Editor’s note: This column originally appeared on Technical.ly’s sister site, Generocity, which covers the social impact community in Philadelphia. Technical.ly and Generocity share an editorial guide, as two news brands of the company Technically Media. In the same vein as our 2016 commitment to using “they” as a singular pronoun and our longstanding use of the capital-B Black, here’s an explainer on another evolution of language as we use it in our articles.
Technically Media CEO Christopher Wink has been asking me to write this piece since the end of February, when he shared a video with me on Slack that prompted me to (informally) unpack why I choose to use the term “Latinx.”
More recently, my fellow journalist over at Resolve Philly, Eugene Sonn, asked me why we had decided to make the term part of Generocity’s house style. And then again last week, my boss (what a nudge!) forwarded me Philadelphia linguist John McWhorter’s piece in The Atlantic titled “Why Latinx Can’t Catch On.”
So, it’s time.
Pull up a chair for the gospel according to Sabrina. OK, maybe not a gospel, but a deeper understanding of the arguments pro and con — from a Latinx person who grew up in Latin America but who has also lived many decades in the U.S. and feels some sympathy for both sides of this.
So, it’s complicated. Latino itself is an imperfect and controversial designation (not getting into that today), and use of the term “Latinx” has been even more fraught — pitting Latinx folks against each other at increasingly high decibel levels online and IRL.
Some of the most vociferous arguments against its use come from Spanish-speakers who say that Latinx is impossible to pronounce in Spanish. This is undeniably true. “X” can be pronounced like a “j” or an “sh” in Spanish — neither of which works when trying to pronounce Latinx.
But there is a bit of an elitist aspect to this argument — educated Latin American Spanish-speakers’ disdain for native-born Latinx folks who, if they speak Spanish at all, often speak a creole-ized form of it. (By the way, this isn’t limited to Latinx folks or Spanish-speakers. Many communities in diaspora experience ridicule and condescension from their communities of origin when it comes to language use and ease.)
The person in the video linked above makes the argument that Latinx originated in U.S. activist and academic circles (an argument McWhorter echoes), and that it is being imposed on Latin America as a form of linguistic imperialism. This is understandable since we have a long and shameful history of acting like a tyrannical older sibling who always knows best toward Latin America.
Latin Americans, as well as Latin American immigrants, notice this kind of behavior more than you might imagine (ask me sometime about the feels around the use of American to only include people from the U.S.).
But the video’s argument completely ignores the fact that many folks in Latin America, in fact, already do away with gendered endings in written Spanish as a matter of course.
Headlines at Guatemalan news organizations and mission statements at Salvadoran online magazines; monographs written for coursework at Argentine universities, even civic organizations in Mexico City, all routinely use “x” or “xs” without hesitation — and regardless of any unpronounceability in Spanish.
Both the video and McWhorter’s article implicitly discredit the use of Latinx because of its origins in activist circles. They don’t outright come out and say LGBTQ+ activist circles, but that is where it originated.
And I find their implication of the term’s lack of legitimacy because of that provenance truly troubling.
McWhorter makes the argument that Latinx hasn’t been wholly embraced because it doesn’t come from “below” (aka the people) or “respond to a real need” — as if the Latinx LGBTQ+ community somehow isn’t part of the people, or isn’t responding to lived experience.
When I ran some of what I’m writing here as a Twitter thread back in February, Siani Colón, the communities editor at Philly publication Kensington Voice, spoke to just that exclusion.
“LGBT+ Latinx people in AND outside the U.S who DO use the term I feel are always erased from the forefront of the conversation,” Colón tweeted. “I feel like we should be valuing trans and nonbinary voices more when it comes to gendered language.”
There is no reason to not take the Latinx LGBTQ+ community’s lead on use of this term, even if it hasn’t yet become as commonplace as linguists would like.
There is no reason to not take the Latinx LGBTQ+ community’s lead on use of this term.
I’m reminded of how, years ago, immigration advocacy included doing away with the terms “illegal alien” and “illegal immigrant.” A lot of individuals and organizations back then — including the Associated Press — were highly resistant to making the change to “undocumented immigrant.”
The argument was made that most people used “illegal immigrant” as a matter of course and without malicious intent — and the change was just the pet project of a few activists and/or PCness run amok. But immigrants themselves were telling us different.
Then as now, we don’t need to adhere to an outside authority telling us that the offensive term is the “proper” one, or that we shouldn’t be intentionally inclusive in our language.
There has been a push to use “Latine” instead of Latinx as the preferred non-gendered term, as the video I linked says. While that alternative is certainly much easier on the tongue, it is also a bit disingenuous. Yes, “e” and “es” endings already exist in Spanish (for example, “promotores”) but they are stealth gendered because the article used with them is always gendered. So, promotores is los promotores (which is masculine) and gente, the example used in the video, is la gente (which is feminine).
We could get around that by carefully placing an “x” in the articles, rendering them lx and lxs — as they do in the Argentine monograph I linked above — but I can just hear the squawking that would lead to …
Significantly for Generocity (and Technical.ly by extension), more folks in the Latinx communities in Philadelphia use Latinx than Latine, so we propose to reflect our community as much as possible in our style choices.
But remember, I told you before that this isn’t gospel. We will remain flexible about changing our usage if/as our community changes.
Because that’s what it means to be a community media organization, right?-30-