Latinidad in the US, Latinx, Latina/o, or Hispanic?: Geographies of Oppression, Race, Gender, and Language

Latinidad in the US, Latinx, Latina/o, or Hispanic?: Geographies of Oppression, Race, Gender, and Language.

By Carlos LópezLeiva, Silvia Llamas-Flores, Kyndall Brown 

The goal of this blog is to promote conversations rather than imposing solutions on group naming and identities. Here, we describe the relevance of naming an identity and a brief historical account of naming the Latina/o community in the U.S. We then contrast different perspectives or claims—linguistic and social justice oriented—that acknowledge this controversy. Finally, we ask for your opinion. Please, let us know what you think.

Many of us grew up using popular phrases that often became life paradigms. “La unión hace la fuerza” and “El respeto al derecho ajeno es la paz” are commonly cited in daily Spanish speech. The funny thing is that these quotes come from very different places. “La unión hace la fuerza” comes from Neerlandes, “Eendracht maakt macht; which means, “Unity makes strength.” This phrase still comes from Latin, "concordia res parvae crescunt" (the little things bloom in harmony). The second quote means, "Among individuals, as among nations, respect for the rights of others is peace." It comes from Benito Juarez, 26th Mexican president of Zapotec origin. He fought for equal Mexican indigenous nation's rights and sovereignty. With these backgrounds, there is no doubt that our life’s paradigms come from very diverse peoples, places, politics, languages, and ideals.

We think that the re-visiting of how we use the terms, Latina/o and Hispanic in the U.S. is an important action to take, because these are meant to identify a group of people in the U.S. Actually, the U.S. hosts the third largest group of Latinx, Latinas/os, or Hispanics in the world. This group includes a wide range of languages, races, ethnic groups, cultures, and origins; however, this population shares similar historical, geographical, and political experiences. We might never reach consensus on a term to identify this group clearly, but we can at least engage in a dialogue to learn about how these terms or names matter to this community in the U.S.

Given current sociopolitical circumstances and health threats, TODOS—more than ever—extends a call for Unity. Unity can be cultivated through spaces of communication where different perspectives are presented and discussed with the goal of strengthening who we are and how we understand ourselves as a community in the U.S.

The relevance of naming identities

As educators aware of how our own and the students’ identities play a major role in our interactions and work together, and that mathematical identities refer to how one sees and believes who oneself is and can do, a view that affects how one participates in mathematics (e.g., “good at math”) (Aguirre, Mayfield-Ingram, & Martin, 2013). As teachers, we should recognize “the range of identities beyond mathematics that students spend their time and energy developing or that others may assign to them. Acknowledging these identities can lead to a richer, more meaningful understanding of children and their lives” (p. 19). 

Ours and students’ multiple identities range based on the interactions and contexts in which we participate. Sosa-Provencio (2016) argues that Mexicana/o students deal with identities at the intersection(s) of race, class, gender, language, and residency status. As educators, we must challenge places of marginality (Aguirre et al., 2013). We must also learn about, acknowledge, and nourish the intersectional identities of the students with who we work. 

When we self-identify, we often make use of language to name those identities according to a context. In the case of Hispanic, Latina/o, Latin@, Latinae, and/or Latinx people in the U.S., the changes in these names or words have been linked to linguistic and political perspectives. To describe these changes, Bakhtin’s (1981) idea of a “word being half ours and someone else’s” is useful, since it helps us understand that words change based on interactions and meaning-making goals:

“As a living, socio-ideological concrete thing, language, for the individual consciousness, lies on the borderline between oneself and the other. The word in language is half someone else's. It becomes ‘one's own’ only when the speaker populates it with his own intention, his own accent, when he appropriates the word, adapting it to his own semantic and expressive intention. Prior to this moment of appropriation, the word does not exist in a neutral and impersonal language (it is not, after all, out of a dictionary that the speaker gets his words!), but rather it exists in other people's mouths, in other people's contexts, serving other people's intentions: it is from there that one must take the word and make it one's own.... Language is not a neutral medium that passes freely and easily into the private property of the speaker's intentions; it is populated—overpopulated —with the intentions of others. Expropriating it, forcing it to submit to one's own intentions and accents, is a difficult and complicated process.” (pp. 293-294)

This excerpt helps us note that word changes take place as one uses an already existent word and adds an accent to its signification and form to convey a meaning that is more responsive to one’s intention and contextual appropriateness. The terms that identify this group have had multiple accent purposes, including political, linguistic, and social—among others—within the U.S. context and history.

