Column: The term Latinx wasn’t made by ‘woke’ whites. Stop erasing its creators

Rep. Ruben Gallego, D-Ariz., speaks at a podium
Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-Ariz.) speaks at a news conference in Washington in April 2018. He has said on Twitter that he restricts his staff’s use of the term Latinx, claiming it’s meant to “appease white rich progressives.”
(J. Scott Applewhite / Associated Press)
Share via

The dubious claim that the term Latinx is a creation of white liberal elites — one being vigorously promoted in right-wing circles — is gaining ground.

The campaign to police and ban one word has scored numerous wins in recent weeks: a flurry of editorials condemning the term and a ban on its use in official communications by the civil rights group League of United Latin American Citizens.

“The reality is there is very little to no support for its use, and it’s sort of seen as something used inside the Beltway or in Ivy League tower settings,” LULAC President Domingo García told NBC.


Opinion Columnist

Jean Guerrero

Jean Guerrero is the author, most recently, of “Hatemonger: Stephen Miller, Donald Trump and the White Nationalist Agenda.”

This came after a poll showed only 2% of surveyed Latinos, mostly younger ones, identified as Latinx. Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-Ariz.) declared on Twitter that he restricted his staff’s use of the term, claiming it’s meant to “appease white rich progressives.”

Such bans, understandably, alienate many of the LGBTQ, Indigenous and Black Latinxs whom the word was meant to represent. And although the term is imperfect and there are legitimate reasons to dislike it, the idea that it was invented by performative “woke” whites is wrong — and erases the voices that forged it as a path to visibility.

In the early 2000s, queer Latinxs began using the term on message boards and blogs. The trend accelerated after the 2016 massacre of 49 mostly queer Latinx people at Pulse, the Orlando nightclub. It built on the use of the machismo-resisting “Latin@s” or “Latino/a,” which pushed back against the Spanish language’s male-centric gendering. Latinx sought to cast an even wider net.

The “x” was already employed by many in Latin America to replace the male “o” and female “a” conjugations, yielding words such as “todxs,” meaning “everyone” in Portuguese and Spanish.

For some Latinos, particularly older ones, Latinx sounds weird. They find it hard to pronounce the “x” in English, though Spanish pronunciations of “Latin” and “x” can combine into a smooth “Latin-equis,” which rhymes with Dos Equis, the Mexican beer.

A study shows that only 3% of Latino adults use the label “Latinx,” but the term has vocal supporters. The debate about names and identity among Latinos isn’t new, especially in politics.

Nov. 29, 2020

Others argue the term doesn’t do enough. Mexican historian and activist Citlalli Citlalmina Anahuac makes the case that both Latinx and Latino are anti-Indigenous, like the term Hispanic, often seen as centering Spanish colonizers. “The term ‘Latin’ is Eurocentric and centralizes whiteness,” she told me. “By adding an ‘x’ or an ‘e,’ we’re just playing with a colonial identity.”


But for many, Latinx feels like an important act of resistance against mainstream exclusion. Afro-Zapotec poet Alan Pelaez Lopez sees the “x” as symbolic of a wound, an important “reminder of the erasure of Black Latinxs,” among other traumas with which the community must reckon.

The letter “x” has a history in the civil rights movement as well. Latinx researcher Nicole Guidotti-Hernández points to Malcolm X, who adopted “X” to replace the white enslaver’s last name imposed on his family. She also points to Chicano civil rights activists who commonly replaced “ch” with “x” (Xicano instead of Chicano) as a nod to the Indigenous language Nahuatl.

Defenders of the term admit it isn’t perfect. Paola Ramos, a queer Latina and Vice News correspondent who wrote “Finding Latinx,” isn’t trying to force it on others. She just wants to normalize it. She gets inundated with hate and harassment for using the term — mostly from white, right-wing Latino men.

“When you’re a white Latino and you start seeing yourself next to a Black Latino, next to a transgender Latino, next to a queer Latino, next to an Indigenous Latino, you start to truly understand the diversity of our community,” she said. “That’s an image that a lot of people reject.”

In the inaugural Latinx Files newsletter, we discuss the choice of the name and take a closer look at the Mexican American vote in Texas and the Cuban American vote in Florida.

Nov. 12, 2020

Leslie Priscilla Arreola-Hillenbrand, who promotes nonviolent parenting through a group called Latinx Parenting, faces similar vitriol. “Latino men will follow me and come into my DMs specifically to cuss me out over the term in Spanish,” she told me.

She’s frustrated with how much oxygen the debate over a single word takes up when so many more critical issues exist in her community.


But that’s what right-wing campaigns are designed to do: distract from substantive problems. Last summer, while I was reporting on threats to brown and Black communities in California’s gubernatorial recall election, I used “Latinx” in a tweet.

An army of right-wing trolls began to quote-retweet me and attack me as being out of touch with my own community, triggering a flood of expletive-laden hate mail.

Giancarlo Sopo, a Spanish-language media advisor for Trump’s failed 2020 reelection bid, lumped me in with Democrats he accused of trying to force others to use the term, which he bizarrely likened to “a black market Viagra brand.” Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ press secretary Christina Pushaw chimed in, sarcastically urging Florida Democrats to adopt the term. Even Fox News turned my tweet into a story.

The desire to dictate how Latinos can identify and exist comes predominantly from the right. But exceptions do exist. Tanya K. Hernández, an Afro-Latina of my mother’s generation and author of a forthcoming book on anti-Blackness among Latinos, says she’s had editors and colleagues — even some white ones — tell her she should default to the word Latinx, which doesn’t come naturally to her, even though she is not opposed to its use. She gently but firmly declines.

“People should have the right to describe themselves in the ways they find most appropriate,” she argues. Plus, she told me: “I’d rather talk substance as opposed to the formalities of the proper etiquette or the proper word on a particular day. We still have children at the border. We still have people in immigration detention centers. Let’s talk about that.”

Perhaps the debate about a word wouldn’t generate so much heat if it weren’t cast as either/or. Latinx strives for inclusivity. We don’t need to be pitted against one another, Latino versus Latinx. That’s exactly what far-right forces would like. Don’t fall for it.