Another Problem for Latinx

Not many Latinos in America use the term. Even fewer elected officials do.

An animation of the word "Latinx" in white on a black background. The word fizzles away.
The Atlantic

Updated at 10:15 a.m. ET on December 6, 2021.

Election Night almost killed Latinx. As results started trickling in, media figures and political strategists struggled to process what they were seeing in Florida and Texas. The “blue wave” that polls had suggested would punish Republicans was instead showing a dramatic shift in Latino-voter support toward the GOP. What could explain this? Democrats’ embrace of “wokeness” and, in this case, use of the term Latinx seemed like an easy target.

Latinx is a gender-neutral way for people of Latin American descent to identify without using labels such as Latino, Latina, and Hispanic, all terms that either abide by the Spanish language’s gender binary or center Latin America’s colonial ties to Spain. But use of the word also challenges people to think differently about pan-ethnic identity and gender. This fall, when I set out to see how popular Latinx is among Latino members of Congress, I expected to find a solid mix of answers. A handful of progressive legislators would surely have embraced the label, and I expected that even more representatives might switch back and forth, deploying it as often as Hispanic or Latino. What I found instead was something less predictable: The term is used on Capitol Hill—but rarely. Legislators and their staff shy away from it, and the word is almost never discussed among the country’s top Latino elected officials, despite outsize attention to it in mainstream media.

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Many Latino politicians would prefer not to talk about the word at all: Elected officials from California, Nevada, New Mexico, and Texas all declined to comment or canceled calls with me after finding out that I would specifically ask about Latinx. Some Latino staffers, whom I granted anonymity because they weren’t authorized to speak to the press, told me that they regularly advise their bosses not to use or discuss the term because of how unpopular it can be. “A lot of my colleagues will advise their bosses against using it when speaking to Spanish-speaking constituencies because it, from what they have perceived, is a creation of white English speakers,” a Latino Democratic congressional aide told me.

That not many Latino legislators, who skew older and moderate, use a term championed in academia and the activist left isn’t completely shocking, but it does reflect a larger truth about Latinos in the United States: Few know of Latinx, and even fewer use it. This fact doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s a useless identifier, but it does suggest that embracing it might entail more risks than many politicians are willing to take, as both major political parties are struggling to understand the country’s largest minority.

The unexpected losses for Democrats in 2020 became more obvious in the weeks after Election Day: Joe Biden underperformed in majority-Latino parts of Florida and Texas, and Democrats in red and blue states bled Latino votes. A tweet from Representative Ruben Gallego of Arizona lambasting Democrats’ usage of Latinx went viral (“start by not using the term Latinx,” he proposed). The writer Matt Yglesias called the worda symptom” of progressive Democrats’ disconnect with working-class voters. Conservative commentators used the word to mock liberals. If a media critic wants to attack outlets that are trying to be more inclusive, or a pundit wants to try to explain Latinos’ shift toward Republicans, Latinx serves as a convenient bogeyman. Ahead of the 2022 midterms and amid signs of weakening Democratic support across the board (including among Latinos in Virginia), Democrats seem warier than ever of making any blunders in their messaging to Latino communities—including by using Latinx.

Though championed by many academics and activists over the past decade, Latinx doesn’t have a simple origin story. Some historians trace its usage to protests across Latin America in the 1990s, when activists would cross out the o in gendered words (unidxs versus unidos, Mexicanxs versus Mexicanos). Others have recorded it as far back as Latin American feminist protests in the 1970s. Academics and leftists on Twitter have claimed that the term originated in trans communities in Brazil or Puerto Rico, but concrete evidence is hard to come by. A more commonly accepted starting point comes around 2000, when the term began to pop up on early forms of social media, personal blogs, and message boards used by queer Latinos, around the same time that usage of other gender-inclusive terms such as Latin@ and Latino/a was cresting. But just about every historian and sociologist I spoke with rejects the idea that it was a term created by white elites and pushed onto the average person.

