TIJUANA, Mexico — The first transgender woman to hold public office in Baja California is determined to help develop a more inclusive language in Tijuana — and with it, a city government aimed at more awareness and acceptance of the broad spectrum of gender identities.
But, are Tijuaneses — who live in a state where the federal government recently issued an alert about “high levels of violence against women,” and a nation considered one of the worst in the world in terms of violence against homosexuals and those who are transgender — ready for such a shift?
“‘Either I kill myself or they’ll kill me.’ These are still considered some of the only options for a large number of people in Mexico’s LGBTQ+ community,” said Regina Cornejo Manzo, a transgender woman and the first-ever directora of the new Department of Diversity and Inclusion for the city of Tijuana.
Cornejo is hoping to bring more education and awareness to the language city officials use with the public, as a first step in creating a more inclusive culture and society in Tijuana and Mexico.
In the United States, the use of an “x” or an “@” to create a gender-neutral Spanish noun — as with the word “Latinx” — has not only failed to catch on, it is considered annoying to some Spanish speakers. Many see “Latinx” as a token term invented by “woke” English speakers — and perhaps suspect it is another attempt to have a word to separate out those of Latin American descent.
Even as U.S. citizens become more aware of non-binary gender identities, a 2019 Pew Research Center study found only 3% of U.S. Hispanic adults use the word “Latinx” to describe themselves. In Mexico, it is rarely, if ever, used.
In Mexico, as in the United States, the conversation about inclusive language has also been one championed by academics and younger generations. It has been slow to take hold more broadly.
“There are some young people that use those phrases, but much less than in the U.S., especially when you leave the border areas,” said Enrique Morones, the founder of Border Angels, the House of Mexico and Gente Unida, a human rights border coalition. “Just look at Spanish language programming, TV shows, novelas … you very rarely, if ever, hear such terms. It’s predominantly a U.S.-culture issue.”
In Spanish, most gendered nouns are finished with an “-o” for male and an “-a” for female. The adjective usually follows suit. For example, in traditional Spanish, “cute boy” would be “chico bonito,” and “cute girl” would be “chica bonita.”
Spanish (along with French, Italian, Hebrew, Arabic and many other languages) uses binary pronouns, which means that words for gender identities outside of “he” and “she” and “male” and “female” don’t yet officially exist. In Mexico, to indicate non-binary, people often use an “e” at the end of the word or for the last vowel, for example, compañere for “non-binary co-worker or classmate.”
“It’s not actually about changing the language. It is about evolving it towards a more inclusive language that represents the diversity of humanity,” said Cornejo in her office at Tijuana’s City Hall.
Cornejo says the conversation goes way beyond words. Her office is holding classes with other city departments and officials, educating them on how to make everyone’s experience at City Hall a more inclusive and comfortable one. “For example, ‘What are some questions that are not appropriate to ask a transgender person?’ It’s an education process,” she explained.
“We have to talk about people because regardless if you identify with the pronoun ‘él’ (he) or ‘ella’ (she) or ‘elle’ (they); we are all people,” she said.
In the coming weeks, Cornejo hopes to present a resolution to the City Council to decide whether or not to require official city documents use inclusive language regarding all gender and sexual orientations. In doing so, Tijuana would follow a similar path as San Diego, which in November became the fifth U.S. city to prohibit future use of “he” and “she” in city laws and policies.
“When we say, here in the office, that (male) citizens and (female) citizens are coming to the front desk, we want to be more inclusive and not exclude (non-binary) citizens (or ciudadanes),” she said.
“It is not inclusive to say ‘boys and girls’ because that is excluding children who are non-binary” who don’t exclusively identify as male or female, explained Cornejo.
Cornejo said conversation and education are key because sometimes people are trying to be inclusive, but can inadvertently offend some members of the LGBTQ+ community.
“Some people in the community are just using the term ‘elle’ for everybody — and that’s not correct,” she explained. “On the contrary, if you call me ‘compañere,’ (non-binary co-worker), it offends me because you are denying me my right to my femininity; to my right to be a woman.”
The use of inclusive language exploded on social media in Mexico in August when a non-binary university student, Andra Escamilla, became the target of viral ridicule and hateful comments after an online class at Tecnológico de Monterrey.
Escamilla broke down in tears during the online class, asking that a classmate refer to they as “compañere,” instead of “compañera.” Before the incident that went viral, Escamilla said they had asked for three consecutive semesters to be identified as the non-binary term.
The classmate immediately apologized for using the wrong word, but Escamilla’s tears and outburst were recorded and became fodder for relentless online ridicule — and even, Escamilla said, some serious threats.
“The action of the classmate was to apologize for his omission and that was the correct thing to do,” said Carolina Chavez, an expert in binational affairs and candidate for Chula Vista City Council.
Chavez, who has lived and worked on both sides of the border, said the video of Escamilla’s pain was turned into vicious social media memes, which illustrates the huge amount of work left be done to bring more inclusion into Mexican society and the Spanish language.
“We have a long way to go to make people aware of thinking in an inclusive and respectful manner,” said Chavez. “The best way we can act compassionately, is by seeing each individual as part of our family.”
Cornejo said all the memes and backlash represented an opportunity to amplify a conversation that has been lacking in Mexico.
“Unfortunately, for many people the issue of inclusive language is kind of like a trend and that, far from benefiting the community, it is harming us because it lends itself to jokes, it lends itself to misunderstandings and it lends itself to teasing,” she said. “But we can take advantage of this trend to create a real awareness about our diversity — and how in that diversity lies in the greatness of the human being.”
Many forms of conservatism
Sayak Valencia, a professor and researcher at the department of cultural studies at El Colegio de la Frontera Norte (el Colef) in Tijuana, said opposition to inclusive language — along with opposition to the LGBTQ+ community in general — in Mexico is often attributed to religious conservatism. The Baja California state legislature refused for years to change to Baja California’s constitution allowing for same-sex marriage rights, with many lawmakers citing religious reasons.
However, Valencia said that doesn’t tell the whole story.
“In Mexico, there is a predominant religion, and that is Catholicism, but in the United States there are many different religions, and some are more conservative and others more liberal,” said Valencia. “So, we create a very important question to analyze that it does not only have to do with the religion that is practiced, but also with the fundamentalism that that religion demands. In Mexico, there are many other forms of this fundamentalism. There’s political conservatism and fundamentalism. There’s sexual conservatism. Even academia can be very conservative.
“Language is alive, and it becomes a cultural artifact that helps us communicate, so it needs to be inclusive and it needs to be renewed every time we have significant cultural, social and political, and also economic changes,” she added.
For Cornejo and others, much more is at stake than a few “e’s” and “a’s” and “o’s.”
Violence against transgender sex workers in Tijuana are often brutal and act as public messages. Homosexual and transgender migrants don’t feel comfortable publicly sharing the location of their shelter after fleeing other Latin American countries where they can be picked up and tortured for their sexual orientation or gender.
“This office was born as an initiative of the mayor (Montserrat Caballero), so that we can have visibility in the community,” said Cornejo. “It’s only a first step.”