The term “Latinx” is an update of traditional labels such as “Hispanic” or “Latin” which emerged around the mid-twentieth century to describe Latin American migrant communities in the US. Aldeide Delgado looks into the implications and opportunities of the new expression, also discovered by the art world.
Guadalupe Maravilla, Motorpsycho, San Antonio, Texas, Luminaria Festival, 2012. Courtesy of the artist.
“Latinx” refers to individuals of Latin American origin who were born, educated or nationalized in the US and who don’t necessarily identify with the gender binary. According to Google trends, the “x” at the end of the phrase initially gained popularity in the LGBTQIA+ community and in academic circles around 2004 in the interest of designating gender diversity. But it was from 2016 onwards that its popularity significantly increased.
The term “Latinx” is an update of traditional labels such as “Hispanic” and “Latino”, which emerged around the mid-20th century to describe Latin American migrant communities in the United States. The – less popular – term “Hispanic” was adopted in the 1970s by the US government authorities to refer to communities whose language and heritage associated them with Spain. Meanwhile, the term “Latino” met greater acceptance in the Latin community and transcended the linguistic barrier by including, from a geographical point of view, the Spanish-speaking but also the Portuguese-speaking groups as well as indigenous dialects. Later, the use of the endings “@”, “e” and “U” in “Latin@”, “Latine” y “LatinU” sought to create an inclusive feminine and masculine space.
“Latinx” – like “Latino” and “Hispanic” – is a socially constructed concept and a product of the marginalizing conditions of the designated community. They are problematic notions in that they assume a homogeneous “Latin” identity. It involves a queerification of “the Latin”, that is, it wants to reveal the crossing of identities that the migratory experience produces as well as to denaturalize the binarism of sex and gender and include other variables such as social class, skin color, ethnicity, sexuality and age in the understanding of being “Latin”. Thus, at the same time, it is both a political positioning and a theoretical construct.
According to Salvador Vidal-Ortiz and Juliana Martínez in their article “Latinx Thoughts: Latin with an X” (2018), the phonetic and visual dissonance produced by the “x” in the term “Latinx” deconstructs the normalization of gender in a linguistic system ideologically and socio-politically marked by androcentrism and heteronormativity. It also demonstrates the complicity of language in the process of naturalization of the devices used for the unequal distribution of resources, rights and opportunities as they relate to gender, race or sexuality. Nevertheless, and even though “Latinx” is proposed as an inclusive cultural category, it is worth asking to what extent it is an efficient terminology to battle the hierarchies of oppression, for example in connection with racism.
In “When it Comes to Latinidad, Who Is Included and Who Isn’t?”, published in 2019 in the online magazine Remezcla, Janel Martinez discusses how members of the Latinx community with greater privileges – whether born in the United States or emigrated from Latin America and the Caribbean – are white, heterosexual, cisgender, rich and healthy men. The closer you are to this ideal, Martinez argues, the greater your opportunities. On the other hand, there is a risk of reducing “Latinx” to people who are sexually diverse or, in other words, to confuse sexual orientation with gender identity by assuming that queer or non-binary people are necessarily gay, lesbian or bisexual (in the opinion of Vidal-Ortiz and Juliana Martínez).
Another argument against the use of the term focuses on its alleged imperialist – or colonial – character from English over the Spanish language. This criticism, which defends the purity of language and its grammatical structure, seems to forget that the implantation of Castilian over indigenous languages was part of the modernity/colonialist enterprise in America. Although the discussion about “Latinx” has gained prominence in the US-American context for political, cultural and economic reasons, Latin America has developed its own strategies for the creation of an inclusive language, for example the use of “x” and “e” in “todxs” and“ todes”. The application of these linguistic solutions neither constitutes a degradation nor the death of the Spanish grammatical system. On the contrary, it is a sign of its adaptability and capacity for transformation in response to social circumstances.
For others, such as California activist Motecuzoma Sanchez (“The Issue with Latinx”, 2019), “Latinx” is an elitist attempt to silence the history of political claims of Mexican-Americans and Puerto Ricans, as well as a distraction intended to divert the attention of other urgent problems that Latinos in the United States face everyday. In the current political scenario, the use of categories such as “Latinx” can appear suspicious in terms of the ghettoization of a growing community in the country and thereby limit this community’s access to institutions rooted in a white, heterosexual and masculine paradigm.
The promotion of a conflicted and diasporic identity, dis-identified not only with the adopted country but also with the country of origin, has made way for “Latinx art”. In an artistic context, “Latinx” comprises a heterogeneous group of artists whose work is marked by migration, multilingualism and creolization and illustrates mixed identities of diverse origin. The reception of “Latinx art” entails recognizing the contributions of these artists to the history of American art, while at the same time generating a space for discussion about the participation policies of Latino communities in the United States.
This happened, for example, in the exhibition Pacha, Llaqta, Wasichay: Indigenous Space, Modern Architecture, New Art, curated by Marcela Guerrero for the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York (July to September 2018), where the work of seven “emerging Latinx artists” (in the words of the museum) was exhibited: William Cordova, Livia Corona Benjamin, Jorge González, Guadalupe Maravilla, Claudia Peña Salinas, Ronny Quevedo and Clarissa Tossin. Also, in January 2019, the Pérez Art Museum Miami (PAMM) organized the Latinx Art Sessions symposium, where the interpretation of “Latinx” was discussed as well as how to create platforms for more visibility and solidarity within the artistic field.
Aldeide Delgado is an independent historian and curator. During 2018 she was a fellow of the School of Art Criticism (INBA-Project Siqueiros) with the support of the Jumex Foundation and PAC. In 2017, she was awarded the Research and Production Critical Essay Grant issued by TEOR/ética. Her interests include gender, racial identity, photography and abstraction in the visual arts. She has given lectures at The New School, CalArts, Miami Spanish Cultural Center, Casa de las Américas and 12th Havana Biennial. She is a contributor to Artishock, Terremoto, C&AL and Art Nexus in Miami.
Translation from Spanish by Zarifa Mohamad Petersen.