After gaining traction in the early 2000s among Latin American scholars, the word made its first appearance in U.S. academic publications in 2014, when it was used in a special issue of the American Studies Association’s American Quarterly, G. Cristina Mora, a sociology professor at UC Berkeley who has researched Latinx’s usage, told me. That year marked the start of a new spike in search queries for the term; it first appeared in Google Trends around 2004, and an array of academic and activist outlets began to publish it in 2015: In a recent research paper, Mora cites “a Green Party report, an opinion piece in Inside Higher Ed, and a student newspaper at Columbia University” as being among the first places to print the word. The Atlantic first used it in fall 2015, reporting on campus protests at Amherst College. In November of that year, the student newspaper at Swarthmore College published a widely shared op-ed criticizing the newly prominent word. Hispanic and Latino spread differently: In the 1970s, Latino civic leaders lobbied to use Hispanic in the 1980 census, and Spanish-language media, such as Univision, began to popularize the term. Because of the label’s Spanish roots, activists later pushed the government to use a more inclusive term to apply to all people of Latin American origin regardless of language spoken, and Latino was introduced in the 2000 census.

Usage of Latinx skyrocketed in 2016 after a mass shooting at Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida. Many of the victims and survivors of the attack used Latinx to describe themselves, so news report after news report adopted the word, and search queries simultaneously jumped. Over the next two years, more publications began to use it: The New York Times first published it in 2017, and in 2018 and 2019, respectively, the Merriam-Webster and Oxford English dictionaries added entries for it online. The Associated Press added the word to its stylebook in 2019.

The term began to cross over into progressive organizing and activism around this time. It made its mainstream debut during the 2020 Democratic presidential primary; progressive politicians such as Julián Castro and Elizabeth Warren deployed Latinx in debates, interviews, and speeches, and Univision anchor Jorge Ramos used the word in the opening remarks of a Democratic debate. A Pew Research Center survey of Latino legislators’ social-media accounts found that from 2015 to 2020, the share of lawmakers who used the term in any kind of post had risen from 2 percent to a quarter of all elected members. Latino Democrats in Congress were the most likely to have used the term.

But fewer than a quarter of all Latinos in the U.S. have heard of Latinx, and just 3 percent report using the term themselves. These findings, published by Pew around the same time that media outlets were reporting on poor Democratic outreach to Latinos, were central to criticisms of progressives after the election, and still resonate in the minds of many of the staffers and legislators I spoke with. These Capitol Hill occupants told me that they have refrained from using the term in most cases, whether in Washington or back home with their constituents, to avoid adding to a sense that elites are pressuring the average Latino to adopt a term that they don’t want to use.

When I asked Ruben Gallego to reflect on the kind of feedback he’s gotten in the year since tweeting that Democrats shouldn’t use the term, he told me that it’s been mostly positive. “I was not alone in my frustration about it,” he said. “Once I said it, I think a lot of people felt that they could also state their frustration with it. Especially older Latinos, and Latinos in general, just don’t use that term.”

That mood was repeated in many of my conversations. “Nobody, in general, in my district uses that term,” Representative Teresa Leger Fernández of New Mexico told me. Representative Raul Ruiz of California, the chair of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, told me that the 38-member organization still prefers to use Hispanic or Latino, and members rarely use Latinx with one another or their constituents. “I don’t see it having a critical mass at all,” he said. “The vast majority of people I speak to, hardworking—working-class Latinos and Latinas—really don’t make it an issue.”

The legislators and staffers I spoke with all arrived at a similar conclusion: Use the word when your audience calls for it, or when making a targeted campaign push, but don’t go out of your way to champion it. “One should not be pressured to identify themselves in one way or the other,” Fernández said. “The way you identify evolves over time. In my instance, I grew up Chicana, as my father was very active in Chicano politics, in social-justice and racial-justice issues. That’s the term we used and that was a term you used if you were Mexican American.”