Historic, socio-political changes of naming the Hispanic/Latino population in the U.S. 

Within the U.S., the term ‘American’ is used to designate a person who is a citizen in this country. In Latin America, all people from Alaska to Chile, including the Caribbean, also self-identify as ‘Americans.’ While each of these terms has its history about its accent or meaning at a particular location and specific context, how others view or judge the appropriateness of these terms “is a difficult and complicated process” (Bakhtin, 1981, pp. 293-294).

Regarding the identification of people from Latin American origin in the U.S., several words/terms have been utilized to differentiate between this group and others. Click this link to watch a video on opinions about these differences.

The term Hispanic was initially introduced by President Nixon to identify a population mostly in relation to language differences (Spanish speakers, not English speakers). "Hispano" was a racialized identification based-on language to group people coming mainly from México, Puerto Rico, and Cuba, who spoke Spanish since at that time the only racial options in the census were ‘White’, ‘Black’ or ‘Other.’ However, according to Verne, Ed Morales, the term Hispanic eventually took a negative connotation because of its relationship with the conquest of the Americas and the imposition of a language. In turn, activists started using the term Latino to refer to someone with a Latin American background.

As a result, the term Latino provided an accent about a group of people (‘race’) in the U.S. in relation to a geographical region or location of an ‘original’ background. As we know, this geographic region includes twenty-five countries with multiple races, such as American Indians, Afro-descendants, Mestizo, and White Europeans. And within these groups, about 60% of the population speaks Spanish, 34% Portuguese, and about 6% speak other languages. Many of them, primarily indigenous people, are bilingual. Other spoken languages in the region include indigenous languages such as Quechua, Guaraní, Náhuatl, Aymara, Mapudungun, Mayan Languages (e.g., K’iche’), etc.; as well as French, Hebrew, Russian, German, Dutch, Japanese, English, etc.

In response to language inclusivity, the term Latino was changed into Latina/o, a change that responded to the grammatical forms in Spanish and Portuguese that mark genders—both feminine and masculine—which is described in more detail below.

Grammatical forms to name gender identity across languages

The Latinx identifier term was born out of a collective aim to move beyond the masculine-centric Latino and the gender-inclusive but binary, embedded Latin@ (Scharron-del Rio & Aja, 2016). One argument against using the term ‘Latinx’ is that it forcibly changes the Spanish language. Let’s take a moment to dissect this argument. First, by solely focusing on the Spanish language, other non-Spanish languages within the Latin American region would not necessarily use the suffixes, or word-ending “a/o” to show gender inclusivity. While, Portuguese uses the same endings for feminine and masculine “a/o”, but other languages like French feminine words usually end in “e” (e.g., Michèle, beauté, Mademoiselle, Madame). Moreover, other languages in Latin America do not have grammatical gender; for example, English. Similarly and more importantly, regional indigenous languages, like K’iche’, Nahuatl, Quechua, and Guaraní—just to name some—do not include gender. Guaraní—for example—through the influence of Spanish adopted articles such as ‘la’ for singular and ‘lo’ for plural, but this feature still does not acknowledge gender.

The idea of marking gender is not essential to many Latin American languages, and not all people who self-identify as Latinx, Hispanic, Latino, Latina, or any other term, actually speak Spanish. The issue of Latinx in relation to the term Latina/o has been discussed from a linguistic point of view. This discussion has extended to the use of neutral linguistic forms linked to the Latin language since it is a language related to European languages spoken in Latin America. Such suggestions present ‘Latinae’ or ‘Latine’ as a neutral form related to neutral gender form in Spanish. While this argument is valid for Spanish, it is not relevant for French. Many other languages represented under this term in the U.S. Thus, the issue about the ‘Latinx’ term in contrast with the ‘Latina/o’ term has focused on hegemonic language views, and not necessarily on a linguistic argument inclusive of all languages in Latin America.

