During my last semester in college, back in Mexico City in 2015, my professor walked into the classroom and did a quick headcount. Then, he made an announcement –since there were over a dozen female students and four males– he would refer to the whole class as alumnas, the feminine word for students, and not alumnos, masculine, which is the norm, at least socially, to address a mixed group. It sounded strange every time he said it for months without missing a beat. He would say, “listen up, alumnas,” and everyone would abruptly stop what they were doing with a sense of strangeness.
No one ever commented on it. One could say it didn’t matter, but I loved it. It was the first time I consciously felt fairly represented by language.
Years later, I moved to New York, where I quickly learned I would be categorized by a series of labels that I had never used before. In a diverse city with extensive pride in its progressive inclusion, I couldn’t just be a woman, foreign, or Mexican. I was suddenly Hispanic, Brown, and Latina too.
It was a shock. I didn’t identify with those terms because I hadn’t chosen them for myself. I found them limiting and too general at the same time.
What can Mexicans and Chileans possibly have in common? Or Uruguayans and Cubans? Not our accents, history, politics, cultures, or perceptions of the rest of the world. Our ways of life are not the same. Even people from the south of Mexico are, at core, different from those in the north.
However, It didn’t take me long to realize that those categories were filled with amazing people, and I wanted to be a part of them. When they hear me speak in Spanish, they automatically give me a welcoming look or crack a smile. That gesture alone makes me feel connected, a similar sentiment to what writer Ralph Ellison shared in Invisible Man, “when I discover who I am, I’ll be free.”
That is what Latinx does. The term is inclusive. It is a way Latinos, Latinas, and gender non-confirmative Hispanics can connect and how others can fairly refer to all of us. It is femininity, masculinity, freedom, and acceptance.
More to it, this is how other Latinx identified why this term is an essential part of their lives.
Lorena Arriaga, 28, Colombian entrepreneur and nonprofit PR firm founder. Her company supports local small businesses and organizations.
“Being gender nonconforming means, in great measure, not feeling comfortable in your own skin, sadly,” said Arriaga. “It means openly accepting my truth, but at the cost of constantly explaining myself to people who stare with disbelief and judgment who refuse to adapt the way they address me.” Arriaga’s business cards read they/them and Latinx under her work title.
“When I hand those out to a Latina, a Latino or a Latinx, they all say, ‘me too,’ and it is the perfect ice breaker,” they said. “Not once has someone stopped me and said, ‘I’m Latina, not Latinx.’ We just vibe.” Lorena has identified as they have since 2016.
“It was right when I started my business,” they said. “I decided to take risks, and that was an important one. I identify as ‘nonconforming,’ but because of the structure of the word, it feels negative. So I just prefer to go with Latinx. It expresses so much more at once.”
Rene Pinto, 24, Puerto Rican law student at Fordham University:
“I love living in the U.S.,” said Pinto, “I miss my island, of course. But I make the decision to stay here every day because I feel proud of getting out of my comfort zone in order to achieve my potential.” Pinto arrived in the U.S. in 2021. “I still need to go dancing [reggaeton] every weekend to feel like myself,” he said. “That is what being Latinx means. It is a celebration of individuality, strength in the face of adversity, and of a community that is not afraid of being different in this country.”
Inclusion and self-identity are two different and essential human needs. If only we had more words that could satisfy those necessities, maybe we could all realize we are not that different from each other.
Language is constantly changing to suit our needs. Spelling rules and the use of words evolve, just like in this country. In a strongly divided world, we need words to unite us.