Latino or Latinx? The Diatribe of Social Identity in the Latinx Community

Latino or Latinx social identity BELatina Latinx
Photo courtesy of belatina.com

Chances are that, like many of us, you’ve faced a series of wake-up calls regarding your concept of Latinidad, growing up or even as an adult. We talk about labels like “Hispanic” or “Latino,” for example.

However, for many of us, these wake-up calls come when we discover neologisms that include people with Latin American roots, such as “Afro-Latino” or “Latinx,” but with which we don’t identify.

Almost anyone from a Latin American country will tell you that their upbringing and background encouraged them to identify with one of these terms, even if they do not always include pan-ethnic identities.

Moreover, these terms don’t always feel inclusive to those of us who tend to feel more tied to countries, races, and religions than to the actual origin stories of Latinidad.

A reductionist classification

Almost four decades ago, the United States Congress passed Public Law 94-311, which required federal government agencies to use “Hispanic” and “Latino” to categorize Latinos in the United States. Before this time, the U.S. Census Bureau lumped Mexican, Cuban, and Puerto Rican immigrants into the racial category of white. Talk to most Latinas from these areas, and we guarantee they’ll laugh at this given the history of racialized treatment and abuse from actual white people. 

This standard changed in the seventies when activists began to push for a broader, national category that could include Latinos who clearly couldn’t fall into the category (think: Afro-Latinos like Celia Cruz or Asian-Latinos like NASA astronaut Franklin Chang Díaz). 

The mandate proved to be the only time in U.S. history that an ethnic group became a category. Blac, Asian, Americans, and white people had been categorized by the government before but only as racial groups. By grouping Latinos ethnically, Law 94-311 underlined that they are a group made up of a shared language, culture, and heritage.

Today, the federal government’s definitions for race and ethnicity often clash with the way people describe themselves. If you’ve ever struggled to fill out tee ethnicity boxes in government and official forms, you’ll understand the struggle.

An origin that goes beyond language

Pew Research underlined in 2012 that “In its classification system, the federal government recognizes just one ethnic group, Hispanic/Latino, which it defines as follows: A person of Cuban, Mexican, Puerto Rican, South or Central American, or other Spanish culture or origin, regardless of race. The term, ‘Spanish origin,’ can be used in addition to ‘Hispanic or Latino.’”

Still, while perhaps well-meaning, studies have shown that the mandate’s efforts made little impact on the ways in which Latinos living in the United States identify themselves. 

According to Pew Research Center, “a new nationwide survey of Hispanic adults finds that these terms still haven’t been fully embraced by Hispanics themselves.” In fact, the study revealed that, while nearly a quarter of adult Latinos said that they identified themselves as “Hispanic” or “Latino,” “a majority (51%) say they most often identify themselves by their family’s country of origin.” More, the study revealed that twenty-four percent of Latinas admitted to actually preferring to use a pan-ethnic like “Hispanic” or “Latino,” or the term “American.”

If the vernacular history of identity terms is any indication, it is possible we may never find one inclusive word that satisfies all and sticks. After all, changing times and standards for political correctness are genuinely ever-changing.

 Speaking to NPR, David Vazquez (a professor of race and culture studies at American University) underlined that in the Latino community, there’s narrowmindedness that exists in accepting who can identify as Latino. Such exclusions, he explains, are particularly true when it comes to one’s ability to speak or understand Spanish. 

As Vazquez puts it, this policing highlights that for some Latinos, a label related to Latinidad can feel conditional on whether a person can speak Spanish or not. This is despite the fact, as Vazquez points out, that Spanish “is the original language of colonization.” 

While some believe Spanish is a defining factor, some Latinos believe that the language isn’t a standard at all. “Eliminating centuries of a structural approach to language seems to me quixotic,” Ilan Stavans (a professor of Latin American and Latino Culture at Amherst College based in Massachusetts) explained to The Nation in a piece about the global impact of identity terms.

The truth is that, while being lumped into a single category can often cause damage, there is a power to the identity that language and words allow us. Knowledge of social identities can enable us to make sense of how we see ourselves and, in that same way, how we’d like the world to perceive us. Perhaps, when given the room to check multiple boxes and permitted the flexibility of learning whether they fit us or not, we’ll have a better sense of who we are ourselves. Even better: we’ll have a better understanding of the nuances and people who reside in those pockets alongside us.