Updated: Dec 1, 2020
By Ezra Elias Vivas
Image from Wavell Room
The author of this piece wishes to acknowledge a few things. First, that they were born and raised in the United States, are White, are of Colombian descent, and speak Spanish. Therefore, anything they say about Latinidad, heritage, culture, and ethnicity will be filtered through those lenses. Additionally, the author would like to recognize that Latinidad is a complex, multifaceted identity and experience, and not all viewpoints are, or even can be, addressed in this article. Some Latine people don’t speak Spanish, which doesn’t discredit their ethnic or racial background or heritage at all, and it’s important to keep these people in mind when discussing Latinidad.
Spanish is a Romance language, which means it evolved from Latin. Other examples of Romance languages include French, Romanian, Italian, and Portuguese. In Spanish, words are gendered, masculine and feminine. This gendering of language applies to both animate and inanimate nouns, third-person conjugations of verbs, and the adjectives and adverbs that describe them (with few exceptions). The masculine ending of words in Spanish is “-o,” and the feminine ending is “-a.”
For a lot of nonbinary/genderqueer people, this strict masculine/feminine binary is restrictive and erasing. Additionally, Spanish as a language values masculinity more than femininity; in a room full of 99 Latinas, one Latino entering the room means you have a room full of 100 Latinos.
"In Spanish, the masculinized version of words is considered as gender-neutral. I don't think it's appropriate to assign masculinity as neutral when it isn't," says Afro-Latinx writer Jack Qu’emi. Currently, some organizations use “Latino/a” as a way to include both the masculine and feminine endings of the word. This is a more inclusive way to refer to people of Latin American descent. As in Latin@, especially in a modern era where the @ symbol is used almost daily, albeit, not in this context.
Some people might ask, “Hey, why not just use Hispanic? That doesn’t have a gendered ending at all, and the US government calls it Hispanic Heritage Month.” The thing is, there are some differences. “Hispanic” includes people from Spain, and excludes people from Brazil. It’s difficult to categorize all the people of such a heterogenous ethnic group together, especially since both race and ethnicity are socially constructed, and even categorizing ethnicity in this way is a problem most heavily pondered in the US. And, instead of a Pan-ethnic label at all, many people refer to themselves by their family’s country of origin (sometimes hyphenated with another country; for instance, the author refers to themself as Colombian-American).
In fact, even having “Latin-” as the prefix to refer to our ethnic group has problematic roots, as it prioritizes the Spanish language’s Latin roots over South/Central America’s Indigenous and Black heritage. That’s why many people of Mexican descent, for instance, identify as Chicanx.
This brings us to another attempt to create a more neutral language: an “-e” ending. One of the major criticisms with “Latinx” is that “-x” is not a sound commonly found in Spanish, thus making its pronunciation less intuitive. “Latine,” on the other hand, is easier to pronounce, and falls more in line with the vowel endings that already are present in Spanish. For instance, “teacher” would be “maestra,” “maestro,” or “maestre.” However, it isn’t as well-known, which, while not invalidating it, does mean that people who choose to use it will have to explain its meaning more often.
This article is by no means an exhaustive one. In fact, given the nature of language and the wildly multifaceted experience of Latine people, it’s possible there may never be one single correct solution that makes everyone happy. The argument has been around for a long time, and that’s okay! Just like there’s a dozen ways to say “pen” in Spanish, there will be a dozen ways to express the complex social construct of ethnicity and race. The Spanish language should be just as diverse and unique and ever-changing as our background.
Written by writer Ezra Elias Vivas