic of a significant portion of the demographic that would themselves be expected to identify as Latinx. In addition, while the term has become very popular, it was originally developed in the elite, academic sphere and disseminated in a top-down fashion. Such a process always entails implications about power over identity. Very few people in Latin America use this language, for they, of course, predominantly use Spanish or Portuguese. While it is not a particularly inaccessible word, it continues to be most frequently employed by highly educated youth in the United States who are not necessarily representative of what the “Latinx community” is understood to be.

It is interesting to consider the term Latinx in comparison to the ways in which Latin Americans refer to people in the United States. The word in Spanish for person from the United States is “estadounidense.” There is no such word in English, where a person from the United States is referred to as simply “American.”  For Latin Americans, the term “American” or “americano” encompasses all people from the Americas, including themselves. I argue that this seemingly trivial difference reflects a very serious historical legacy about the relationship between the United States and the rest of the American continents. This legacy is manifested in the fact that the United States asserts itself as the default “American,” while this position — and the claim to authority behind it — is challenged in Spanish. If we recognize this possibility, we must also recognize how the term Latinx might reinforce this power dynamic in addition to the ways it mediates the relationship between Latin Americans living in Latin America and those living in the United States.

This relationship is extremely complicated and controversial, involving too many intricate and varying perspectives to responsibly deconstruct in this space. However, I will say that a strong argument that the imposition of not only the English tradition, but also the accompanying U.S.-centric intellectual agenda, onto the word “Latino” may serve to reflect a legacy of privileging certain Latin American voices over others. It has traditionally been the voices of upper class, highly educated and predominantly white Latin Americans who have seen the most development in their influence on U.S. discourse. It becomes important to question how emerging popular language privileges the Latinx over the Latin American.

I have personally employed the language of Latinx in my colloquial speech as well as in my previous articles for this very publication, primarily due to the fact that there exist so few alternatives when speaking or writing in English. Furthermore, I do not make the claim that Latinx is an inherently problematic term. I only seek to suggest that we should be conscious of the power dynamics reflected in our language and how we might unknowingly perpetuate them.

Marysol Fernandez ’21 can be reached at marysol_fernandez@brown.edu. Please send responses to this opinion to letters@browndailyherald.com and other op-eds to opinions@browndailyherald.com.