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  • "Latinx" is an increasingly popular gender-neutral identifier among Latin American communities. | Photo: Facebook / Connie Fiorella Studio

Published 17 May 2017
In an exclusive interview with teleSUR, queer activist Alba Onofrio explains how "Latinx" is resistance against gendered and colonial domination.

In the prismatic world of identity politics, where oppressed and colonized peoples from the world over take on new ways of identifying and relating to one another, expunging power from the hands of the oppressors, comes the term "Latinx."

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While "Latinx" began in the nebulous world of online communications, people from all over the United States coming to identify with the term that expresses Latin American identity in a gender-inclusive way. With its use, trans and gender-nonconforming people from the Latin American diaspora are smashing the gender binary, which posits people as either man or woman.

As the momentum harpoons its way south to Latin America, "Latinx" is also raising questions about the gendered nature of Spanish language.

On the International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia and Transphobia, teleSUR interviews Alba Onofrio — a queer community organizer at Soul Force, and an ordained pastor from North Carolina, U.S. —  to clear up the uncertainty around the term, as well as how it came to prominence, the critiques against it and why it’s a far better alternative for inclusively identifying people from Latin American than both "Latino" and "Hispanic."

teleSUR: Where does the term Latinx originate from and when did it come to prominence?

Alba Onofrio: As with most things that are controversial and that kind of appear … we don’t know. It seems to have started in community and specifically online. My experience of it — the only thing that I can speak to — I was in the academy, around 2013 or 2014, that’s when it started really picking up speed. At the same moment (people began) working from a queer perspective, de-gendering all the things that are gendered, and people began using gender-neutral pronouns — like not just sticking to he and she.

For those of us in the Latinx community, it’s trying to find ways to be clear about who we are ethnically, like, being really proud of our Latin American identity while at the same time recognizing those of us who are female-assigned, that Latina or Latino already genders us or someone else.

And so, from my experience of a decade of (doing) immigrants right work, with queer or trans folks in North Carolina and then in Divinity school, with a crew of academic, queer people who were studying philosophy and religion and queer studies, everyone had been churning for a long time about what to use.

From the early 2000s to around 2012, I had always seen people in our immigrant community use the arroba (@) … that was really inclusive and I actually really liked it. I think it’s really cute how it combines the "o" and the "a," and when you say Latinoa, you have both of them in there. But a lot of folks I would talk to … in the academy, with philosophers, what we would talk about, is that it still reinforces an either/or kind of dynamic. Feminists were still really frustrated that the arroba still has the 'o' encompassing the 'a' … and so that didn’t sit quite right.

Immigrant folks, first gen(eration) folks, we’re trying to talk about ourselves … and so particularly for folks who are gender-nonconforming, or trans, or people who are at least aware of that and wanting to be thoughtful of how we gender things — (especially because) in Spanish so much of our shit leans towards the masculine, like we default to the "o" in almost everything — we were wanting to resist that.

So it’s resistance to what feels like oppression to us, what feel likes domination, of being forced into two boxes.

Particularly queer people, people paying attention to the scholarship on the culture around queerness and masculinity and feminism, young people in particular learning about that, (were realizing), like, yeah, that’s real, that impacts my life. And also maybe I’m straight, but I’m feminist, and I don’t want to use the word Latino to describe myself or my people because it’s masculine.

In the same way, people who use queer instead of lesbian or gay (use it because) it gives bigger space and has a political orientation. Like, “I'm not trying to fit into this category or that category.” Instead, they are embodying an "otherness," like, “We are queer and we have a critique of the system, and we want to be entirely different and not just let in.” That’s the same thing I hear happening with Latinx. Having the "x" is a way of acknowledging that politicization, even in writing it. It’s like, “Fuck the binary, I won’t participate in that.” I’m not gonna take part in your "o" or "a," you can't make me choose.

So it’s resistance to what feels like oppression to us, what feel likes domination, of being forced into two boxes.

What has been the backlash against the term and for what reasons? Are there any reasoned critiques against it?

The most valid reason I hear is that it’s really hard to say. (In Spanish), Latinx is super common, as a word, but people will switch back to gendered endings when they’re talking in regular speech.

So the critique from Spanish speakers is that it's hard to say, not that word (itself), but using "x" in place all of the "os" and the "as" at the end of words. (But) in writing I see it all the time and I love it.

In written communication, what all online platforms are, it’s super great. It’s super immediately recognizable as that resistance. And when you see all those "xs" on the page … it reminds me how often things are gendered.

And so now I use Latinx because the community has decided. Last year I switched over and said, that’s cool, that’s how language works.

I haven't heard it work out in Spanish verbal communication, but people have been using "le" as a gender neutral pronoun and I’ve also seen people use "e." So instead of hermano or hermana, it would be, like, hermane … where "x" is on the paper but makes the sound of an "e." But I don’t know if people who speak with an "e" would write with an "e" or write with an "x."

I’ve been really impressed with badass translators who have really incorporated it in how they speak Spanish and it’s very fucking cool.

Also, when I’ve been to conferences and I see people with stickers of what gender pronouns they use, I've seen a lot of them use the Spanish "le" and that is a cool one that is really specific to the LGBT community.

Can you talk about your journey in identifying with the term? Why do you think the term is important?