Fernández, whose family has lived in New Mexico for generations, touched on an important theme in debates over Latinx: Although language always adapts to accommodate changes in culture and everyday life, so does identity—especially the kind of pan-ethnic identity that labels such as Hispanic, Latino, and Latinx reinforce. The idea of a national Hispanic or Latino community is a relatively recent invention that picked up steam only after Mexican, Puerto Rican, and Cuban civic leaders in the 1970s began to lobby the U.S. Census Bureau to distinguish data collected about Spanish-speaking residents of Latin American descent from data about the general white population. The effort was meant to build power among these communities, which could accomplish more together than as disparate ethnic groups and could in turn receive commitments from the government, Mora, the author of the book Making Hispanics, told me.

The same Pew study that sparked criticism of Latinx in 2020 found that although most Latinos prefer Hispanic to Latino or Latinx, about half prefer to be identified by their country of origin or nationality first—a fact commonly understood by those of us who call ourselves Latino or Hispanic. Other polls have found that most Latinos just don’t care what pan-ethnic term they’re called, and, more generally, that non-Latinos and Latinos alike might not care enough to learn about Latinx. A recent Atlantic/Leger survey found that a plurality of Americans polled either don’t know enough about the Latinx debate (22 percent) to have an opinion or have no opinion about the word (17 percent).

Today’s discussions about using Latinx parallel many prior debates over using terms such as Chicano, Hispanic, and Latino: Mora’s research from the ’70s and ’80s found that it was younger, second-generation Latino Americans who felt the most loyalty to these pan-ethnic labels. The same category of people embrace Latinx today, and are more generally the kind of young people who could be considered “woke.”

Speaking on Real Time With Bill Maher earlier this year, Senator Alex Padilla of California responded to Gallego, saying he has flashbacks to these earlier debates when thinking about Latinx. “Latinx, look, for the younger generation especially, it is purposeful. It is more than just symbolic. In the Spanish language, you have feminine versus masculine nouns, and the move to Latinx is one way of saying, ‘You know what, if we’re all equal, let’s let our language reflect that.’” Ruiz, the Congressional Hispanic Caucus chair, echoed this sentiment to me, saying that these conversations about identity should happen because “we should be sensitive about how we use our language so that our language reflects who we are in society.”

Still, Latinx may never pick up the same kind of popularity that Latino and Hispanic have today. Whether because more traditional Latinos reject it in favor of existing terms; because progressives move to the more natural-sounding Latine, a different gender-neutral variation used in many Latin American countries; or because the salience of pan-ethnic identities continues to erode, the term may go the way of Chicano and find itself limited to academia and some forms of activism. Mora told me that she thinks Latinx could survive in the mainstream if a state agency, such as the U.S. Census Bureau, formalizes it in official government forms and services, or if more candidates who win elections use it in their everyday work. Both changes seem unlikely in the short term. Outside of politics, the word’s rapid adoption by media outlets and brands has boosted its usage, but has also lent fuel to the feeling that the label is an elite fabrication being pushed onto regular people, as Gallego argues, or that it is simply another manifestation of woke liberalism or woke capitalism, as some conservatives argue.

For Mora and other academics I spoke with, the nuance missing from all of these analyses is that pan-ethnicity, race, and nationality aren’t mutually exclusive, and Latinidad is an evolving concept: It is not a racial category, but it is made up of people who have historically faced racial discrimination. Someone can be both Cuban American and Hispanic, or both Mexican American and Latinx—as well as any combination of races. Politicians and political movements tend to flatten cultural identity and regional differences in the quest to forge solidarity among disparate communities and build coalitions; the fact that Latinos have diverse cultural, national, and political identities is the most obvious explanation for how they voted in 2020. But the tension between acknowledging difference and building solidarity isn’t new: It’s the exact challenge Latino activists and aspiring political leaders have been navigating for decades.

This article originally misnamed G. Cristina Mora's book.