February 15, 2022 - 9:01 pm
In writing about Latino issues for more than 30 years, there is not much I haven’t seen. In fact, there have even been a few things that I wish I could unsee.
And now, as I digest the current telenovela over the term “Latinx,” I’ve caught a glimpse of three familiar threads.
First, there’s the complex relationship that Latinos have toward our own identity. Many of us are conflicted or confused. It’s why so many of us have such strong views about how we should be identified. There aren’t enough couches in the whole Southwest to allow millions of Mexican Americans to sort out whether we are “Mexican” or “American.” Many Puerto Ricans in New York (“Nuyoricans”) can’t relate to those who grow up on the island of Puerto Rico. And how Cuban Americans see themselves depends on whether they grew up in Cuba or the United States, and — if they came as refugees — in what wave they arrived. Many Latinos know their way around an identity crisis, but it’s not a smart idea to use cultural insecurities as a motivator for creating new terminology.
Next, there is the memory of how many people of Spanish origin shunned the word “Hispanic” while others embraced it. In the early 1970s, the Nixon administration — with help from my friend, Grace Flores-Hughes, who worked at what was then called the Department of Health, Education and Welfare — settled on the word “Hispanic” as the preferred term to describe people of Spanish origin. In the 1980s, the word appeared on the official U.S. census form. Some of the “described” accepted the term, but many did not. Some hated the term because it was imposed by the government, and by a Republican administration at that. Others disliked that it harkened back to Spain. In time, someone proposed an alternative: Latino. What’s in a name? Experience tells us: Not much.
Finally, then there is the fact that White liberals can’t resist their colonial instincts to tell us who we are, what to think and even what we should be called. There is an ongoing debate about who birthed the term “Latinx,” though most experts seem to agree that it arrived in the American lexicon in the mid-2000s. Some of those who embrace the term insist that it came from left-wing activists who wanted an “inclusive” term that welcomed the LGBTQ community. Others say the term came from within the Holy Trinity of white American elitism: media, academia and politics. In my case, when I heard Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., use “Latinx,” that was my cue to avoid the term like store-bought tortillas.
Apparently, I’m not the only one. Let’s “x-amine” the resistance — among Latinos — to “Latinx.”
In December 2021, the League of United Latin American Citizens, the oldest Latino civil rights group in the country, banned the word from its official communications and correspondence. Domingo García, LULAC president and an old friend, told NBC News at the time: “The reality is there is very little to no support for its use and it’s sort of seen as something used inside the Beltway or in Ivy League tower settings, while LULAC always rep Jose and María on Main Street in the barrio and we need to make sure we talk to them the way they talk to each other.”
In November 2020, Rep. Ruben Gallego, D-Ariz., tweeted out a provocative response to a Democrat who asked how the party could “improve our work with the LatinX community” and prevent “republican LatinX voters.” Gallego responded: “First start by not using the term Latinx.”
In 2020, a study by the Pew Research Center found that only 3 percent of Latinos — most often young women — use the term. In 2021, a survey by Bendixen &Amandi International, a Democratic firm that specializes in Latino outreach, put the percentage of Latinos who use “Latinx” at 2 percent.
It appears that, when you have a product or project aimed at Latinos, slapping “Latinx” on it is a good way to kill it. The word tells actual Latinos: This isn’t for you. This is for white folks who want to pretend they’re you.
The term is silly and self-indulgent. The debate over it is a waste of time. As 62 million Latinos get ready to run America, there is a whole ocean of bigger fish to fry. It’s time to cast our lines and light up the grill.
Ruben Navarrette’s email address is email@example.com. His podcast, “Ruben in the Center,” is available through every podcast app.