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Is the term Latinx catching on? A new report takes a look

It's not common yet, but “social movements can lead to new terms arising, and Latinx is no different," says Pew Research's Mark Hugo Lopez.
Illustration of \"latino, latina, latinx\" in large letters.
NBC News

Is the term "Latinx" — instead of the more traditional "Hispanic" or "Latino" — catching on?

A new report found most Latinos have not heard of the word — and among those who have, only a small minority use it to describe themselves. Yet it's part of a growing movement toward gender-inclusive language, especially among young people.

In a bilingual survey of over 3,000 U.S. Hispanic adults released Tuesday, the Pew Research Center found that about a quarter — 23 percent — have heard of Latinx. Within this group of people who know the term, just 3 percent said they use it to describe themselves.

While only about 1 in 4 U.S. Hispanics told Pew that they have heard of Latinx, awareness and usage of the term varies across subgroups: Young adults, college graduates, and those who identify or lean towards the Democratic party are some of the Hispanics most likely to have heard of the word.

Usage is highest among young Hispanic women: Fourteen percent say they use it, as opposed to the 1 percent of young Latino men who say that they do.

"The Latino public at large may not be following the discussions over Latinx as much as certain groups,” said Mark Hugo Lopez, director of global migration and demographic research at the Pew Research Center and one of the report's authors. Lopez pointed out that awareness is higher among U.S.-born Hispanics than among foreign-born Hispanics.

Latinx is a gender-neutral term for people of Latin American heritage. By dropping the traditional –o or –a ending at the end of the root word "Latin," Latinx includes those who identify outside the gender binary, such as transgender people and those who are gender fluid.

When Pew asked respondents about their preferred pan-ethnic term, 61 percent said they preferred the term Hispanic, followed by 29 percent who preferred Latino. Only 4 percent chose Latinx.

For Angelica Peña, a writer in her early 20s based in San Diego, Latinx is a term that members of her generation appreciate because it signifies inclusivity.

“As Latinos, we face our share of marginalization and oppression, and this is a way to band together. It is a way for the community to identify with something larger than our individual selves," said Peña.

She recognized that it's harder for members of older generations to adapt to unfamiliar terms. “They are used to saying Latino — so it is hard to find a word that makes everyone happy.”

According to Lopez, Latinx is part of a national and international movement toward gender-inclusive language.

"Social movements can lead to new terms arising, and Latinx is no different," said Lopez. "We’ve seen the use of the term rising in a number of places.”

'A lot of students use it'

In the U.S., the first uses of Latinx appeared more than a decade ago. Since then, the term has caught on in the media, in the corporate world and in the public sector. Some universities have rebranded Hispanic Heritage Month as Latinx Heritage Month. Merriam-Webster added the word to their dictionary in 2018, as did the Oxford English Dictionary in 2019.

Ed Morales, author of “Latinx: The New Force in American Politics and Culture,” said that the use of Latinx is fairly common in academia. “A lot of students use it, and so do faculty members because they are looking for terms that are the most inclusive and progressive.” Latinx reflects the multiplicities of identities that Latinos have, he noted, adding that Latinos seem to be the only ethnic group experimenting with a term that recognizes nonbinary and LGBTQ people.

Morales knows that some people do not like the term Latinx. “I’m not surprised, because the word can feel awkward and it doesn’t really fit into the Spanish language or even Spanglish.” People can be “very touchy” about language used to define their communities, he explained. But he rebuts critics who see Latinx as a word from outside the Spanish language. “That is absurd; there are many ‘outside’ words that are now part of the Spanish language.”

The use of Latinx has sparked robust discussion in the Latino community. Critics say the word is elitist, that it erases the Spanish language, or that it is unnecessary.

While Pew reports that Latinx has seen a rise in online popularity since 2016, as measured by an analysis of U.S. Google Trends data, its search level remains below that of Latino/a and Hispanic.

'We have to be willing to be uncomfortable'

People who do use Latinx say that it can be complicated. Ser Anzoategui, an actor known for the Starz drama “Vida,” said that it can be a mistake to market a show as Latinx if the audience does not see themselves represented in the term.

For Anzoategui — who identifies as nonbinary — the root word (Latin) is problematic because it does not recognize the indigenous heritage of people of Latin American descent.

Anzoategui is aware that some people have a hostile reaction to Latinx, and wonders what that signifies. If the word is triggering to some people, Anzoategui offered, maybe that is something the Latino community should further explore.

“You cannot force people to go where they do not want to be,” Anzoategui said. “Not everyone wants to be Latinx. But language is powerful, and we have to be willing to be uncomfortable and have conversations about identity, power, and privilege.” Anzoategui sees the controversy over such terminology as “clearing the path” for more awareness of marginalized groups, whether it is Latinx people, disabled people, or Afro-Latinos.

Pew Research's Lopez said that it is hard to say if Latinx is here to stay. “Terms rise and fall to reflect the circumstances of the time; it is likely that the term will be around for the foreseeable future, but it remains to be seen if another term will emerge to modify it.”

Some of the controversy surrounding Latinx has been overstated, Peña believes.

“You don’t have to use Latinx all the time, or give up your other identities," she said. "Latinx is most important when we are speaking on larger platforms, where we are speaking to lots of people, so that no one feels left out."

"It helps people feel included," Peña added, "and that’s the most important thing.”

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