As we celebrate this year’s Latinx Heritage Month, the choice to use the term “Latinx” instead of “Hispanic” is met with a slew of questions that can be summarized as Why? The reasoning behind the use of Latinx instead of Hispanic in recent years is largely informed by the American Humanist Association’s (AHA’s) work with the Latinx Humanist Alliance (LHA), an AHA affiliate organization). Before we can delve into the use of the term Latinx, we must look back at the history of the original “Hispanic Heritage Month”.
The intent of Hispanic Heritage Month was to celebrate people who are from or have ancestors from parts of the Caribbean, Central America, South America, and Spain. The push for this came largely from the growing Civil Rights movement in the 1960s, which also led to calls for increased recognition of the Latinx community in the United States.
In 1968, President Lyndon Johnson originally signed into law the first official Hispanic Heritage Week, not yet month, which would always fall on the week of September 15. The choice of September 15 as the start of Hispanic Heritage Week was intentional. Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala won independence from Spain on September 15. Mexico’s independence from Spain falls on the following day, September 16.
Even though this week was chosen on days many Latin American countries declared independence from Spain, choosing “Hispanic” over “Latinx,” or even “Latino,” ironically also celebrates the largest Latin American colonizer: Spain. In comparison, it would be as if the United States’ Independence Day celebrated the United States’ independence from England, while also celebrating England itself.
U.S. Representative Esteban E. Torres of California proposed expanding the week to a month to better accommodate the observance, events, and activities that celebrate Hispanic culture.and achievement. In 1988, President Ronald Reagan eventually signed into law the official Hispanic Heritage Month. President George H.W. Bush officially declared the 31-day period from September 15 to October 15 as National Hispanic Heritage Month.
The nationally recognized name is “Hispanic Heritage Month,” but the growing shift towards instead using the term “Latinx” appropriately removes Spain from the mix. While this viewpoint is controversial, the original intent of the week was to commemorate days in which Latin America sought independence from Spain. In an effort to allow colonized lands to separate themselves from colonizer countries, we have chosen to call it Latinx Heritage Month.
The question then arises, why use Latinx and not Latino or Latine? As stated by our Latinx Humanist Alliance co-chair Luciano Gonzalez-Vega:
Spanish is a very gendered language. For example, a chair is referred as “la silla”—essentially a female chair. A computer screen is “el monitor” or a male monitor or screen. The commonly used “Latino” is gendered in that way, in which the male “Latino” means both “Latino” and “Latina.” And since there are individuals whose experiences with gender and whose identities defy the gender binary of male or female, it makes sense that there would be words that ignore the gender binary as well. Latinx is one such word, and we use Latinx because we’re inclusive and because we want people to feel welcomed into our alliance, no matter their gender.
We are using Latinx as a collective noun. If you want to go by “Latino” or “Latina” that is valid. The decision to use the term Latinx is to provide space for the collective entity to not be needlessly gendered. There are Latinx people who do not identify as “Latino” or “Latina” and, in an effort to be accepting of all gender identifications, we use Latinx. AHA is accepting of all gender identifications.
Our goal is not to “force” people to identify by Latinx but to open our space to people of all gender identifications. Some make the argument that Latin Americans’ gendered language is part of the culture and Latino is actually gender-neutral. Unfortunately, this is not true, the language enforces the gender binary in Latin America.
The extreme imposition of gender binaries in Latin America, often enforced by religion, is evident in the horrific violence against LGBTQ+ people in Latin America. According to Reuters, “At least 1,300 LGBT+ people have been murdered in the region in the past five years, with Colombia, Mexico, and Honduras accounting for nearly 90 percent of all deaths.” Additionally, Reuters has found that the growing influence of Evangelical Christian groups in the area has stifled any progress for LGBTQ+ rights.
There are also criticisms that the term Latinx is too hard to pronounce and that it pushes English-speaking hegemony. This leads others to prefer the term Latine as it works better with the language and is a totally valid alternative. We found the two to be interchangeable, as they reflect the same values of inclusivity. Our affiliate organization, the Latinx Humanist Alliance, chose their name after much discussion and we have moved forward with the term they have chosen.
The choice to use “Latinx Heritage Month” serves to remove the colonizing country of Spain from the term and to be inclusive of people of all gender identities. While some newsrooms don’t bother to challenge the status quo, it is important to take steps to at least consider it.