Latinx versus Latina/o versus Hispanic—It’s the 21st Century

Many workplaces and universities are getting ready to celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month, signed into law in 1988 by President Ronald Reagan, and intended to honor the contributions of persons of Hispanic and Latina/o heritage in the U.S. This month-long event (September 15th-October 15th) is an opportunity for more than 56 million individuals to celebrate their collective and country-specific ethnic heritage. The celebration is also a time for awareness and knowledge-building about self, friends, and workplace colleagues.

Hispanic, Latina/o, Latin@, and Latinx are all terms that have been used to categorize or label people from 21 Spanish-speaking countries. As a psychology scholar of Mexican-American heritage (born in Lorain, OH), I have lived through the evolution of identity monikers that do not always fit who I am or how I want to identify ethnically. In fact, many colleagues and friends prefer to call themselves Puerto Rican, Colombian, Dominican, or Chicana because this expresses their ethnic heritage, their family history—something more personal.

In the 1960s, the term Chicana/o was assumed  by individuals of Mexican-American heritage (born in the U.S.) as another way to self-identify and express self-determination. With leaders such as César Chávez and Dolores Huerta, the Chicano power movement emerged along with the Civil Rights movement led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The goal was to fight for the rights of farmworkers and laborers, victims of wide-spread discrimination. The newspaper was how I learned about Chicanas/os  in California and Texas and their collective power to fight injustices. Often, I wished I could be in California among thousands of Chicanas who seemed to be doing amazing social justice advocacy.  When I joined Arizona State University in 1999, I became a member of the Chicana/o Faculty and Staff Association, in the company of highly accomplished Chicanas/os and other Latinx colleagues.

I do not recall when I became Hispanic (hi’-spanik) but it was likely in the 1970’s, following the first U.S. Census categorizing us. This broad term refers to the Spanish-speaking persons primarily with Latin American heritage. Now, this could mean people born in the U.S. and outside of the country, needless to say, quite confusing. Hispanic  also references the peninsula of Hispania that includes Spain and Portugal. Regardless, the term still seems to be widely used in the press, by politicians, and by government agencies.

When I lived in Boston, I recall the term Boricua, used by persons of Puerto Rican heritage to self-identify. Boricua is the term given to Puerto Rico by the island’s indigenous Taíno Indians. Terms such as Chicana/o or Boricua do not show up on the U.S. Census.

The move away from Hispanic to Latina/o began for some of us in the 1990s, though the 1990 U.S. Census continued to use the term Hispanic.  Latina/o  was meant to include people of Brazilian heritage, for whom Portuguese, not Spanish, is the primary language.  In time, many of us began to modify our new “shared identity” with Latin@, connoting both genders and if plural, Latin@s. Yes, the @ was cumbersome but to simply say “Latino” as the all-encompassing term meant to some of us that women were omitted or not considered. At the time, I was in Boston among other academics who considered ourselves progressive and always willing to push the buttons on inclusion and away from the government-imposed term Hispanic. Ironically, on a personal level, we would still self-identify as Mexican American or Puerto Rican.

The term Latinx arrived on the scene with force in about 2014 and has been examined by scholars, journalists, and social justice advocates as a more inclusive term.  More specifically, Latinx, pronounced la-teen-ex is about inclusion; it is a non-binary, gender-neutral term that is inclusive of LGBTQ and gender-fluid persons. I admit I was one who did not readily embrace Latinx; I wondered if we would be taken less seriously as academics by using a contemporary term that perhaps might not last. But in the spirit of diversity and inclusion, I am on board. My newest book is titled Latinx Immigrants.

Hispanic, Latin@, Latinx and Latinxs (plural for Latinx) are not perfect terms but for those of us who share in this identity, it is still a matter of personal choice whether we use the broader terms, refer to our ethnic heritage or simply say we are American. I continue to self-identity as Mexican-American and use Latinx in my writing and speaking engagements—and this seems to resonate with my audiences. For journalists, academics, and others, using Latinx suggests greater sociopolitical awareness, and of course, a sense of inclusion of all Latinx persons. From September 15th-October 15th, some of us will celebrate Latinx Heritage Month 2018, but I fully recognize that Hispanic Heritage Month will persist.

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8 comments

  • Freddy A Paniagua September 13, 2018   Reply →

    Excellent contribution to in cross-cutural discussions.

  • Margarita Martinez September 13, 2018   Reply →

    What a great piece and I love the inclusion of your personal story and how you have preferred to be identified. Thank you for writing this!

  • Renee A Middleton September 15, 2018   Reply →

    Excellent contribution! Thank you so much for your personal account and brief, but meaningful history lesson. I plan to share this with our faculty on Monday as we acknowledge Latinx Heritage Month!

  • Jesse N Valdez PhD September 15, 2018   Reply →

    Thanks for sharing your historical perspective Dr. Arredondo. Brings back memories when I started my career as a high school Spanish teacher in Crystal City, Texas. Almost all of my Mexican American students walked out of school in protest against the reality of oppression and denial of our identity. The message was that it is not what we are called but what we do that makes a difference.

  • Patricia M Arredondo September 15, 2018   Reply →

    Thanks to everyone who added their feedback. I am glad this is a valuable contribution.

    I also want to comment about Latin@. People have asked about the pronunciation. According to a sociologist , it is pronounced like “cow’, Latin-ow.

    When I write and speak, I say Latinx, or Latina/o. I have not said “Latin-ow”!

  • Maria del Pilar Grazioso September 17, 2018   Reply →

    Wonderful Patricia and thank you for engaging us in this very relevant dialogue. As someone in Latin America, I do not feel included in either one of the terms. May be we will have to begin reflecting as to whether all these terms are more relevant for those living in the US or abroad or terms to refer to us in Latin America without necessarily being processed through in our 21 countries. I am beginning to be afraid that as in many other situations we will begin ¨copying¨ or importing terms in a ¨western¨ like fashion and we do not process enough to make it culturally relevant to those who live in these 21 countries. All my admiration for your leadership that once again moves us forward. Abrazos

    • Dr. Patricia Arredondo September 18, 2018   Reply →

      Thank you for writing Maria del Pilar. I think this is complicated as you point out. One term to categorize all of this has to remain fluid because as I wrote, we all care about our unique national heritage and gender identity.

      I think we can have a shared and thoughtful discussion to see what emerges about the use of these terms outside of the U.S.

      Best,

      Patricia

  • Maria Tello October 8, 2018   Reply →

    Thank you for this great article. This has been a topic of my children. The surprise for me, is that there is someone else from Lorain, Ohio! I would love to know more about the community. We left when I was four to come to California.

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