An estimated 62.6 million Hispanics live in the U.S. today, accounting for 19% of the nation’s population. Yet, there are debates around what terminology should be used to identify this population, and whether we should have an umbrella term to identify them at all. Commonly accepted terms right now include Hispanic and various forms of Latin-o/x/e — but how do you properly refer to a demographic that spans so many countries and covers so many people?
Coined in the ‘80s by the Census Bureau, the gender-neutral term “Hispanic” refers to Americans of Spanish-speaking descent. But because the definition is based on language, it leaves out Indigenous communities whose ancestors did not speak Spanish, and Brazilians are excluded because their official language is Portuguese.
In the early ‘90s, Northwestern University sociology professor Felix Padilla coined the term, “Latinidad” while studying the cross-over in Chicago’s Puerto Rican and Mexican experiences. Since then, Latinidad has been viewed as a pan-ethnic identity and movement that encompasses the experiences of Latin Americans living in the U.S. Stemming from Latinidad, the U.S. has since used “Latino” in multiple censuses.
Latino, as a male noun, has a feminine counterpart Latina as a noun — but what about people who do not identify in the gender binary? Latinx has been suggested as a mediator, but 2020 Pew research reported that less than a quarter of Hispanic Americans were familiar with the term. Because Spanish is a gendered language, nouns are assigned masculine or feminine articles and gender influences grammar. This makes it difficult to have a gender neutral term that still works in a gender-focused language. The “x” at the end of the word is also not pronounceable in Spanish.
Enter “Latine.” The “e” in Latine is gender neutral and is an ending commonly used in Spanish, reflecting the regular vocabulary used by LGBTQI+ folks in Latin America. For example, rather than saying, “hola amigos” one could say, “hola amigues” without changing the sound of the language.
On our campus, the term Latine is common in academic sources and among students. Isabella Flores, the president of Latinas Unidas, said “I like to use Latine as Latinx is more ‘English,’ like the x isn’t really used in Spanish to indicate gender neutralness.”
The Washington Post’s Samantha Chery said that more young adults are looking for a term that is inclusive as gender neutrality is normalized. “Linguistic purists may decry the newer terms as Americanized bastardizations of Latino culture but no ‘right’ term exists as language evolves,” she said.
The contention that exists over Latinidad, and its various forms, naturally extend to and shape the discourse on the identity debate itself. Historically in the U.S., Latinidad as a movement and identity was forged from the oppression of those of Latin American descent such as Jim Crow laws, which targeted Latine people directly, and the lynchings of Mexicans in Texas. In this context, Latinidad became a point of solidarity for a community struggling to find footing in a new country.
However the experience to make it in the U.S. differs according to race, documentation status, disability status, class, sexuality and gender. In recent years, pushback on Latinidad has come from Afro-Latine, Indigenous-Latine and Afro-Indigenous-Latine academics and activists.
To the Nation, Rosa Clemente, a Black-Puerto Rican academic and former presidential candidate, said, “what happens when you subscribe to the idea of a single Latinidad narrative is you create a monolith — culturally and politically — of an entire continuent when every single community has their own history.”
In an interview with Remezcla, Zapotec academic and cultural critic, Dr. Alan Pelaez Lopez said that Latinidad could “transform not only Latin American people but the world,” if it addressed anti-blackness, sexism, and homophobia and prioritized inclusivity. “But right now, it seems that Latinidad is to be accepted by white United Statians,” they said.
Latine people are not a monolithic group, and since language evolves over time there may never be a singular word that can encapsulate a massive demographic. In recent years the Census Bureau has announced the potential of a 2030 census which would detail both the race and ethnicity of Latine folks in the U.S. — a solution inching towards the specificity Clemente and Pelaez-Lopez advocated for. Until then, the term Latine will serve to create space for all Latine folks, especially those who were once excluded by the “Hispanic” identity label.