Last summer, Democratic Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, D-San Diego, posed a question on Twitter: “Does it seem like non-Latinos use Latinx far more than actual Latinos?”
A debate on Gonzalez’s Twitter thread followed.
Spanish-language loyalists criticized the gender inclusive label for its attempt to change a language that consists of masculine and feminine nouns. Defenders called it a nonbinary and inclusive label that acknowledges Latinas and LGBTQ Latinos.
What’s clear is that the label has risen in popularity on the internet in the last five years, reaching its peak on Google Trends in September 2020, a month before the presidential election.
But a 2020 Pew Research Center study, finds that only a quarter of Latinos in the U.S. have heard the term — and only 3 percent use it. Instead, the study shows, Latino communities would rather be referred to by their country of origin, such as Mexican, Honduran or Cuban.
The term is embraced by younger Latinos, liberal Democrats and the LGBTQ community and its allies, including Gov. Gavin Newsom. It tends to be shunned by many native Spanish speakers and older, working-class Latinos.
“It’s a question of what people choose to call themselves,” said Laura E. Gomez, a law professor at UCLA and author of the book “Inventing Latinos: A New Story on American Racism.”
Who uses Latinx?
The term is most used among young Hispanic women, as well as U.S.-born Latinos and college-educated Latinos, according to the Pew Research Center.
About 14 percent of young Hispanic women, between the ages of 18-29, are likely to use the term compared to 1 percent of young Hispanic men. Overall, about 42 percent of young Latinos, between the ages of 18-29, say they’ve heard the term, compared to 7 percent of older Latinos, ages 65 or older.
Nearly 32 percent of Latinos born in the U.S. are more likely to have heard of the term, compared to 16 percent foreign-born Latinos, according to the report. About 29 percent of bilingual and predominantly English-speaking Latinos are also more likely to have heard the term than 7 percent of predominantly Spanish-speaking Latinos.
Younger Latinos are also increasingly coming out as lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender, according to Beatriz E. Valenzuela, communications manager of the LGBTQ nonprofit Equality California. They tend to embrace the label.
About 22 percent of Latino millennials, between the ages of 18-34, identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender compared to African Americans, 14 percent, whites, 13 percent, and Asian Americans, 9 percent, according to a 2018 GenForward Survey, which studies Generation Z and millennial trends.
Where did it originate?
The earliest usage of the label, pronounced “la-teen-ex” or la-tin-ex,” dates back to the mid-2000s, according to Merriam-Webster.
“Monthly Google searches for Latinx rose substantially for the first time in June 2016, following the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, Florida,” according to the Pew Research Center’s report. The shooting at the gay nightclub left 49 people dead, most of whom were LGBTQ Latinos.
“I think it’s definitely related to the growing acceptance of sexual minorities,” Gomez said. She added that many Latinas might not see themselves reflected in the term Latino, a term meant to encompass both genders.
Why is it political?
During the presidential election, progressives like Sen. Elizabeth Warren used the label Latinx when conducting outreach to Hispanic voters, while former Republican President Donald Trump embraced the terms Hispanic or Latino.
Democratic congressional lawmakers increasingly use “Latinx”, according to an analysis by the Pew Research Center.
Among members of Congress last year, 47 percent of Democratic lawmakers used Latinx on social media, compared 1 percent of Republican lawmakers. Among Latino Democratic lawmakers, about 69 percent have used the label on social media, while 13 percent of Latino Republican lawmakers used it.
“It’s something that I see a lot of white progressives use,” Gonzalez said, who represents a Latino-majority district. “It seems to be used more outside of our community than inside.”
What are criticisms associated with ‘Latinx’?
The label has received its fair share of controversy, mainly from critics who say it’s mostly used by English speakers and that it ignores the rules of the Spanish language.
Other criticisms include confusion over how to pronounce it and pluralize it and that it’s not commonly used among older or working-class Latinos.
“Is it going to survive in the long run? Very possibly, but … maybe not, because it’s got a lot of criticisms,” Gomez said.
Instead, Gomez suggests asking people what term they prefer to be called.
“I hate it,” said Mike Madrid, GOP strategist and co-founder of the Lincoln Project. “As a political communicator, you need to speak to people where they are … I don’t think it’s going to be accepted by the average Spanish speaker anytime soon.”
Will it stick?
Latino and non-Latinos have historically struggled to come to a consensus on a general label to describe descendants or nationals who represent over 30 Latin American countries, according to Kevin R. Johnson, dean of the UC Davis School of Law and Chicano/Chicana studies professor at the school.
“These efforts now, they’re trying to be constructive … as opposed to the epithets used in past generations. I think it’s an effort to move forward,” Johnson said.
The label Hispanic has also received criticism from progressive Latinos for its association with Spain, according to Gomez.