Is controversial ‘Latinx’ the right word to use? Here’s the simplest way to find out

New poll shows Hispanics and Latinos don’t like ‘Latinx’ term

By Gil Duran

The word Chicano supposedly has roots as a racist or classist slur for Mexican Americans. My grandparents likely regarded it as an insult during their lifetimes, but today I identify as Chicano.

The word’s meaning has changed over time thanks to efforts to reclaim it in the 1960s. Chicano or Chicana indicates a heritage at the intersection of Mexican and North American. I also consider myself Mexican American or Latino and, when abroad, simply American.

Hispanic, on the other hand, sounds like nails on a chalkboard to me. It’s not pejorative, but it’s a word I usually hear Caucasians use. In this way, it resembles the word Latinx.

A new poll by a Democratic firm found only 2% of us call ourselves Latinx. Despite this, Democrats have leaned heavily into the gender-neutral term for voters of Latin American descent. The problem? Forty percent of the 800 people surveyed said Latinx “bothers or offends” them, and 30% said they would be less likely to support a politician or political party that uses the term.

“The numbers suggest that using Latinx is a violation of the political Hippocratic Oath, which is to first do no electoral harm,” pollster Fernand Amandi told Politico. “Why are we using a word that is preferred by only 2%, but offends as many as 40% of those voters we want to win?”

On the flip side, 57% of respondents said they don’t find the term offensive and 49% said use of the term would not affect their political stances. Fifteen percent said they’d be more likely to support those who use it.

Still, it’s strange to see Democrats increasingly adopt an unpopular label at a time when the party is struggling to keep Latino voters from swinging over to the GOP.

I have generally avoided the debate over Latinx, which removes the concept of gender from Spanish by replacing the masculine “o” and feminine “a” with an “x.” But many other writers have done a great job of outlining the word’s problems.

In 2015, writers Gilbert Guerra and Gilbert Orbea blasted Latinx as “linguistic imperialism.”

“We are not arguing against gender-inclusive language,” they wrote in the Swarthmore Phoenix. “We have no prejudice towards non-binary people. We see, however, a misguided desire to forcibly change the language we and millions of people around the world speak, to the detriment of all.”

“Not everyone is on board with the term,” wrote Daniel Hernandez of the Los Angeles Times in 2017. “And yet ‘Latinx’ — pronounced ‘La-teen-ex’ in English — continues its march into more news outlets and magazines amid our growing public awareness of transgender and non-binary gender identities.”

“Like many of its awkward predecessors, ‘Latinx’ does not work,” he added. “Its experimental ‘x’ opens too many linguistic floodgates.”

All three writers pointed out that many Spanish words like amigo (amigx?) and playa (playx?) would become impractical.

As someone with non-binary family members, I understand the desire to correct oversimplified concepts of gender. I also think there must be a better way to address these concerns than by foisting an awkward “x” on everyone.

The first time I heard Latinx, I had no idea what it meant. At the time, I was doing work in San Francisco’s nonprofit sector – a reliable bastion of early adoption for cutting-edge linguistic trends. I remember feeling stung by my ignorance. Had I missed the memx? Was there a vote no one had told me about?

No, it’s just an invented word that filtered into progressive lingo from the radical margins and has now penetrated a Democratic Party eager to prove its street cred on identity politics. In this way, Latinx is not unlike Chicano – a politically charged term that migrated from the fringe to the mainstream.

Or did it? Imagine my surprise at finding out that a whopping 68% of the poll’s respondents said they identified as Hispanic. Only 21% chose Latina/Latino. That’s better than 2%, but still a real shocker to those of us who don’t know anyone who prefers to be called Hispanic which, on the bright side, is gender neutral (though some find the colonizer overtones of a word derived from “Spain” offensive).

Some thinkers have proposed using the term “Latine” as an alternative to Latinx. Hernandez proposed dropping the end vowel altogether and going with “Latin.” These sensible improvements still won’t please everyone.

In the end, it comes down to individual choices and regional contexts.

“I personally use the term ‘Latinx’ frequently, but do I think that is the only correct term? Absolutely not!” wrote Kyara Morales-Rodriguez in an op-ed titled “In defense of the term Latinx.” “No one is forcing you to use it! Everyone deserves to self-describe and self-identify in ways that feel right for them.”

This hits the key point. If the idea of Latinx is to respect identity, it makes no sense to force the word on people who don’t embrace it. Instead of presuming to know what’s best, perhaps it’s better to start with a question before imposing the Latinx label: “How do you identify?”

As for us Latin(a/e/o/x)/Hispanics, something tells me our grandchildren will still be debating which term does the best job of including us all.

Gil Duran is Editorial Page Editor of The San Francisco Examiner. @gilduran76