Words Mean Things: Latino/a, Latin@, Latinx

Words Mean Things: Latino/a, Latin@, Latinx

A common problem with language is that it refuses to be gender-neutral. Many terms in English are inherently gendered: actress vs. actor, waitress vs. waiter, stewardess vs. steward, and so on and so forth.

While there have been many pushes to ditch one of these terms (often the “feminized” version, such as favoring actor over actress), the process of making language gender-neutral is often contested. Once it’s accepted, however, it becomes difficult to think outside of these terms. For example, saying “flight attendant” is now more common than saying “stewardess” or “steward,” and “firefighter” and “police officer” are very much the norm when it comes to referring to these occupations, rather than the older (gendered) “fireman” and “policeman.”

When it comes to terms borrowed from other languages, we often encounter similar problems. The Romance languages (French, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian) are typical of this. Since their structure asks them to gender most words, when they’re adopted into English, the gendering comes along. (Not that English doesn’t have its own problems, and not that these are the only languages that do this.)

A great example is the word “Latino.” Traditionally used to describe the cultures of South and Central America and the Caribbean, this word is male-gendered. The feminine, “Latina,” can be used when referring to a woman or a group of women from these cultures. However, there are inherent problems—such as that both terms are immediately exclusionary.

Preferencing the Masculine

When I was in French, we learned the following simple rule. You can il (he) and elle (she). When it’s plural, you can have ils (a group of boys) and elles (a group of girls).


If you have a co-ed mixed group, you use ils. It doesn’t matter if there’s one guy and fifteen girls. It’s still ils.


This isn’t unusual at all; the masculine is often preferenced. Femininity is the exception to the rule and indicated only when there is no masculinity to indicate. Femininity is automatically dominated and erased by the presence of masculinity.


So it is when it comes to the usage of Latino and Latina. We refer to Latino culture, not Latina culture. The reason for this is people of all genders participate in the culture. The presence of the masculine automatically overrides the presence of the feminine.


The only time it would be proper to talk about Latina culture would be when the culture is female-only. We could talk, for example, about the Latina culture of women’s sports teams, because there is no masculine presence.


We’d never talk about a Latina country, unless all the women got up and moved to their own country and kicked out all the men.


Obviously, this whole structure is somewhat problematic, because it preferences and privileges the masculine over the feminine. When we talk about Latino culture, we simply assume we’re talking about everyone, not just men. But we could easily be talking about “just men.” Women are completely subsumed and hidden within the term. We don’t know if they exist or not.


Solutions: Latino/a, Latin@

The earliest solution to this situation is similar to the s/he “solution” in English. We add a slash and assume that the reader can figure out which context they want to use. Everyone is included, because we can code-switch between “she” and “he.”


Most editors agree “s/he” looks a little sloppy, even if it works. The slash also slows the reader down, tripping them up. Yes, I can read “she” or “he” in that, but I usually read s(pause)he.


The Latino/a solution presents the same problems. While this is designed to be more inclusive, allowing the reader to code switch between “Latino” and “Latina,” we often merely read “Latino” (pause) “a.”


This separates the feminine from the root word, isolating it. We could argue the power of this is inclusion (both are represented), but the feminine forms are cut off, isolated, solitary. As though they are somehow still physically separate, too different or “other” to be included in “he” or “Latino.”


Another solution I encountered just recently is using the “@” symbol. The outer edge of the symbol resembles an “o,” with the “a” set inside of it. We’re thus presented with Latin@.


You might be able to see an inherent problem. I don’t read that as either “Latino” or “Latina,” but as “Latin-at.” I wondered, upon my introduction to it, if it had something to do with Latinx persons in technology or social media or something.


The o/a Issue Fails

Resolving the issue of Latina and Latino to include both “a” and “o” endings is made more problematic by the fact that, even if we could come to a satisfactory conclusion, “Latino” and “Latina” are still ultimately exclusionary. They ignore non-binary, gender-fluid, Two-Spirit, and other genderqueer persons.


If the point of resolving the issue of Latino vs. Latina is to be more inclusive, then we must realize the term has to open up to embrace not just “men” and “women,” not just “masculine” and “feminine,” but all peoples, including those who fall outside the strict gender binaries prescribed by society.


Including Everyone: Latinx

This is where the term “Latinx” comes in. The “x” represents an unknown variable in algebra. Essentially, the “x” allows the reader to apply their own preferred ending. Thus, if I want to read “Latino,” I can. Another reader can read “Latina” if they prefer.


It’s also pronounceable on its own (Latin-x, or Latinex), which makes it feel, sound, and perform like a word on its own. If I don’t want to fill in that “x” with “o” or “a,” I don’t have to. This is particularly important for people who don’t wish to choose between “o” and “a,” or can’t choose because neither accurately represents them.


