Arkansas ‘Latinx’ ban seen as a distraction from urgent issues by Latinos in the state

“People are concerned about surviving every day ... it is not the concern of the clientele we serve," said Margarita Solorzano, director at the Hispanic Women’s Organization of Arkansas.

Arkansas Gov.-elect Sarah Huckabee Sanders is introduced with husband Bryan, and children Scarlett, George, and Huck prior to taking the oath of the office on the steps of the Arkansas Capitol, in Little Rock, Ark., on Tuesday.Will Newton / AP
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At a Friday morning meeting of the Hispanic Women’s Organization of Arkansas, director Margarita Solorzano found herself having to redirect the meeting away from the chatter over the new governor's ban of the term "Latinx" in government business.

"I asked them not to get distracted because there are other things happening in the state," Solorzano told NBC News.

The executive order signed by Republican Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders surprised Solorzano as well as other Latinos in the state. She viewed the ban as "political noise."

“We use 'Latino' or 'Hispanic' in our daily business,” she said about the terms her organization uses. "In regards to the [word] Latinx, I know that [it] is important for some people, but it’s not necessarily the general sentiment of the immigrant or Latino population. They have other more pressing issues to pay attention —  people are concerned about surviving every day and making sure they provide for their families."

About the ban, she said, "It is not the concern of the clientele we serve."

Solorzano was more focused on what the governor's plans were for issues she thinks need more attention, such as education, access to health care and the justice system.

Irvin Camacho, 30, a community rights organizer, said the ban "just kind of caught me off guard that they would go after something that isn’t a huge deal in our community."

According to Camacho, issues of concern in the state include a lack of education, low teacher pay, high incarceration rates, homelessness and a lack of mental health resources.

Camacho, who also sits on the board of the American Civil Liberties Union of Arkansas, said he mostly uses Latinx as an all-inclusive term in organizing and educational spaces. “I hardly ever hear Latino anymore in those circles.”

The ban was not just a surprise, he said, but a potential warning of what's to come under the new administration.

"It's an attack not only on the Latino community, but on the trans and nonbinary community as well," he said. "But what I am worried about is if this administration on the first day decided to sign this executive order — what does it look like for us going forward?”

For Rumba Yambú, who identifies with the pronouns they/them, the executive order felt personal.

Yambú, who identifies as a trans-Latinx person, has worked toward building a more inclusive space with inTRANSitive, a nonprofit they helped co-found in 2017 that offers educational and financial resources to trans residents in the state.

Yambú said the ban has brought up a lot of the anti-LGBTQ sentiments and the “erasure of identity” that rose during the Trump administration, especially with the banning of trans terms from the government.

"It's been a challenge in this state to find any type of support for us — for trans Latinx migrants," Yambú said with a frustrated tone. "We're not causing any harm and [don't] want to cause any harm by identifying as Latinx and nobody's forcing more... Latinos, Latinas to identify as Latinx."

In her executive order, Sanders had cited a 2020 Pew Research report that found that only 3% of the Hispanic population nationwide uses the term Latinx. "Ethnically insensitive and pejorative language has no place in official government documents or government employee titles," the executive order stated.

As Solorzano noted, most Hispanics in the state don't place a high priority on debates over what terms are used, as is the case nationally.

Republican consultant Mike Madrid, who warned Democrats in a column that terms like Latinx may alienate working-class Latinos, said in a phone interview Friday that questioning "the value of a word that is not part of the parlance of the vast majority of Latinos — is legitimate."

But Madrid, who's based in California, was critical of Huckabee Sanders’ timing — and priorities.

“But does it rise to making it one of your first acts?” he said. “If that’s the biggest Latino problem, then I worry for Latinos in Arkansas. It’s not about Latinos, it’s about gender — it’s become a political football.”

“We’re having this discussion that nobody knows about or cares about; it’s just inside baseball,” said Madrid. “It speaks to how degraded the political discourse has become and the complete lack of understanding both parties have for the Latino community.”

Solorzano said that “we are just talking about a word that — for Latinos — can be meaningful. For us, the word Latino, Hispanic, Latinx — we can use those interchangeable[ly]. In the end, we as people define ourselves."