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The meaning of the X | Moment's Notice


Last updated 10/22/2021 at 9:51am

X – such a dramatic letter, mysterious, unique. Fewer than 2% of words in the English language use the x, and in Spanish, only words taken from indigenous languages or from English use the x.

The letter “X” is also a linguistic and philosophical tool. It is used to represent something unknown. As we may remember from high school algebra, it is the unknown quantity in mathematical equations. Malcolm X adopted the “X” to represent his unknown ancestral name since slave owners did not allow slaves to name their children.

Today, tech firms embrace the use of the letter to describe its pursuit of evolving technologies and new frontiers, like Google X or SpaceX. And now there is another use – gender neutrality.

“LatinX” has emerged as a term intended to refer to people of Latin American descent, but in a way that is gender-neutral, as opposed to Latino or Latina. 2022 is the first year that Hispanic Heritage Month (which spans Sept. 15 to Oct. 15) was referred to quite often as LatinX Heritage Month by the mainstream media, although it was officially named Hispanic Heritage Month in 1968. (It began as two days of Hispanic heritage recognition, but was finally expanded to a full month in the 1980s.)

It’s remarkable the required effort, considering how long Hispanics have been part of American history (second only to the Native American populations, of course).

In romance languages, like Spanish, grammar declares nouns as masculine and feminine, which does not assign the item a gender but simply an ending to the word and rules for its associated modifiers. Changing the vowel at the end of Latino or Latina to an X feels like an imposition.

Rather than rejecting a linguistic default to the masculine “o,” it is a step away from the Spanish language (and culture), a grammatical challenge to the language itself, and a forced declaration of gender neutrality. In English, the grammatical work towards inclusivity allows individuals to choose their pronouns, gendered or not. Defaulting to LatinX takes away the option to declare gender.

How did we get here?

LatinX versus Hispanic? Latino? Chicana? Latino/a? Each of these terms have entered and (sometimes) exited the lexicon: rejected for being exclusive of certain groups, too restrictive, or even too inclusive, disregarding differences within the cultures.

As a member of a Puerto Rican family, I sometimes use the term Hispanic, but I prefer Latino, Latina, even Latino/a/x. For the most part, no one in my community uses the LatinX, although it is becoming more prevalent among non-Hispanics and by younger Latino/as and activists, especially in the LGBTQ+ space.

The Pew Research Center found that only 3%-5% of those supposedly identified as “LatinX” actually use the term.

While we focus on terminology, though, do the contributions of Latino/a/x’s to our society, past and present, get lost?

Today, America’s Hispanic population makes up nearly 20% of the population and 13% of voters. Despite being part of North America’s history for more than 500 years, the Latino/a/x community in the U.S. is often presented as foreign, as outsiders to American culture and not part of it.

The first permanent, non-indigenous settlement in the country was established by Spanish speakers, not the Pilgrims. Latino/a/x culture offers more than salsa music, tacos, and Roberto Clemente. Hispanics have and continue to contribute to the U.S. economy through spending and tax revenue, and with three of every four Hispanics in America part of the workforce, making it a critical part of our labor force.

I was born in Philadelphia, a proud daughter of Puerto Ricans, who retains barely acceptable Spanish language skills, but not a day goes by that I am not aware of and grateful for my place in a family and a culture that is resilient, hard-working, loving, loyal, passionate, creative, talented, innovative, and so much more.

Hispanic Heritage Month, or LatinX Heritage Month, if you prefer, may be behind us this year, but as I reflect on our community and that persistent X, I begin to understand the appeal.

The X-factor, a phrase used in the U.S. since the 1930s, refers to a quality or person that has a strong but unpredictable influence.

That “X” is accurate for every Latino, Latina, and Latinx I know.


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