As the JCLS Latinx Engagement Committee prepared for this year’s celebration of National Hispanic Heritage Month, we couldn’t help but notice the inconsistency in our own use of terminology. Latinx or Hispanic? Which term should we use to best recognize and welcome all folks from this community to the library? Individuals in the United States with roots in Latin America self-identify in myriad ways that can express their specific nationality or national origin, ethnicity, race, and gender—Chilean, Latina-Indigena, Cuban-American, Hispano, K’iche’, Chicanx, and Afro-Latino are just a few examples. While each person will be the best judge of what term to use when describing themselves, it gets complicated when trying to determine the most appropriate and inclusive way to refer to such a diverse population.
The two most used umbrella terms within the community itself are Hispanic and Latino and, according to the Pew Research Center, the majority who use these terms have no preference for one over the other. But are they interchangeable? Let’s take a closer look. The term Hispanic was coined by the U.S. government during the 1970s census and was used to describe people with heritage from Spain or other Spanish-speaking countries. For some, the problem with this term is that it centers White Spanish colonizers, while also excluding those with roots in countries like Brazil and French Guiana, where Spanish is not the official language. Latino, on the other hand, while still widely used and understood, is a term that seeks to include all people of Latin American origin or descent.
So, it seems we have chosen the term Latino. But wait! What about gender? Latino is masculine and Latina is feminine, while Latinx (\luh-tee-neks\) goes beyond the gender binary. Following the grammatical rules of Spanish, a mixed gender group would default to the masculine and be described as Latinos. But language, along with culture, is evolving, and this generic use of the masculine now strikes many as gender-biased. One solution has been to use Latinx as a gender-neutral term that could solve this problem. But some, like Dr. Ana María del Río-González of The George Washington University, argue that in trying to be more gender neutral, people are overlooking the importance of gender inclusion. Many who identify as Latino, Latina, or Latinx value and feel acknowledged by the gender expressiveness of these words.
The use of Latinx has been increasing in the United States since the early 2000s, but most people are still unfamiliar with it, and some reject it (explore further with this booklist). The Pew Research Center found that while “one in four U.S Hispanics have heard the term Latinx, only about 3% use it.” However, it is not always ethical to go along with the majority, especially when doing so can harm marginalized communities. As a gender-inclusive term, the x in Latinx fills the place of either the feminine “a” or masculine “o” used in Spanish. This allows people who do not identify as either male or female, or individuals who do not want to be defined by gender at all, a way to better describe their heritage. The option to do so is equitable and empowering.
The Latinx/a/o community has historically had terms imposed upon them whether they agreed with them or not. Government agencies and academics alike have tried to coin a single word to encompass the entire lower Western Hemisphere and their descendants. Continued conversations are important to create a space for people and communities who have often been silenced to voice their opinions. The words one person has chosen to describe themselves won’t work for everyone, and they don’t need to. Language is diverse and complex, allowing people to choose their own words and self-identify in appropriately unique ways. Language is also ever-evolving; the terms we used in the 70s may not fit the community anymore, and the terms we use now could be outdated in a year or two.
Considering the linguistics, history, and statistics, as well as the ongoing conversations we have had with members of our community and organizations such as the Latinx/a/o Interagency Committee of Jackson County, REFORMA, and the Libros for Oregon Committee, we determined that, at this time, the umbrella term Latinx/a/o will be understood and create a more inclusive environment that is respectful of different ethnic and gender identities. When we use this term to refer to an entire group, we are including people of all genders that originate from or can trace some or all their heritage back to Latin America. We respect and honor how individuals and other Latinx/a/o organizations choose to self-identify. As an organization we will continue to adjust our language as usage evolves.
We encourage comments and wish to continue this conversation! Please feel free to reach out to both authors in English and/or Spanish via email. Megan can be reached at email@example.com and Milagros at firstname.lastname@example.org
About the authors:
Milagros Morales is a White Latina who grew up in the Rogue Valley. Though she is new to JCLS, she is excited to serve her community as a Library Associate at the White City Branch.
Megan Pinder is a White non-Latina who has served the Latinx/a/o community professionally as a bilingual educator and currently as a Library Specialist for the JCLS Outreach to Child Care program.