Welcome to Race on Campus. College campuses help drive cultural change, including in the language we use. This week, we explore how academics and students are pushing the term “Latinx” into the lexicon. And don’t worry: There are also practical tips about when and how to use the term.

If you have ideas, comments, or questions about this newsletter, write to me: fernanda@chronicle.com.

The Debate Over ‘Latinx’

If you read this newsletter, you’ve probably heard the word “Latinx.” It’s used on diplomas to name majors, it’s emblazoned on campus cultural centers, and it’s how some students and instructors identify their ethnicity.

Spanish, like other Romance languages, is gendered, meaning that some words, like the commonly used “Latino” and “Latina,” are considered masculine or feminine. The term “Latinx” (pronounced Latin-EX or La-TEEN-ex) refers to Latin American people or those of Latin American descent without specifying gender, and it’s used instead of “Latino” or “Latina.” (“Hispanic” is often seen as an inadequate term because it’s tied to Spanish colonizers.) Using an “x” instead of an “a” or an “o” includes those who identify as transgender, gender-fluid, or nonbinary, proponents say.

But the term, which emerged in the early 2000s, is not universally embraced. Some critics in South America say that the word is “Mexicanized,” because the “x” is often used in Nahuatl and other Native Mexican languages. Others say it phonetically excludes Portuguese speakers, who pronounce “x” in at least four different ways. And some people just don’t like change.

Academics, students, and activists are often the tectonic plates that drive these lexical shifts. New words start as oddities. Blink once, and they’re everywhere. “Latinx” and its use are evolving as you read this newsletter. How do you keep up?

A Gradual Adoption

Don’t debate whether you or your institution should or shouldn’t use “Latinx.” Instead, try to understand why people use the word, says Nelson Flores, an associate professor of educational linguistics at the University of Pennsylvania. The words we choose are political, he says. Sometimes a language can seem to invalidate certain people, such as those who identify as nonbinary or transgender. In an email, Flores writes that using “Latinx” acknowledges debates that challenge the gender binary and shows solidarity with nonbinary and transgender individuals in Latin America who lead such political struggles in the community.

Flores started using the term a few years ago, he says, thanks to his students, who were connecting their vocabulary to their broader political experiences and beliefs. Slowly, he began to use “Latinx” to identify himself.

He likened the gradual adoption of “Latinx” to his use of the word “queer.” When Flores was in college, “queer,” describing sexual orientation or gender, was mostly used in academic and activist circles, but was considered on the lexical fringe. Fast-forward several years, and in 2016 the word "genderqueer" was added to Merriam-Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary. The verdict is still out on whether “Latinx” will become just as popular, Flores says.

Cristobal Salinas Jr., an associate professor of higher-education leadership at Florida Atlantic University, began to notice in 2015 that other scholars at conferences would refer to him as “Latinx.” But people used the word without defining it. Salinas says he specifies that he uses the pronouns “he” and “him,” and so he was confused at being labeled “Latinx” instead of “Latino.”

When he researched the term, he found that some people use “Latinx” to make a political statement. He also found that some students instead use “Latine” or “Latinu” to resist “Latinx” in their communities. Those who rejected “Latinx” said it was a term used by academics to colonize Latin American people.

When Can You Use ‘Latinx’?

In a paper published in the Journal of Hispanic Higher Education, Salinas wrote that the definition of “Latinx” depends on how an individual understands and uses it. That’s why it’s important for people to define “Latinx,” especially in academic settings such as a presentation or a paper, he says.

Want to use “Latinx” with students or colleagues, but don’t want to catch someone off guard or misuse the word? Just ask how the people you’re talking about identify and what words they prefer, Salinas says.

But going back and forth over whether to use the word can get you only so far. Roberto Orozco, a doctoral candidate in higher education at Rutgers University at New Brunswick, says he understands the questions about using the term but notes there are bigger issues at stake than debates over terminology.

“We’re such a multifaceted community, in terms of the Latinx community, that we’re never going to get to a place where this is a term that we’re all using,” Orozco says. “What’s important is for folks to name why they’re choosing to use that.”

Using “Latinx” is a starting point to call out homophobia and transphobia in Latin American communities, and in society at large, Orozco says. It also acknowledges queer and trans voices that have historically been silenced. On his social-media profiles and in his writing, he identifies as “Latinx/a/o,” putting the letters for gender-nonbinary people and women before the “o” that signifies men.

When colleges want to use “Latinx” for a degree program or a cultural center, there are a few things to consider. A big one: intersectionality.

Ángel Gonzalez, an Ed.D. candidate in community-college leadership at San Diego State University and a graduate research associate at the American Council on Education, says that if colleges want to replace a degree-program or campus-center name with “Latinx,” instead of “Hispanic” or “Latino/a,” administrators should first listen to students to see if they want such a change.

The switch can’t be in name only, Gonzalez says. Centers and programs that use “Latinx” should offer intersectional courses or resources that cover, among other topics, race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, and different abilities, he says.

Last year the Hispanic/Latinx Student Union at Florida State University changed its name from the Hispanic/Latino Student Union, says Adela Larramendi, a biomedical-engineering junior and director of the organization. At the time, many of the group’s board members were already using the word “Latinx” unofficially in its name, she says. The organization serves the entire student body, including those who don’t identify with a gender and students of Latin American descent who don’t speak fluent Spanish, Larramendi says.

The “x” serves as a catchall. “Latinx” is easier to pronounce in English than “Latine,” “Latinu,” or other alternatives, she says. And dropping the masculine form, “Latino,” takes a stand against machismo, or masculine pride, in Latin American culture.

There was some pushback from alumni about the change, she says, but for many members, that didn’t matter. The word stuck, and Larramendi says she’s starting to hear it outside the academy.

“The more we use it in official spaces,” she says, “the more people will adopt it.”

Read Up.

  • Since Meghan Markle and Prince Harry’s watershed interview with Oprah Winfrey this month, the British media have been grappling with accusations of racism in coverage of Markle and the royal couple. (The New York Times)
  • For centuries, American settlers drove Native Americans from their land, and largely eliminated them from conversations about nature and establishments like national parks. Now an environmental group, the Sierra Club, is examining its own role in excluding Native Americans. (Sierra)
  • This Black woman was qualified for the job and interviewed by staff members. Only later she was told that the company was seeking a “culture fit” and she wouldn’t like the position. Now the company, Facebook, is accused by four women of anti-Black racism in a complaint to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. (The Intercept)

—Fernanda

Correction and Update (March 16, 2021, 1:34 p.m.): This newsletter originally misstated the degree that Ángel Gonzalez is seeking. It is an Ed.D., not a Ph.D. The newsletter has been corrected. It has also been updated to provide an alternative pronunciation for “Latinx.”