This monolithic view can be problematic because each term encompasses a spectrum of identity that includes language, culture, race, politics, and ideals. An interesting view of the “X” in Latinx is that, just like in algebra, “X” is variable, meaning that it is more than just gender-neutral (Morales, 2018). This perspective encompasses the idea of intersectionality and how one self-identifies usually includes one’s personal experiences as they relate to race, culture, language, beliefs, gender, etc. According to Alan Pelaez López clarifying the “X” in Latinx is not useful, but necessary. When people tell me that Latinx does not make sense, “My reply is that it does because the nonsensical of the “X” is the same nonsensical of living at the intersections of settlement, anti-Blackness, and femicides.” Pelaez Lopez says. Alan argues that:

“The ‘X’ in Latinx is a wound as opposed to a trend that speaks to a collective history. The ‘X’ is attempting to speak to the violence of colonization, slavery, against women and femmes, and the fact that many of us experience such an intense displacement and silence that we have no language in which to articulate who we are. Therefore, if you are using ‘Latinx,’ I encourage you to ask yourself at the end of every day: ‘what have I done to show up for Black, Indigenous, women, and femmes of the Latin American diaspora today?’ And second, ‘why?’ Here, you’ll be crafting your vision of a Latinx liberation that doesn’t leave the most marginalized behind.”

Such issues and controversy about who Latinx people are, racially and linguistically, have become more evident through the current Census process.

When working with students in the classroom, it is crucial to provide a safe learning environment where learning is maximized. While the discussion about identifying terms is essential, when you’re in the classroom, what is most important is that you use students’ experiences as assets, including how they self-identify. I’ll (Silvia) share a personal experience with one of my students. At the beginning of each semester, I ask students to write their names and something they want to share with me on an index card. This semester I decided to do something different. Before giving them the index cards, I used my “Where I’m From Poem” to share my personal experiences from an intersectionality perspective with them. What I shared discussed how I identify as a mother, Mexican, American, bilingual, teacher, learner, woman, etc. After my first class, one of my students shared how she appreciated my openness about my identity and shared that she does not use the terms she or he, but instead uses the term they. I made it a point to be conscious of how gender neutrality was important to her as I taught the rest of the semester. The point is that it is not the label that is important, but instead how one embraces students' experiences as learning tools in the classroom.

Where shall we go from here?

The Lantinx term as a change in naming Latinidad in the U.S. seems to have a clear goal of challenging paradigms on gender, race, land, residency status, language, and articulation of the history and identity of a community that is diverse and with origins from a common geographical location, but still with different histories and privileges. The TODOS/NCSM Social Justice Position Statement asserts that as Mathematics teachers and leaders, we should acknowledge and take action against the legacy of institutional discrimination, more specifically, we should: “Interrogate individual and societal beliefs underlying the deficit views about mathematics learning and children with specific attention to race/ethnicity, class, gender, culture, and language.” (p. 4). Consequently, we extend a call for a joint, inclusive community rather than a fractured community. Such unity, however, cannot be built on a romanticization of our community, but on perspectives that allow us to acknowledge differences, marginalization, crimes that have taken place within our community. In conclusion, to promote communication on this issue, we feel encouraged to ask you: Which term or accent is the most relevant to identify this diverse group? What should the decision be based on - language, politics, other? Your call. Please reply to this blog with your input and perspective. ¡Gracias!


Aguirre, J., Mayfield-Ingram, K., & Martin, D. B. (2013). The impact of identity in K-8 mathematics: Rethinking equity-based practices. Reston, VA: NCTM.

Bakhtin, M.M. (1981). The dialogic imagination: Four essays (C. Emerson, Trans., M. Holquist, Ed.). Austin, TX: University of Texas Press.

Morales, E. (2018). Latinx: The New Force in American Politics and Culture. Brooklyn, NY: Verso Books.

Sosa-Provencio, M. A. (2016): Seeking a Mexicana/Mestiza Ethic of Care: Rosa’s Revolución of carrying alongside, Race Ethnicity and Education, DOI: 10.1080/13613324.2016.1150833


TODOS/NCSM Social Justice Position Statement

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'Latinx' And Gender Inclusivity

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