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Is 'Latinx' elitist? Some push back at the word's growing use

"If I were going down to the local taquería, they wouldn’t know what you are saying if you used the term,” said a scholar near the Mexican border.
Gif illustration of Latinx, Latino, and Latina.
Braulio Amado / for NBC News

The gender-neutral "Latinx" is becoming the preferred term over "Latino" or "Latina" in some circles — but Hispanic-Americans are debating among themselves about whether it should be.

The question goes to the heart of Hispanic identity in America, and it sheds light on the diverse array of family histories and present-day experiences of millions of people who would have a hard time agreeing on a single word to encapsulate who they are.

Pronounced “Lah-teen-EX," the term has emerged among younger and more progressive Hispanics — as well as scholars, writers and civil rights advocates — to express inclusiveness and recognize the sexual, ethnic and racial diversity of Hispanics.Unlike "Latino" or "Latina," the term does not refer to any specific gender.

The University of California, San Diego, recently announced that it would use Latinx to replace the gender-specific terms Latino and Chicano when referring to those groups. Other universities have already made the change.

But as the term gains traction, some scholars are pointing out that there are Latinos who don't see themselves reflected in the word. Some see Latinx as an elitist attempt to erase a history of more traditional gender roles, or as a distraction from other pressing issues facing Latinos in the United States.

"I am just a few miles from the Mexican border. If I were going down to the local taquería, they wouldn’t know what you are saying if you used the term,” said David Bowles, an author and assistant professor at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley. Though he is a proponent of using "Latinx," Bowles said it's mainly used among his Mexican-American and Chicano studies colleagues, LGBTQ activists and authors of color.

Motecuzoma Sanchez, a political activist in Stockton, CA who works in community advocacy, police and government accountability, and is the founder of a local organization that focuses on literacy called Semillas (seeds), views Latinx as a “fashionable identity” adopted by elite Latinos to address an issue he doesn't see as crucial in his community.

Latinos "still struggle with educational advancement, incarceration, teenage pregnancy, police brutality, predatory bank practices, discrimination, crime and violence, low literacy, immigration and labor exploitation, diabetes, etc., but suddenly gender nouns are the priority,” Sanchez said.

Sanchez,43, is also concerned that Latinx erases Hispanic history by suggesting that the use of traditional gendered Spanish terms is exclusionary. He sees "Latino" and "Latina" as describing the different roles men and women have historically adopted.

To discard those terms "is to disrespect the entire culture as well as our brothers, fathers who have fought hard to be respected as men," Sanchez said.

Like Bowles, Sanchez said Latinx is rarely used in everyday situations. “No one calls themselves Latinx,” Sanchez said.

Enrique Salas, 27, a South Carolina resident who works in retail, said there's a simple reason he won't use Latinx.

"I don't see the point of it when there's already a word for it, and it's Latinos," Salas said.

But supporters of the term point out that in their experience, much of the resistance comes from Latino men, while proponents include those who want to raise awareness of gender as nonbinary, including those who identify as gay, queer or transgender.

"People who identify as such should have language that validates their identity," said Christian Uruburo, 24, a clinical research coordinator at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York, who is gay. "I use it on a regular basis to identify myself or in English conversation."

Using Latinx avoids the complications that come from gendered language like "Latino" or "Latina," he added.

Liza Estrada, 22, a student at San Francisco State University, said she first became aware of "Latinx" on Twitter. She praised the fact that it's becoming more common in her academic life.

"Professors at my school have started incorporating the term as well, which is really great," Estrada said. "It's a huge step that teachers are becoming aware about the nonbinary students in their classes and aiming at inclusivity," she said.

"It teaches us to accept everyone in the community — even more so, we aren’t valuing the masculine over the feminine."

In her experience, the majority of those who object to the term are men, especially those she encounters on social media.

"It’s usually men who have a problem with it," Estrada said. "They claim that we’re trying to change the Spanish language, which is ridiculous because the Spanish language is constantly changing."

Proponents of Latinx argue that Spanish's gendered structure privileges men in many ways: For one, masculine terms are often used to describe dominant traits. Simple, everyday uses of gendered pronouns reaffirm social relationships in which women are viewed as inferior. One example is the common use of the pronoun “he” to describe God.

Studies have found that gendered language can reinforce existing inequalities between men and women and that this can even affect economic productivity. One study by a researcher at the Rhode Island School of Design who studies the role of norms and identity suggests that countries that speak gendered languages have less gender equality than countries that speak in genderless languages, particularly in terms of economic participation.

Some see Latinx in the context of social justice: María R. Scharrón-del Río, an associate professor at Brooklyn College, has made the case that Latinx succeeds in incorporating groups and communities that have traditionally been left out of the greater Hispanic umbrella.

“As Latinos, we pride ourselves on the strength of our family ties,” Scharrón-del Rio told NBC News in 2017 for an article on the growing use of the word. “Using Latinx is a way to bring visibility to people who have been marginalized and who we have not taken care of as part of our families.”

Acknowledging a word's socio-political history

Concern over the use of Latinx also comes from Chicanas, women of Mexican descent who have a desire to respect past political battles, including the fight to use terms like Chicano/a and the more gender-neutral Chican@.

Denise Sandoval, a professor of Chicano and Chicana Studies at California State University at Northridge, grew up identifying as Chicana while fighting for recognition of the role of women in the Chicano experience. Chicana activists in the 1960s sought a voice in a movement dominated by men.

Bowles recalls gender activists in Argentina and Paraguay in the 1970s who crossed out the letter "o" at the end of gendered words on their protest signs as a demand for acknowledgment.

Sandoval sees the discussion over Latinx as both important and a distraction.

“My tendency is to not enter this discussion, because this is really not about labels, but all the forms, both institutional and collective, that marginalize and oppress us, such as homophobia, racism, sexism, etc.,” she said.

Sandoval said it's important to focus on the intersections of race, gender, sexuality and power, and how they affect identity.

“I can’t use Chicano only to map the Mexican-American experience. One word doesn't define us. One label doesn't define us. When you get to unmasking the layers that make up our communities and the different ways to identify ourselves and the ways we negotiate identity-making in the U.S., no one word works. No one term is going to fix it,” she said.

The scholars who spoke to NBC News said that people have a right to identify themselves however they wish, but that things get complex when institutions, such as the media, the government or universities, privilege one set of identity terms over another.

Everyone agrees, though, that Latinx will not be the last word coined by Latinos.

"We, as Latinxs, make new words everyday," said Estrada, the student from San Francisco State. "Why should Latinx be any different?"