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    How the Word ‘Latinx’ Originated

    By Eduardo Morales, Ph.D.–

    A unique aspect of the Spanish language is that all words have a binary gender and are either masculine or feminine. Unlike the English language, where words have no gender references, the Spanish language has a binary gender reference for all words. Hence, words used to refer to inanimate objects like chair, table, water, and air all have a reference to a binary notion of gender.

    Over time, the concept of gender has evolved to be understood as a spectrum, or a broad dimension, rather than a binary notion. Consequently, in attempting to be inclusive of persons who prefer to be in some range of identifying their gender, the challenge is arriving at a word most persons of Latin American descent feel comfortable with while respecting their preference of gender.

    It was during the Nixon administration in the 1970s that the U.S. government determined a need of selecting a word to categorize and identify persons from Latin America. When various groups were asked what they preferred, the word “Hispanic” was the consensus of the time.

    The difficulty in the use of this term today is the reference of being related to the country of Spain and of being conquered. Hence, the term Latino was a preferred term. However, Latino refers to a masculine gender. Interestingly, some persons mostly from the East Coast of the U.S. still use the term Hispanic today.

    Latino/a was then used by many to be inclusive of women, however, this retained a binary notion of gender. The recent challenge has been finding some agreement in the use of a term to broadly identify persons that have Latin American origins. For some communities and organizations, the end result was to use the term “Latinx” in order to be inclusive of the spectrum of gender identities. One can expect the nomenclature, or what words ethnic groups prefer, will change over time as this is an evolving and developmental process. It will take much dialogue with the general Latinx community to understand the need to use “Latinx” at this point in time until other options for nomenclature develop through those discussions.

    Nevertheless, most persons of Latin American origins, when asked how they identify, tend to prefer to use the country of origin of themselves or of their family, rather than to use a broader generic term. There are 33 countries in Latin America and the Caribbean today. However, U.S. governmental entities prefer the use of one term to refer to persons who identify with origins or families of these 33 Latin American countries.

    Numerous studies have examined the social norms and customs of persons from these 33 nations, and they have found some similarities. Most scientists agree that there are a few similar social concepts across these countries. These include familismo (importance of family), simpatía (sense of empathy), personalismo (valuing personal relationships), respeto (respect), machismo, caballerismo (responsibility of a man to family and community), and marianismo (the importance of women to ensure a healthy home and community environment as well as the emotional well-being of family members).

    When it comes to those who identify as LGBTI+, many participants in our program at AGUILAS in San Francisco have identified that coming out to family members is hard for them because they do not want to hurt their family members. This difficulty relates to the concept of protecting their family from being hurt by sharing their sexual identity. The coming out process also has some other differences, especially when they live in the U.S. The cultural stressors they feel are linked to needing to prioritize their allegiances while navigating the various cultural groups they interact with while living in the U.S.  

    In the western region of the U.S., the majority of those who identify as Latinx have Mexican origins. However, in San Francisco City and County the majority of Latinx persons are from Central and South America. This adds yet another layer of customs and traditions originating from various Latin American nations.

    Eduardo Morales, PhD, is of Puerto Rican descent and is one of the founders of AGUILAS, where he serves as Executive Director. He is also a retired Distinguished Professor at Alliant International University and is the current Past President of the National Latinx Psychological Association.

    Published on January 13, 2022