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Latino vs. Latinx: Ungendering the Spanish Language

By Suzannah Young

College is undoubtedly one of the most turbulent times in a person’s life. As students struggle to find their sense of self and purpose whilst transitioning into adulthood, many must also grapple with labeling their identity.

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For Hispanic and Latin students right now, this issue is especially prominent as a new term, LatinX, has recently gained attention, raising the question – should LatinX be used in replacement of Latino?

Dr. Laura Alonso-Gallo, chair of Barry’s department of English and Foreign Languages, explains that “we're trying to find a new word that is inclusive of exceptions, or what is not mainstream.”

“In the academic world of philosophy, in literature and humanities we look for new ways to name things… we try to be more inclusive,” said Alonso-Gallo.

Alonso-Gallo says that although she does not know the exact origin of the term Latinx, she also believes that popular culture played a large part in its formulation. 

The term Latinx came about sometime in the late 1990s when academic institutions began using it to be more gender sensitive, according to Mark Hugo Lopez, the director of global migration and demography research at the Pew Research Center.

“Sometimes, in popular culture, ‘X’ signifies a mark of an individual who does not want to reveal, or does not want to be identified with certain gender categories” Alonso-Gallo said.

Graphic Credit to Wikimedia Commons

“For example, there was a time when illiterate people would sign with an ‘X.’ It was a way for them to say ‘I am a person, I exist, and I have a voice.’”

In history, individuals using the letter X to disassociate themselves from a particular group is not an uncommon phenomenon.

Most famously, Malcolm X changed his name after joining a black nationalist and Islamic group called the Nation of Islam. Members of this group used the X to replace last names that they believed had originated from white slaveholders. 

“As a scholar, I tend to look at the world from a different lens, but we must remember, only a small portion of the population are academics,” Alonso-Gallo said. “People have to use a term that they feel comfortable with, not necessarily the term that sounds cooler. They may not have a connection with a term like ‘Latinx’ which may sound a little bit too foreign or artificial for their use.”

Alonso-Gallo is right because in a survey conducted by the Pew Research Center it was observed that while 20 percent of the population is familiar with the term Latinx, less than five percent of people actually identify under the name.

This makes sense, especially considering the study also shows that while college-educated people are more likely to use the term, most of those familiar with it are between the ages of 18-29. 

“I think young people are more sensitive to the realities of gender identity issues at this time. They seem to better understand the predicament of marginalized people,” Alonso-Gallo said.

As far as people who actually identify as Latinx, the study finds that most of them are Hispanic women.

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“As a portion of the population that has historically been discriminated against, a woman might use [latinx] to hide her gender identity… in this sense, it is a flock of equality.” Alonso-Gallo said. “It’s a tool of self-definition."

Victor Zamora, a senior studying television and digital media, said that although he is aware of the term, he does not use it to identify himself. 

“I usually call myself Mestizo, just because of where I was born,” Zamora said. “Although I use Latinx as an umbrella term for all Latin Americans, I don’t call myself that because I don’t identify as gender nonbinary, so I don’t feel it’s my place to identify as Latinx.”

Amanda Escalera Torres, on the other hand, uses both Latinx and Latina, to describe herself.

“I’m a strong believer that at the end of the day we are all people - we are not just male and female - we are people and so we are the same,” Escalera Torres said. “At the same time, I wouldn’t want to leave behind what being Latina is because I feel like it’s so heavy and it’s so meaningful to me.”

Graphic Credit to Merriam-Webster

But all terms and labels aside, ungendering a Romance language such as Spanish is in itself a very difficult task. 

Alonso-Gallo explains how while in English it is possible to use terms such as “them/they,” it is not possible to orally un-gender the Spanish language in the same way.

“In Spanish, you cannot speak without using a gender because it’s a genderized language,” Alonso-Gallo said. “The same thing happens with Italian, French Portuguese, and Russian.”

For example, in Spanish, ‘los’ and ‘las’ are definite articles used before nouns to indicate the gender of the noun. Both have the same meaning which is ‘the’ in this case, but one is masculine and one is feminine.

"Potentially you can use the ‘e’ in exchange for ‘o’ or for ‘a’ because it is a middle vowel, but you would also have to change a lot of things, such as the adjectives,” she explains. “But how do you transform the whole language? I just don’t think it’s going to happen.”

Graphic Credit to Melissa Manohar

To add to the linguistical problem is the logistical one. In Spanish, the Academy of Language holds the power when it comes to officially changing words and grammar in the language.

“Romance languages typically have an economy,” Alonsa Gallo said. “This means that there is an institution taking care of the health of the language.”

According to Alonso-Gallo, there must be a strong social movement behind changing a language because “changing a whole system is not just changing one word.”

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