The neutering of the Spanish tongue

Street art in Shoreditch, London, February 2016 (Maureen Barlin, Flickr/maureen_barlin)
Street art in Shoreditch, London, February 2016 (Maureen Barlin, Flickr/maureen_barlin)

Lately I have read about Latinx, a noun, a term that is supposed to name people like me without naming people like me. I saw it in The New York Times. At some universities, there are academic departments devoted to Latinx studies. I am old enough to be Xtinct, but that is not what Latinx means. I am American (in the provincial sense of that word) because my parents were from Latin America (in the hemispheric sense of that word). That is what Latinx means.

I have yet to hear anyone profess to be Latinx out loud. I am curious about how the noun is pronounced. In English, X requires a vowel to sound. We write “Latinx,” but in order to pronounce the word we must add an invisible e, as in Latinesque, otherwise you would get Latinks. The plural, in English—Latinxs—puts me in mind of the inane toss of kisses at the close of an email: XXX.

Merriam-Webster (online) divines the meaning of Latinx as “of, relating to or marked by Latin American heritage—used as a gender-neutral alternative to Latino or Latina.” Google concurs, describing Latinx as a “non-binary alternative to Latino or Latina.”

Does the relegation of sexual identity to X represent a gesture of inclusion, a grammatical blind, or a puritanical refusal to speak of sexual difference?

In truth, Latinx intends to replace Latino as the default masculine inclusive term. And frees the speaker from always having to say “Latino and Latina,” which is a bore.

Graphically, X is a singular pictogram with many connotations. X is copulation, nexus—the intersection of forward slash and reflexive slash. Nominative X has a serious pedigree. In the early Greek Church, Christians used the letter X as a secret symbol for Christ. When Malcolm Little was released from prison in 1952, having served seven years for burglary, he renamed himself X. Malcolm was not posing as an enigmatic cool cat; he was claiming a birthright paradoxically. X is the name of the unnamed.

X is the illiterate’s mark.

In the august gallery of the periodic table, Xe is a “noble gas” that burns blue.

As a prefix, indicating outward direction or flow, X is sci-fi’s fondest factor: X-Men (with which Marvel now includes X-Women), X-Files. Xbox, Xfinity.

X is the dark planet of the alphabet.

X can stand on its head, like an hourglass, and lose none of its meaning; X will not flip in a mirror. And yet, in mathematics, X is the symbol of variability, of undetermined number or value or weight. X multiplies. X reveals its value in proof.

X is related to pharmaceutical nomenclature by the ancient symbol for apothecary—Rx. Rexall, Hexol, Xanax, Ex-Lax.

Crossbones mean poison in Pirate. Hex is the witch’s curse. X marks the spot on a treasure map, whereas on my computer keyboard, X is the icon for delete.

Life persists in the riotous web of genetic Xs and Ys. Which brings us to sex, the most freighted X-word on Planet X.

John Singer Sargent’s portrait titled Madame X connotes allure, intrigue, scandal. “X-rated” on a marquee is at once a come-on and a caution.

It is odd that the persons who coined Latinx chose prurient X as their fig leaf. Does the relegation of sexual identity to X represent a gesture of inclusion, a grammatical blind, or a puritanical refusal to speak of sexual difference?

The impulse of Latinx is not the impulse of LGBTQ, an abbreviation that acknowledges the variety and insists upon the centrality of sexuality to identity. X in Latinx brands an ethnic identity exclusive of gender. X in Latinx renders sexuality irrelevant.

I ask Ms. X, a lively undergraduate at Tulane University, whether she has any idea who came up with the term Latinx. She conjectures, “Probably the ad agency that came up with Generation X.” Ms. X describes herself, in a Bronx accent, as Latina.

As a baby boomer, I am old enough to remember a cavalcade of terms. There was a time when people in the United States referred to persons whose ancestry was from Latin America as “Spanish” (considered more polite than “Mexican,” with its Nahuatl X), especially if the persons designated were light skinned. Or else we were identified by reference to our regional pasts.

I grew up a Mexican, though I wasn’t. Desi Arnaz was a Cuban. The Sharks in the Broadway musical West Side Story were Puerto Ricans.

In the 1970s, President Richard Nixon’s administration patented Hispanic. Hispanic became one of five choices on the affirmative-action chart. Hispanic as a government category united all the populations from Latin America under a single noun and thus elevated Hispanics as a grouping that could be compared with the two polar races of America, the white and the Black.

Hispanics took the bait. We began to imagine ourselves and to proclaim ourselves a race; we marked X on the form. We became “people of color.” Most of the most prominent Hispanics advanced by affirmative action, however, were white.

The truth is that there is no such thing as a Hispanic race. The reality is that many Hispanics are Black, Asian, Arab, white; many are Native American, and mixtures of all of the above.

No sooner had Hispanics gained notoriety as the new third race in America, no sooner were we celebrated in the press and by politicians and ad agencies as America’s “largest minority”—an oxymoron—than many Hispanics on campus wanted to rename themselves, which is to say, name themselves. They rejected Hispanic as a colonial term. Latino (a Spanish word) became the preference. Latino at first meant an entire population, a default patronymic. But it was a measure of the growing importance and impatience of women on campus that soon Latina had to be added to Latino.

The term and the diagonal—Latino/a—only reminded many people of how sexualized the Spanish language is. Every noun has gender. The lake, the house, the pen, the candle, the chair, the lover, the stars, the sun, the moon. In Spanish, all of creation has gender.

Somewhere in the back of my mind, I hear Ms. X: “I am not flattered to be the moon! As long as the sun is masculine and the moon is feminine, I must be dependent on him for light.”

Though her objection amuses us both, let me be clear. Latinx is at war with the Spanish language, with the Sierra Madre and her favorite, her first-born son, Macho. Latinx is at war with centuries of romance and sexual chauvinism and humor.

Latinx is an American word. Celebrate it as such. Latinx is puritan coinage.

It means gringo. Or gringa.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Richard Rodriguez is the author of Hunger of Memory, Days of Obligation, Brown, and Darling.


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