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To Be or Not to Be Latinx? For Some Hispanics, That Is the Question

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To Be or Not to Be Latinx? For Some Hispanics, That Is the Question

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It is a word that has been both embraced and scorned by Latinos. It often sparks conversations about identity, gender and privilege. Its usage has led to innumerable social media spats, and the debate shows no sign of dying down. The word in question is "Latinx," which some Hispanics are using as a more inclusive term for Latinos.

But do Latinos need a new word to describe themselves? Hispanics are already a community with myriad identities - such as Nuyorican, Tejano and Cuban-American - so what is the point of another one? NBC Latino spoke with experts and educators to learn more about this sometimes misunderstood word.

Pronounced "La-teen-ex," Latinx is a gender-neutral term for people of Latin American heritage. By dropping the traditional -o or -a ending at the end of the root word 'Latin,' Latinx encompasses those who identify outside of the gender binary, such as transgender people or those who are gender-fluid. Lately the term has been popping up in mainstream outlets like The New York Times, Washington Post and USA Today, and it is increasingly visible in Hispanic media as well.

Mark Hugo Lopez, who directs Hispanic research at the Pew Research Center, finds Latinx to be "a very unique American take on identity." The Pew Research Center has talked about incorporating the word into its surveys, but has not implemented its use yet.

"Latinx fits within our broader history in the U.S. of using various terms to describe our identity," Lopez said. "It is pan-ethnic like Hispanic, and political in a sense like Chicano."

Two of the foremost authorities on the English language have noted the emergence of Latinx. Merriam-Webster's editorial team told NBC Latino in an email that "It's a word we're watching for entry into the dictionary, but it has not been added yet." The Oxford English Dictionary does not have an entry for Latinx either, so far, but their team is tracking it for "potential inclusion in the future." Oxford's free online dictionary does contain Latinx, and the word was included on their shortlist for Word of the Year in 2016.

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Proponents of Latinx generally make two arguments about why the word is important. First, some people do not see themselves as either Latino or Latina, so using the term is a way to include them when referring to a group of people. Second, Latinx is a gender-neutral term that does not give preference to either the masculine or feminine form of an identifier.

"I don't think people always understand what it (Latinx) really means at first. My initial response was, 'I am a proud Latina, I don't want to be something else,'" said Robyn Moreno, editorial director for Latina Magazine. "Then my younger staff explained it to me - and now I get the power and purpose behind the word."

"If people don't identify on the gender binary, why not include them?" Moreno asked. "This is another term which moves the identity conversation forward. It promotes fairness and inclusivity, which I think is a good thing. It is not about taking away identity; it is about giving more identity to more people."

Image: Robyn Moreno

Those resistant to using Latinx point out that Spanish, like other romance languages, is inherently gendered. "We are not arguing against gender-inclusive language…" wrote Gilbert Guerra and Gilbert Orbea in a much-shared 2015 column in The Phoenix, the independent campus newspaper of Swarthmore College. "We see, however, a misguided desire to forcibly change the language we and millions of people around the world speak, to the detriment of all." Guerra and Orbea asserted that, if all of the Spanish language were de-gendered, the result could be words like "hermanx" (for siblings) and "ninx" (children).

This line of thinking misses the point of using Latinx, according to Roy Pérez, associate professor of English and American Ethnic Studies at Willamette University. "No one is out to neutralize the whole Spanish language, and it would be impractical to do so," he said. "This is really an English-language and Spanglish debate that can get blown out of proportion."

In Pérez' view, some of the debate surrounding the use of Latinx stems from an underlying resistance to inclusivity. "The underlying gender critique is what fuels hatred towards Latinx," he said. "But why should we only have one word to describe ourselves? Latinx is just one solution to the complexity and slipperiness of labelling Latinos. And it doesn't have to supplant other words."

Although it is difficult to pinpoint the origins of Latinx, several people told NBC News that they became aware of it in 2014, and that the word began among Latino LGBTQ communities. While there is anecdotal evidence that the term is used in Latin America, it is without question on the rise at U.S. colleges. Latinx is in usage everywhere from University of Nevada, Las Vegas to the University of Iowa to Princeton University.

A Google trends search shows that there was a spike in people searching for the term Latinx around June 2016, when the mass shooting at Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida took place.

It seems to be a common misconception that, by adopting the term Latinx, people will have to drop other forms of self-identification.

Image: Maria Scharron-del Rio

Not so, says María R. Scharrón-del Río, associate professor at Brooklyn College. "By using Latinx, nobody is telling you how to identify. It's up to you if you want to be Latinx, Latino, or something else," she noted. "It really a way to be inclusive. For people who are traditionally marginalized, that milli-second of politeness and recognition towards someone who is gender queer, tells them that you see them, that you are an ally."

Conversations about Latinx, Scharrón-del Río believes, often reveal who is privileged, because people who do not have a history of being excluded may not understand the importance of being included. "As Latinos, we pride ourselves on the strength of our family ties," she said. "Using Latinx is a way to bring visibility to people who have been marginalized and who we have not taken care of as part of our families."

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While words like Latino and Hispanic have been adopted by corporations seeking consumers among the nation's largest minority group, it remains to be seen if this will be the case with Latinx.

"We don't have a consensus among ourselves yet about the word Latinx, so it would be hard for mainstream corporations to embrace it," said Natasha Pongonis, co-founder and co-owner of The Nativa, a multicultural communications agency that focuses on the Hispanic market. "Unless you are in news, PR, or academia, this is still a very new word."

"Latinx is used primarily among college students and millennials, so things could start to change as more of them enter the workforce and begin to reshape it." Pongonis sees the emergence and debate over Latinx as part of the natural evolution of language and identity. "What is interesting is that some federal agencies, such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, have begun using Latinx, so we see them bringing awareness to the term."

Latinos tend to identify by country of origin, Pongonis said. "Just as it took people time to get used to Hispanic and Latino, we will likely see the same process with Latinx."

The overall dialogue over Latinx is healthy, maintains Robyn Moreno of Latina Magazine.

"We're not going to change the name of our magazine, or the Spanish language," she said. "This is just a fun and enlightening dialogue to have, to examine ourselves and have conversations about empowerment and privilege."

"Whether people accept the term or not," Moreno added, "I love turning people on to what is happening in our communities - and Latinx is one discussion that's happening."

Video shot and edited by NBC Latino's Marissa Armas.

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