When young folks (started using) Mx., like in English when we use Mr. or Mrs., (the x) would mark that you don’t want Mr. or Mrs., that was a way people really started messing with the gender binary. So people in community, we were actively having conversations around like, “Why do you like the arroba or the 'x,' which one do you like better?” and “Why do you like it this way?” I liked the arroba because I could say it. I could speak it and because I do most of my Spanish in speaking and not writing form, I preferred that for a long time.

But what has just happened over the last couple of years, like I would say two years even … "x" has been chosen by community, and how language starts, is that people start using or misusing something. Just like in 2015, "they" as a singular, one-person pronoun was the word of the year by English grammaticians in England. For me, that was a really important moment because people said stuff like, “That’s improper, that’s not how you say it,” but grammaticians said that we recognize that the people have taken it up, and now it has a new meaning.

So Latinx as a parallel is a similar kind of thing. On social media platforms, in people’s writings, on blog posts, people just started choosing "x" over and over again. And so now I use Latinx because the community has decided. Last year I switched over and said, that’s cool, that’s how language works.

Is it gaining ground in Latin America? What are some of the challenges in making the term more widespread?

Well, we’ve just been working with a translator from El Salvador last year, and (we were) having the same conversation here — (that) some people use @ and some people use "x" and then she dialed in. In the early 2000s, I was seeing the @ everywhere in Latin America, (especially) in the queer community, and she was, like, nope, I mostly see people here using the "x."

I don’t know a lot of its use in Latin America but my sense of it is that a lot of people using it in this country (the United States) are first generation, or people with deep ties to Latin America, so I think it swerves back and forth. To be real, most people in Latin America don’t even fuck with the idea of being Latino — they’re like, “I’m Salvadoreno” or “I’m Colombiana” — that term isn’t even relevant until people come to the U.S. My experience in working with lots and lots of immigrant folks, is that it’s a new experience coming here, where all people from Latin America are grouped together and called Latino or Hispanic

So it’s already a strange thing and in Latin America I’d imagine … if you were savvy about internet and stuff like that, and you’re on those online platforms, and you’re seeing U.S. people use Latinx, or you’re really politicized in your country … I think it’s more queer people in those countries that are looking for ways to get out of the gender binary that would be excited about the Latinx stuff.

Hispanic ... not only categorizes based on our colonizer and the violence done to our people, but it also divides our people in terms of racial breaks.

But the whole thing of Latino, Latina doesn’t translate well … it’s not relevant in that way. “Are you india, are you negra, are you blanca?” Like, that’s within a country and then once you leave that country it’s like, “Oh, are you Guatemalan? Are you Haitian?” And so I really think it’s centered in the U.S. ‘cause it’s here we have all these first generation, second generation people (that are) trying to connect to our own identity. But we’re not specifically in the motherland, and a lot of us are queer, so we look for things to describe ourselves.

Can you speak to the term Hispanic and how Latinx differs from it?

Ugh, God, I hate that word so much. Hispanic didn't even exist until the U.S. government created it to be able to find information on us for the U.S. census. I think it might be Reagan — like I’m talking the 80s — we didn't exist until the U.S. government made a name for us. And Hispanic, meaning, being derived from Spain or Española, includes Spain and Portugal as well as all the places colonized within. And for me the idea of having an entire people — we’re talking about dozens and dozens of Indigenous tribes and many, many, many races all throughout the color spectrum, we’re talking about thousands and thousands of square miles of land — and the way that we name all of those people is by who colonized us? Like literally, who came to our land, raped our women, enslaved our people — and you’re gonna make my identity connected to that? And include Spain and Portugal in that? Hell no, like fuck that all the way down.

The idea that you could group an entire people by a language leaves out Brazil, which is stupid because Brazil has as many people as most of the other countries in Latin America put together except maybe for Mexico, so it’s, like, you're taking out 40 percent of us who speak a different language. It cuts out mostly Black people if we're going to be really real, (many of whom are from) Brazil.

It’s just fucked up in all its ways — it’s fucked up that the U.S. government tried to categorize us as not white. And now, it’s switched from being a racial category to being an ethnicity, so we still have to fucking pick white, or Black, or Indigenous, which really is just a tool for the U.S. government to be able to create more white people. Because most people I know, unless they’re specifically of African descent, if they're not Dominican, if their skin is not black — they identify as white, no matter how dark they are. That’s because in our countries, most people who are Black either have African descent or Indigenous descent and everybody else is white because of white supremacy.

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And so I get really pissed about the whole Hispanic thing because it not only categorizes based on our colonizer and the violence done to our people, but it also divides our people in terms of racial breaks.

And so I don't believe in that Hispanic word at all, but I think for white-aspiring Latinx people it feels softer. Like, it was intentionally created by whiteness, where “I’m Hispanic” means “I’m cultured,” which means “I’m closer to Europe,” which means “I’m closer to whiteness and I shouldn't be treated as badly.”

So it feels like politicized people, people who have a political analysis around colonization, around power, around racism, as a people, entirely reject that word. And Latino, that was the grassroots alternative, much more from the people, and a way of trying to describe ourselves as an American. It’s still fucked up because its homogenizing all those different people from all of those different cultures, and all those different dialects, and all those different tribes — which is harmful for a lot of people — but as a political strategy it's still less violent than Hispanic. And so Latinx is, like, it makes sense that people are pushing (Latino) farther.

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