Thus, Latinx works to include everyone, regardless of gender identity.

Resolving the Issue in a Manuscript

From what I see (and I fully admit a bias here, based on who I interact with online), I think the consensus leans toward “Latinx.” My own preference is for it, partially because I’ve habituated to it, and partially because “Latin@” just weirds me out.


Thus, when Latin@ cropped up in a project I was working on recently, I queried the author. While she preferred the term for herself, I suggested she might wish to reconsider general usage, since the term can be exclusionary. That gave her some pause.


She hadn’t considered that before. She’d been fully behind “Latin@” because she thought it resolved the Latina/Latino and Latino/a issue. She’d been so concerned with making women and femininity visible, she hadn’t stopped to think beyond the bounds of the gender dichotomy.


Keep in mind: This was someone who considers herself a social justice educator and an anti-oppressive practitioner.


At the end, she decided to keep Latin@ for herself, but to use “Latinx” within the text itself, to include more readers. She hadn’t realize she’d be alienating some of the people she most wanted to include.


The Intersection of Rights

I’ve been toying with Lush’s recent campaign slogan: “Trans rights are human rights.”


I know trans people face particular uphill battles, even within the LGBTQ+ community. Feminism has discriminated against trans people. I just read a headline telling “white gay men” that Black Panther isn’t “for” them.


In some ways, we need to move beyond this siloing of rights for “groups” of people. What do we all have in common at the end of the day? Woman or man or something beyond, trans or cis, het or LGBTQ+, Black or white or brown or whatever else, we are still ultimately human.


Rights for any of these groups are human rights, and we must think of them in that way. When we deny rights to this group or that group, we deny their humanity. When feminists profess against trans people, we are perpetrating the same injustices that men have pushed upon us.


That’s not to say that, say, Black Panther should have been all about LGBTQ+ people or white people or LGBTQ+ white people, certainly. It was a movie about, by, and for Black people. If others could enjoy it too, wonderful.


But what if there had been a gay character there too? A Black gay character? We can argue that LGBTQ+ people need to wait their turn—after all, it’s taken so damn long to get Black Panther (there’s 20 years between it and Blade, and Blade should have been the turning point). We can only hope Black Panther shows us a tidal wave of wonderful (and shitty) movies by, for, and about Black people.

We’re All Sick of Waiting

It’s easy to say “wait your turn” when you’ve had to wait. But when you say “wait your turn” to the next group, you’re perpetrating the same injustices that were perpetrated upon you.


It’s like the argument that we shouldn’t implement daycare in Canada because previous generations of women didn’t have it. I’ve seen some of my friends argue that people under 25 in Ontario shouldn’t get free prescriptions because they didn’t have them.


They want other people to suffer the same as they had to. Shouldn’t we want something better? Something more?


It’s difficult to ask for more when it took you so long to get so little. It can feel like someone’s trying to claw your hard-earned victory out of your hands. You want to hold on to it, to savor it. “Hold on, hold on!” you cry. “I had to wait so long for this, you can wait a little longer!”


Haven’t white people been telling Black people to wait for centuries now? Haven’t men been telling women the same? And yes, of course, we’re fearful they’ll take it back. It’s why some women denigrate trans people as “not real women.”


But that only perpetuates harm. It only denies a different group of people the same rights you want for yourself.


When we divide into groups, each fighting with each other over who gets what rights, we are divided and we are conquered. It’s easier to deal with a number of little, uncoordinated armies than it is to deal with a more coordinated army.


We must fly under our own colors—I don’t suggest Black culture or Black people should be subsumed under a white movement. White feminists have done so much harm to Black feminists by “whitening” them, by ignoring their needs. By failing to recognize the universality of human rights but simultaneously recognize and celebrate difference.

Supporting One Group Is Not Enough

We must look beyond our own narrow groups of belonging and see that, while there is diversity—wonderful, wonderful diversity—we also have a commonality, DNA in our cells, blood in our veins. We’re human after all. We are not talking about “women’s rights” or “white women’s rights” or “Black women’s rights” or “trans women’s rights.” We’re talking about
the rights of all of these people.


At the end, we all want relatively similar things, although we have different ways of getting to those things. We want to live peacefully, to live long, to live well. To be happy and healthy. To follow our hearts’ content, to be who we are as people. We want to live our own truths. Only when we reconceive of “x group’s rights” or “y group’s rights” as rights that all people need to have access to, will we be able to achieve anything remotely resembling justice for any group.


The social justice practitioner using “Latin@” and failing to realize the exclusion it entails is part and parcel of that. Even those of us who think we are doing good work must look beyond, to prevent ourselves from ever thinking the work is done.

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