This article was written by J. Alfonso Carrillo-Lundgren on behalf of the Board of the Organization of Latino Actuaries (OLA).
In recent years, the term “Latinx” has emerged as an alternative label describing those in the U.S. population who trace their ethnic roots back to Latin America or Spain. Although the term has been widely used in the media and by corporations, organizations, governments and higher education institutions, it still is not widely adopted within the Latino community. According to a Pew Research Center survey conducted in 2019, only about 1 in 4 U.S. Hispanics have heard of Latinx, and just 3 percent use it.1
From our perspective at the OLA, the term “Latinx” sparks debate within the community. There is no broad consensus around the acceptance of the term, and while some of the debate is healthy, other aspects are rooted in unconscious bias. However, when researching for this article, we learned new things about the context around the term, its origins and the views from both those who champion and oppose the label. We’ll caveat that our views in this article are limited, and we are not claiming to be end-all experts on the broad Latino community. But, hopefully, reading some of the things we learned can provide useful insights on this important topic.
Nowadays, the predominant labels used to refer to our community in the United States are “Hispanic” and “Latino.”
“Hispanic” is a term that was created by the U.S. government in the 1970s for the census. Before that, all Hispanics were categorized as “Mexican.” It took several decades for Latin Americans to start accepting the term “Hispanic” as an identifier because many prefer the specificity of their countries of origin (Nicaraguan, Puerto Rican, Colombian, etc.). “Hispanic” became more widely accepted in the 1990s and is common today, but some see shortcomings in its usage. For instance, Spaniards are included as “Hispanic” while Brazilians are not. Second, the U.S. government created the term, which feels imposing and lacks self-determination.
The term “Latino” was created in response to these criticisms as a way to tie the term to Latin America (and include Brazilians) instead of Spain. It solves some of the immediate problems of “Hispanic,” but if you look below the surface, you’ll learn that Latin America’s name was popularized by Napoleon III’s efforts to colonize Mexico to compete with the British empire. There are parts of the community calling for latinidad (the belonging and association with the “Latino” label) to be canceled. The ask from these members of the community is to stop using Latino/x/a/e labels to describe such a large group of people who span every race, speak hundreds of different languages, encompass various communities and have had many historical conflicts with one another.
The historical concept is particularly interesting when considering the nuances of the different ethnic labels. It also illustrates something else: acceptance, usage and adoption of different terms and labels have evolved, and it is clear they will continue to evolve as time goes on.
The Gender Construct and the Emergence of Latinx
To understand where Latinx originated, it is important to learn a basic characteristic of Latin-derived languages (e.g., Spanish, French, Portuguese and Italian). These languages use a gender construct for most nouns, pronouns, adjectives and articles. In Spanish, for instance, typically nouns ending in “o” denote masculinity, nouns ending in “a” are feminine and those ending in “e” are neutral.
For example, Latino is a masculine noun and Latina is a feminine noun. “Latinos” is the male plural or the plural for a group that contains Latino males, Latino females and nonbinary people within the community. Generally, in the Spanish language when talking about a collective of individuals, the masculine nouns tend to be used as a default to describe the group. Referring to Latinos of any gender as “Latino” is an example of that.
There are conflicting sources on the origins2 of the term “Latinx.” Some say the term was born in the late 1900s in Brazil and throughout Latin America during protests in favor of women’s and trans rights that challenged the patriarchy by crossing out the “o” in Latino. Crossing out the “o” is a critique of the language itself for using a gendered male term for mixed groups, and it opposes the view that male is the norm. The term “Latinx” resurfaced in the early 2000s in academic circles as a nonbinary label encompassing women and nonbinary individuals within the community. Since then, the term has been primarily used in academic circles for the last couple of decades.
Its mainstream use surfaced relatively recently (within the past five years). In part, this resulted from mass media usage following the Pulse shooting in 2016 (Pulse is a gay Latinx bar in Orlando, where the term Latinx is accepted).3 “Latinx” is a well-intentioned mechanism to add nonbinary and queer friendliness to how we refer to the entire community, but it is not widely adopted by the Latino community itself.
Which Term Should Be Used?
The challenge with this (and any label) is that some portion of a community will adopt or reject the term. With a group as diverse as the Latino community—many different races, a number of languages and dialects, varying education levels, multiple generations, and both first-generation U.S. citizens and families that have been in the United States for many generations—finding one label is not a simple task.
Should you use the term Latinx? It depends. Generally, you will find that the term is more widely accepted by younger generations (late millennials and Gen Z), queer Latinos, non-Spanish speakers and second- or later-generation immigrants. Conversely, Spanish speakers, older generations and more recent immigrants tend to reject the term. Here are some of their core arguments:
- The origin of “Latinx” was an attempt to create a genderless term to define the population, thus making it more inclusive for Latinas and nonbinary people in the community.
