Of all the weird and grating modern linguistic imperatives, few are weirder or more grating than the attempted imposition of “Latinx.”
A 2018 essay from Time endeavored to explain “Why ‘Latinx is succeeding while other gender-neutral terms fail to catch on,” the author suggesting “the word, which bubbled up from college campuses, has appeal on several levels.” Those “levels” include that it “can feel feminist,” that it “gives people a way to avoid choosing a gender for a group,” and that “the ‘x’ also jibes with LGBTQ politics that have been permeating the culture.”
This helps explain why you’re being offered the opportunity to peruse “28 Gifts Under $50 From Hispanic- and Latinx-Owned Brands” and why Steven Spielberg uttered the following sentence: “First thing I said was every single Shark, boy and girl, needs to come from the Latinx communities.” (He was discussing his remake of West Side Story; otherwise that line would have been really weird.)
And indeed, Latinx is succeeding. Sort of. But only with a very tiny number of brand-awareness managers, HR managers, and media coaches. In other words: Folks who heard it in college—or read about it in the media—and are fully onboard with the imperative of trying to never offend anyone, anywhere.
Elite capture is no small thing, of course, but it is not the whole story. And the whole story suggests that Latinx, despite Time’s triumphalism way back in 2018, is not succeeding. Like, at all. With virtually anyone, anywhere.
A poll out this week from the Democratic firm Bendixen & Amandi shows that “Latinx” has succeeded with almost literally no people who are actually Latinx. “Only 2 percent of those polled refer to themselves as Latinx, while 68 percent call themselves ‘Hispanic’ and 21 percent favored ‘Latino’ or ‘Latina’ to describe their ethnic background,” Politico reported. This finding is consistent with a Pew poll last year that revealed just three percent of Hispanics use the term and only one in four had even heard of it.
Worse yet for the generation of progressives who have marched off of the campus and into the campaign war room, the use of the term is actually a liability this key part of the Democratic coalition: “40 percent said Latinx bothers or offends them to some degree and 30 percent said they would be less likely to support a politician or organization that uses the term.”
This is why Rep. Ruben Gallego—an Arizona Democrat who is not exactly a moderate—forbids his staff from using the term. “To be clear my office is not allowed to use ‘Latinx’ in official communications,” he tweeted after the poll’s release. “When Latino politicos use the term it is largely to appease white rich progressives who think that is the term we use. It is a vicious circle of confirmation bias.”
I’m neither a Democrat nor a Democratic strategist, so my opinion on the politics of “Latinx” are kind of beside the point. My objection to the word is rooted in aesthetics: It is, simply, a remarkably ugly neologism.
Like a brutalist building constructed to house Kafka-esque bureaucracy, “Latinx” prizes function over form, jamming a gender-neutral “x” onto the end of a word that has a history and a form all of its own. There’s something appealing about the gendered Romance languages, an almost lyrical quality to the words. Sure, it drove me nuts in school trying to remember the “el” or the “la,” the “o” and the “a.” But even a (wildly bad) horror movie like The Curse of La Llorona sounds a little more beautiful with that gendered flourish.
The sound of the word is all wrong, and it’s all wrong because “n” and “x” don’t belong next to each other unless Michael Hutchence (RIP) is belting out “New Sensation.” La-teen-ecks sounds like a made up word. Maybe a long-abandoned prequel to the silly-but-under-appreciated Ballistic: Ecks vs. Sever. Every time I entered my local mall through the Nordstrom and saw the sign promoting their Latinx appreciation last month, I wasn’t sure whether to wrinkle my nose or roll my eyes.
As Rep. Gallego hints, but doesn’t quite say, “Latinx” is, essentially, a form of linguistic imperialism, one designed to make progressive white folks more comfortable. Yes, yes, I realize that the term originated in Hispanic academia; if you say that the word was created by white progressives you’ll get plenty of angry responses correcting you. That doesn’t change the fact that its use is far more prevalent among white progressives with a college education than the community it purports to represent.
Look: Individuals who want to call themselves Latinx for whatever reason should have at it. We’re a wild and wonderful world, go nuts with your self-designation. But also: Leave alone the people who prefer to call themselves Hispanic, or Latino, or Latina.
And stop pretending that this is a real label used by a sizable population to define themselves.