Illustration: Blake Wright

[su_label type=”info”]Column: The Devil’s Advocate[/su_label]

This past week I conducted some rather unscientific research among my Latino and Latina friends. I also bothered a few strangers, from various ages and backgrounds—teachers, musicians, ice cream vendors, flower vendors, real intellectuals, pseudo intellectuals, non-intellectuals. American all,  from the entire continent: North, Central and South.

The San Francisco Bay Area offers the amazing possibility to interact with such varied Latino American fauna!

Here, we can actually learn to become Latinos and Latinas, emphasizing the opposite of what we usually learn in our respective places of origin. Here, the emphasis is on what unites us. In our countries of origin, those traditionally in charge have chosen to emphasize what separates us. To divide, in order to conquer.

Carlos Barón

Languages can also separate.

In my impromptu research, I said: “What do you say when asked about your national and cultural background? Do you call yourself a Latina? A Mexican? A Mexican-American? A Chicana? A Xicana? An American of Latin descent? A Latinx?”

Sometimes I simply asked, “Do you know what ‘Latinx’ stands for?”

The answers were quite varied, but people rarely used “Latinx” to identify themselves.

Now, I am aware that the term is quite new and that it was created as a way to neutralize gender in our language, in order to promote more inclusiveness, not just on cultural or national levels, but also on the more complicated levels of gender and sexual realities.

I have learned that the term “Latinx” originated among relatively well-educated people, usually from university settings, where “higher education” reigns. Generally, from people whose first language is English.

Based on the answers that I received and on my own thoughts, I will approach this rather touchy subject. May the force be with me!

First of all, I believe that both the English and the Spanish languages should be examined, in order to promote more inclusivity and/or more gender-neutral choices. If necessary, changes can or should occur.

I will give some samples of gender inequality, from both languages, starting with an example from English:

It was almost shocking to me that Neil Armstrong, the first human to set foot on the moon, uttered the words, “One small step for a man; one giant leap for mankind.” From the moment I heard them, I thought, “Where is the woman in this giant leap?”

From Spanish I will use a still current sample of gender inequity (some call it bias), a phrase that older and younger speakers, both men and women, use frequently: the word “hombre” (male), as being enough to speak of a world made up of men and women.

“El hombre Americano” suffices when describing the entire population of the American continent—male and female (“la mujer Americana” is not used).

“El hombre nuevo,” (a new man), has been used to speak of that new being which was the expressed goal of the Cuban Revolution. That phrase is still used by men and women all over the continent.

Perhaps Neil Armstrong, could have said, “One small step for a man; one giant step for humanity?” But he never thought about it. At least in his interviews (I have read a few, for this column) he never mentions thinking about the female gender when he was preparing that historical phrase.

As far as the Spanish language samples, the leaders of the admirable Cuban Revolution could have said “un ser nuevo” (a new being), or “a new person” (una nueva persona), instead of “el hombre nuevo.”

There are choices in both languages and we should learn to use them. Our leaders, big and small, should also lead on this aspect.

In 1968, when the College of Ethnic Studies at San Francisco State University was born, there was much discussion about naming the department which would house that varied group of people who fought in that long strike. There were Chicanos, Latinos, Mexican-Americans, people with very common (and also very distinct) roots. The term they chose was “La Raza Studies.”

Taken from “La Raza Cósmica” (The Cosmic Race), a book by the Mexican José Vasconcelos, La Raza Studies served as “an umbrella” where Latinos/as, Chicanos/as , could feel included.

“La Raza” represented “the possible future of humanity,” a mix of races and cultures, manifested in this part of the world. The term sufficed for over 35 years.

Maybe it lasted so long because it was so thoroughly discussed? I think so.

I do not think that the term “Latinx” will replace Latino or Latina any time soon, but it is clear that the insertion of that term in our discussions speaks to a need to continue broadening our cultural, social and linguistic horizons.

At the end, as it always happens in most conversations on the subject of self-identity, the final decision is personal and it will most likely change according to many reasons, such as new life and educational experiences and to the passing of time.

Perhaps we can promote open, public, mutually respectful conversations about terms such as “Latinx” and other X-rated issues?

Changes, if needed, hopefully occur after open and inclusive debates. Open discussion, not imposition should be the guiding rule.