"Latinx" in Literature
By Santiago Eastman Herrera
When people see my name and ask me where I’m from, the answer can sometimes range anywhere from “Oof, long story” to “How much time do you have?”, neither of which is particularly interesting to hear at parties, I’m sure.
I was born in Colombia but left for the United States when I was two. Growing up Hispanic in the United States was… interesting. I often felt like I wasn’t Hispanic enough for those raised in their home countries, but I was actively treated as something “other than” by my American classmates. And then.
And then, and then, and then.
I started internalizing it, having doubts as I grew older. Serious doubts about whether I fit in anywhere, doubts about which language was “mine”, doubts about what to call myself. I didn’t see myself anywhere—there was no one like me in the movies I watched, in the songs I listened to, in the books I read. Then I found “Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe” by Benjamin Alire Sáenz.
Among many reasons, this is one of my favorite novels because, for the first time, I felt completely seen. I felt understood. I saw a kindred soul live and breathe between the pages of the book, and something clicked inside. It came a bit late for me, but I had finally found someone who not only understood what I had gone through but was able to communicate it in such a beautiful way. And that got me thinking.
While reading, I would find either a stereotypically Hispanic character or a vague nod to someone from Somewhere Down There with little to no thought given to all the different cultures found in Central and South America. This book was the first I’ve found to seriously tackle the intense conflict inherent in children raised in Hispanic households but forced to live outside their home countries. Representation is important, I realized—but only if done correctly.
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“The Japanese do that,” [Dante] said. “They don’t bring the dirt of the world into another person’s house.”
“Yeah,” I said, “but we’re not Japanese. We’re Mexican.”
“We’re not really Mexicans. Do we live in Mexico?”
“But that’s where our grandparents came from.”
“Okay, okay. But do we actually know anything about Mexico?”
“We speak Spanish.”
“Not that good.”
“Speak for yourself, Dante. You’re such a pocho.”
“What’s a pocho?”
“A half-assed Mexican.” – pg. 44-45
~ ~ ~
The popularity of using the word “Latinx” as a term to refer to people born in the Spanish-speaking world is increasing in the US. The term “Latinx” refers to an anglicization of a word that already exists in Spanish. Spanish, as a very gendered language (there’s no such thing as a neutral gender, everything is either masculine or feminine), traditionally refers to a mixed group of people by using the masculine form (Latinos instead of Latinas, for example). Starting in the 90s, there was a push for more inclusive and gender-neutral terms, including using a slash (“Latino/a”) or, more popularly, the “@” symbol (i.e. “Latin@”), which incorporates both the “o” and the “a”, the masculine and the feminine.
With representation being so important yet highly controversial, what is the correct way to refer to someone in a gender-neutral manner? Well, if we take a page out of “Aristotle and Dante”, there isn’t an easy answer—and there might never be. By the end of the book (spoilers, sorry), the main character never actually gives himself a label. He is not gay or straight or bi. He’s not American or Mexican or “Other”. He simply is. He doesn’t choose to become a different person, he decides to accept himself for who he is, regardless of what that means. By the end of the book, Ari lives in a world where he and Dante can just exist and love each other in peace. And that’s complicated.
Many languages have what’s called a “grammatical gender”, meaning their nouns are split up into different categories which often have very little to do with human gender. In Spanish, an apple being called “una manzana” doesn’t mean that all apples are effeminate objects, just that the noun “manzana” happened to be feminine. Humans are a lot more complicated than apples, however.
In the beginning, Old English used to have grammatical genders as well (masculine, feminine, neutral), but they fell out of favor after the Middle Ages once Modern English came to be. English does, however, still have words that relate to one’s natural gender (using “she” for an aunt, “he” for a father, or “it” for an inanimate object), which were contested after the feminist and post-structuralist waves in the 70s. This push towards complete gender neutrality then followed in other languages (such as the “iel” or “yul” pronouns in French). But where does the “x” in “Latinx” fit in?
Part of these social waves in the US tackled the fact that the masculine form of words was often used as the default in English, so activists cycled through different forms to find something more neutral. (In a particular example, lesbian journalists used “y” in “womyn” as a man-free spelling.) But the one that seemed to stick the most was the letter “x”. Instead of having to stick with the historical baggage of choosing between Miss., Mrs., and Ms., women and people outside the gender binary could decide to use the honorific Mx. as a respectful way of being addressed. The “x” then spread to other words—Folx, womxn, etc—in certain circles and as it grew in popularity, it eventually reached the Spanish-speaking community in the US.
Now, the last thing I’m interested in doing is telling people what to do or how they should be represented in literature—language is constantly evolving, as the people using it need to discuss new and different topics. I can only talk about my own personal experiences and any research I happen to collect. I do want to note though that it’s important to know who you’re talking about and who you’re talking to before making any kind of overarching statements.
In a study done by the Pew Research Center in August 2020, researchers found that about one out of every four Hispanic people that live in the US have heard the term “Latinx”, but only 3% of the entire population use it. If we estimate the population of Hispanics in the US to be around 62 million people, that means less than 2 million of those use the term “Latinx” to refer to themselves. Young Hispanic women and college graduates are more likely to use the term than anyone else. So, what does all this mean?
It means there’s no easy answer. For many (most, according to statistics), “Latinx” as a concept doesn’t make sense, since it grows out of an English tradition superimposed on a completely different language. Nonetheless, that doesn’t make it any less valid for those who choose to use it. It is you, gentle reader, and the person telling you how they want to be addressed that get the final say. Simply be respectful and ask if you’re not sure—because if there’s one thing that I got out of “Aristotle and Dante”, it’s that representation can be complicated, but by God, does it feel good when done correctly.
Demby, Gene. “'Latin@' Offers a Gender-Neutral Choice; but How to Pronounce It?” NPR, 7 Jan. 2013, https://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2013/01/07/168818064/latin-offers-a-gender-neutral-choice-but-how-to-pronounce-it. Accessed 8 September 2022.
“Gender in English.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 24 July 2022, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gender_in_English. Accessed 8 September 2022.
Kelly, John. “How the Letter ‘X’ Creates More Gender-Neutral Language.” Dictionary.com, 19 Jan. 2021, https://www.dictionary.com/e/letter-x-gender-neutral-language/. Accessed 8 September 2022.
“Man (Word).” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 8 Sept. 2022, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Man_(word).
Noe-Bustamante, Luis, et al. “About One-in-Four U.S. Hispanics Have Heard of Latinx, but Just 3% Use It.” Pew Research Center's Hispanic Trends Project, Pew Research Center, 15 Mar. 2021, https://www.pewresearch.org/hispanic/2020/08/11/about-one-in-four-u-s-hispanics-have-heard-of-latinx-but-just-3-use-it/. Accessed 8 September 2022.
Sáenz, Benjamin Alire. Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe. Simon & Schuster, 2021.
Vuolo, Mike. “Lexicon Valley: Why Do Some Languages Have Grammatical Gender?” Slate Magazine, 30 Apr. 2012, http://www.slate.com/articles/podcasts/lexicon_valley/2012/04/lexicon_valley_what_it_means_for_a_language_to_have_grammatical_gender_.html. Accessed 8 September 2022.