A new controversy about identity, social justice, and minority communities has been bubbling out of academia into the mainstream. Accusations of cultural imperialism abound, foisted on mainly working-class communities from those in positions of power. Yet this battle does not describe some university town’s battle over a statue or a building whose name references a bygone era. Nor are the privileged elites representative of some shadowy right-wing group. In this case the stereotypical villains and heroes are reversed. In the battle over the use of the word “Latinx,” the battle lines are drawn between Latin Americans and progressives in elite spaces.
For progressive Americans looking to stay abreast of the latest trends in decency, using the term “Latinx” to describe those of Latino origin is simply yet another episode in the long battle to rectify ostensible inequities harming marginalized groups. In reality, the truth is far more complicated. Thoroughly rejected by those it purports to describe, the word “Latinx” is a progressive cultural project, imposed from a place of power. In reality, the drive to push the term onto Americans harkens back to an older form of progressivism, which seeks to “civilize” those seen as unenlightened, even barbaric. When we look at the state of Spanish in America, both past and present, it’s clear this project runs into three major problems. It runs afoul of how Spanish linguistically operates, it’s a top-down imposition, and it is resisted by the vast majority of Latinos in the United States.
It may surprise some to see such a defense of Spanish linguistic norms from conservatives, but this should shock no one. Spanish has been part of the cultural fabric of what is now America since before the English arrived in the colonies. While young New Englanders recited quotations from their Geneva Bible, español could be heard in Sante Fe or in St. Augustine, Fla. Spanish speakers such as Jorge Farragut would help win our independence. Others, including Jorge’s more famous son, Admiral David Farragut, would help keep it united. As the United States began to culturally mature in the 19th century, Walt Whitman saw the benefit in conserving all the cultural elements of this young nation:
We Americans have yet to really learn our own antecedents, and sort them, to unify them. They will be found ampler than has been supposed, and in widely different sources. Thus far, impress’d by New England writers and schoolmasters, we tacitly abandon ourselves to the notion that our United States have been fashion’d from the British Islands only, and essentially form a second England only — which is a very great mistake. Many leading traits for our future national personality, and some of the best ones, will certainly prove to have originated from other than British stock. As it is, the British and German, valuable as they are in the concrete, already threaten excess.
To that composite American identity of the future, Spanish character will supply some of the most needed parts. No stock shows a grander historic retrospect—grander in religiousness and loyalty, or for patriotism, courage, decorum, gravity and honor.
While the numbers rapidly fluctuate owing to assimilation rates, Spanish remains spoken by millions of Americans. However, if some get their way, the language spoken since the time of the colonists would be drastically different from what it is today. The question of how to describe Spanish-language speakers in America has been a thorny one since Nixon’s time, usually ranging between terms including “Hispanic” and “Latino,” though most prefer to refer to their actual national origin rather than the pan-ethnic term “Latino.” By the late 1990s, Latino progressives were batting around the terms “Latino/a” and “Latin@” in an attempt to move away what they saw as patriarchal or “heteronormative” terms. Predictably, these neologisms went nowhere; however, by 2004 the term “Latinx” started to become more popular among American and Puerto Rican progressives seeking to “challenge the gender binaries encoded in the Spanish language.”
This is exactly why, like other discarded terms of the recent past, “Latinx” can and should fail as a general term used to describe Hispanics and Latinos. Language is supposed to operate as a medium of communication. Changes to this medium are usually longest-lasting when they develop organically over time. “Latinx” is not an organic development but rather a radical rejection of the Spanish language in its essence. As a Romance language, it is innately gendered. Eliminating gender would be to functionally change one of the core elements of the language. In the past there have been organic changes to reflect societal transformations, such as presidenta, in addition to presidente.
None of these changes required a complete reconstruction of the language on such a grand level. While languages can and do mutate over the centuries, the changes usually become more, not less intelligible. As writers in Swarthmore’s campus newspaper explained, “By replacing o’s and a’s with x’s, the word ‘Latinx’ is rendered laughably incomprehensible to any Spanish speaker without some fluency in English. Try reading this ‘gender neutral’ sentence in Spanish: ‘Lxs niñxs fueron a lx escuelx a ver sus amigxs.’ You literally cannot.” Even in its pronunciation (La-teen-ex), it is a fundamentally English word, as x in Spanish is pronounced equis. It is true that many languages, Spanish and English included, adopt traits from one another. However it is slightly comical to see those most likely to resist ostensible American “cultural imperialism” butcher Spanish pronunciation in favor of an English one. As is often the case with revolutionaries, in the search of an abstract ideal, they would mangle a beautiful language spoken by hundreds of millions across the world and the United States.
This is why the project to construct “Latinx” as the general catch-all for Latinos necessarily must be an elite one. Look where the term is used. You will not hear it on the streets of Los Angeles or the fields of South Texas. It is exclusively the domain of rarefied circles in academia, media, and politics. No longer in obscure monographs in some state university, you’ll find the term in such as “The pandemic prompted some Latinx college students to rethink their plans after graduation” or “As the pandemic continues, Sussex Latinx businesses strive to regain footing.” Most notably you find this term gaining popularity among powerful politicians such as Senator Elizabeth Warren, who as of this writing has not yet claimed to be of Latino or Hispanic descent. Ironically, the institutions that promote this word the most tend to be the places least likely to include many Latinos. The few Latinos in these spaces tend to be those most ideologically likely to support such a project, and so such institutions presume this is the stance of most Spanish-language speakers in America or, indeed, across the Hispanophone world.
In reality the opposite is true, much to the chagrin of the would-be linguistic revolutionaries. If you take the time to ask Latinos or Hispanics, you learn that less than 5 percent use the word “Latinx” to describe themselves. Barely one-fourth have even heard of it. Even among its advocates, most admit to dropping it from their Spanish when they return to their communities. This complete non-adoption among Spanish-language speakers is why it will ultimately fail. The movement sought to resolve the political anxieties of the chattering classes rather than of actual Latinos.
Yet its use in presidential speeches, congressional tweets, headlines, and textbook revisions abound. It seems that, for Latinos, the linguistic beatings will continue until adoption improves. In a scene reminiscent of the Hispanophobia of late-19th-century progressives like Charles Goethe, the Spanish language is seen as machismo, a colonizing throwback, one that must be changed and reformed, regardless of whether the recalcitrant primitives agree.
America is already in the midst of a sea change with respect to the question of which cultural markers are worth keeping. Regrettably, it seems that even the Spanish language has become a target for these modern iconoclasts. Deconstructing Spanish beyond recognition won’t advance any laudable goal. It will, however, make America a culturally poorer place, because an America without Spanish would be a lesser society than she was before.