Hispanic, Latino, Latinx More Than Just Labels

© Marina Camargo, 2019.
© Marina Camargo, 2019.

Both among official organizations and communities of United States citizens, the effort to establish general names for Latin Americans has caused disagreements to this day. However, that effort has also sparked important debates about the identity and visibility of entire populations.

“Hispanic teachers want to help Latino children in Georgia schools,” a local U.S. newspaper reports. Do the teachers come from one region and the students from another? The answer to that depends. Labels such as “Hispanic” or “Latino”, and more recently “Latinx” have served for anything from pan-ethnic bureaucratic functions to mobilizing.

Official U.S. history has obscured the presence of indigenous and Spanish populations originating from Latin America. That is why it is unknown that “Latinos” have been there dating back to the 16th century when Spain built its first settlements in Florida and New Mexico; that between 1846 and 1848, Mexico and the United States went to war over territory and that in 1848, with the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, Mexico ceded seven states to the USA in what is now the Southwestern United States. Wealthy Mexicans were granted protection of their civil and property rights, whereas poor Mexicans obtained the status of second-class citizens. They and their descendants were pejoratively called “Chicano”, as a synonym of “poor” and “immoral”.

In the 1960s, during the civil rights movement, the term “Chicano” was pridefully reappropriated and popularized by Mexican students and farm workers and their descendants. Alongside African Americans and other minorities, the “Chicano” movement demanded inclusion and equal rights and opportunities with white society. That decade had a strong impact on U.S. society and repercussions for the state and federal government. In an attempt to achieve social and economic balance, which historically benefited the white population, several presidential decrees consolidated the Affirmative Action program. The program required the government and private companies to maintain quotas to ensure equal opportunities for minorities.

A Supposed Pan-Ethnic Identity

To gauge the effectiveness of Affirmative action, in 1976, the federal government mandated that statistical information on residents of Latin American origin and other Spanish-speaking countries be recorded for the first time to track their economic and social progress in relation to other migratory groups and white society. To achieve this, in 1977 the Office of Administration and Budget, in charge of the national census, used the term “Hispanic” to officially create a sort of pan-ethnic identity. In this way, for the 1980 census, Hispanic applied to any person born in Latin America or Spain and any person who was a descendant of at least one person born in Latin America or Spain.

“Hispanic” is not a race. And yet, by being placed next to “white” and “African American” on a form, the racial and ethnic component of the term became apparent. To impose an identity of such magnitude is to run the risk of the population responding negatively to being classified. That was indeed the case with the so-called Hispanics, who have very strong and various national affiliations, make up a diverse population and have distinct foundational, economic, social, political, and cultural experiences. Disapproval of the term came swiftly.

In big cities like New York, Chicago and Los Angeles, as Suzanne Oboler documents in her book, La identidad latina de ayer y de hoy (Latino Identity of Yesterday and Today, 1995), the term “Hispanic” seemed to reinforce the colonial identity of Spain in Latin America and, in this sense, it seemed that it sought to ignore the complex Latin American identity and implied a distance from black and indigenous minorities from the continent in the name of a language—Spanish—, the Catholic faith and a supposed cultural uniformity.

The alternative to “Hispanic” then was “Latino”. A cultural force was woven around the term “Latino” that sought to distance itself from any racial overtones, as if that were a real possibility in the United States where the other is inherently racialized. Calling oneself “Latino” in those spaces had a clear political agenda (to achieve housing, voting rights, fair housing, bilingual education) that could hardly be achieved if each community insisted on its affiliation with its particular national identity.

At first glance, “Latino” appears to be an abbreviation for “Latin American”. From this perspective, what is Latino is problematic since it implies both ethnic and linguistic homogeneity from the Rio Grande to Patagonia for those originally from Spain, Portugal, and France. This view also excludes indigenous, black, and other populations from across this region. Understood in this way, it is also not surprising that the term “Latino” is not well received by various groups who feel that their particular identities are made invisible. White Latinos, for their part, also feel that their affiliation with Europe, especially with Spain, is also unacknowledged.

New Labels, New Discontents

Officially, since the 2000 Census, and in popular culture, the media and daily interactions, as well as in academia, “Latino” and “Hispanic” have been used interchangeably. However, as reported by the Pew Research Center in 2011, 51% of survey participants said they prefer to identify with their native country or with their family’s country of origin. Only 24% preferred to identify as “Hispanic” or “Latino”. It is clear that neither the “Hispanic” nor the “Latino” label is entirely satisfactory to a population that is growing daily by the number in the United States (18% of the population as of 2018). Dissatisfaction occurs because no matter how much a person has assimilated into the dominant culture, as Oboler maintains, they will always be considered a “foreigner”, regardless of whether the family has been living in the United States for generations or whether they crossed the border yesterday afternoon.

Pan-ethnic labels like “Hispanic” or “Latino” remain strong, but this does not keep more inclusive labels from emerging. This is the case of the “Latinx” label. Juliana Martínez and Salvador Vidal examine the possibilities of the term “Latinx” in their essay “Latinx Thoughts: Latinidad with an X” (2019). According to them, the term was already appearing in online forums in the 1990s and in 2015, the word became popular among academics, activists, and on social media. Such an increase in the use of the term is tied to the ability of this term to include Latinos’ sexual, ethnic, and racial diversity and to challenge dominant culture and its norms by adding “x” to signify a neutral, inclusive gender.

Detractors of the term “Latinx” see it as yet another colonial imposition seeking to erase the history of individuals with traditional gender roles and distracting from problems afflicting the community. For others, it is just a fad with no real impact. According to Martínez and Vidal, the term “Latinx” causes discomfort among some conservative heterosexual Hispanics/Latinos who see it as destabilizing the dynamic that has kept them in power due to marginalization and violence against minorities.

We can conclude that in the same way that something like a Latin American identity is a fiction, trying to create a pan-ethnic category such as “Hispanic”, “Latino” or “Latinx” is illusory. Today, it is undeniable that these labels, even if they are problematic, have allowed for the rise of solidarity movements seeking to give visibility and power to the largest minority in the United States.