- Younger generations of Latinos are more likely to identify as part of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer or questioning (LGBTQ) community than members of any other racial/ethnic group in the United States. This section of the population is more likely to support language that intends to be inclusive for gender nonconforming and nonbinary individuals.
- Those who graduated from college within the past five years have seen the term increasingly used by campus organizations, professional associations and employers during recruitment, so it feels familiar.
- As constructed, the term “Latinx” goes against phonetic and structure rules in the Spanish language. While the term may work in English, a big part of the rejection is the use of an anglicized term to define the community.
- Arguably, using Latinos (plural) in Spanish is inclusive of all genders.
- In Spanish-speaking countries, the term “Latine” has been slowly adopted as a nonbinary alternative to Latino/Latina, which makes using an anglicized term seem unnecessary.
- Particularly within older generations, there are biases against nonbinary language and individuals, which strengthens the rejection.
- For older generations, the term is relatively new and has not gained traction. The factors causing this segment of the community to reject the term make it harder to have people identify with the term and have slowed its adoption.
- Many Latin Americans do not know the origin of the term and mistakenly believe it came from white Americans (perhaps having heard the term from white folks first instead of queer Latines). Therefore, they feel imposed upon.
In the opinion of the OLA, using Latinx, Latine, Latin Americans, Latino/Latina, Latino or Latinos in English are all acceptable. We acknowledge there is no consensus, and challenges will persist regardless of which term you use. When discussing this with the community, including some of us who engage in efforts promoting inclusion, diversity and equity within the profession, we found we all tend to slightly cater to the audience, and we use different terms under different circumstances. For example, a lot of the OLA’s programming has been focused on younger demographics—who tend to more widely accept the term Latinx—so we sometimes use that term in pieces intended for that audience.
In other forums, we may use the traditional “Latino” or “Latinos” terms. Other alternatives include using “Latino community” (the label falls on the community, not the individual) or simply using “Latin Americans.” We believe Hispanic tends to be less favored, and one of the primary objections against it is that it excludes Portuguese or French-speaking Latinos. Sometimes, in forums that rely on other statistical studies and census data, the term “Hispanic” may be necessary, but in those cases, we believe it is fair to footnote to an appropriate extent that findings may relate to the Latino community as a whole.
For what it is worth, in discussions among ourselves regarding these terms, some OLA board members felt encouraged to use “Latine” more frequently—despite admitting that folks may be confused using that term in an official capacity. Either way, we expect language and labels to continue to evolve.
Beyond the Labels
Labels are important, and their impact is felt personally by individuals when those terms are meant to represent a wide portion of the population. Although the term Latinx has not been as widely adopted, we don’t believe it is a term that has no level of acceptance within the community. Some of us embrace the inclusivity of Latine and Latinx, and that continues to grow. Nowadays, using “Hispanic or Latino” is more prevalent and keeps with the status quo, but we hope we have provided nuance to the conversation and positive reasons for their use.
Beyond the labels, it is important to recognize that, at an individual level, you should refer to someone by the terms they choose and not impose a term that is foreign to them. The question of what terms to use for large, mixed groups of people can be answered by some of what we have included in this article.
A personal note from the writer, who had a lot of great discussions with other OLA board members when preparing this article:
I am a proud queer man born and raised in Mexico City, a fellow of the Society of Actuaries (SOA) and an individual passionate about the power of diversity and the importance of equity and inclusion. If you ask me, I prefer you call me Latine, but I will happily take Latinx (and Latino and Hispanic as well). At the end of the day, although the label matters, what is important to me is that you see me and those in my community as individuals and that you understand some of the challenges we face to gain inclusion into our professions. If you ultimately use the term Latinx to highlight those obstacles and the actions we can all take to remove some of those barriers, I believe the majority of us within the Latino community will focus more on the substance of those actions rather than on the label you use.
Statements of fact and opinions expressed herein are those of the individual authors and are not necessarily those of the Society of Actuaries or the respective authors’ employers.
- 1. Noe-Bustamante, Luis, Lauren Mora, and Mark Hugo Lopez. About One-in-Four U.S. Hispanics Have Heard of Latinx, but Just 3% Use It. Pew Research Center, August 11, 2020 (accessed August 26, 2021). ↩
- 2. Preza, Claudia. Latino, Hispanic, and Latinx: What the Terms Mean and How to Use Them. Readers Digest, August 23, 2021 (accessed August 26, 2021). ↩
- 3. Brammer, John Paul. Digging Into the Messy History of “Latinx” Helped Me Embrace My Complex Identity. Mother Jones, May/June 2019 (accessed August 26, 2021). ↩
Copyright © 2021 by the Society of Actuaries, Schaumburg, Illinois.