According to the 2020 Census, Latinos in the United States now make up 19% of the population, and that figure is projected to increase to 29% by 2050. Yet there is no consensus on a demonym for this growing demographic. Today, “Latin@,” “Latinx,” “Hispanic” and even “Spanish” are used interchangeably, but they have different meanings. Moreover, in a globalized world, pop icons such as Rosalía and Enrique Iglesias have been confused as Latinos because they are Spanish speakers. Therefore, Latinos must come to terms with who their group includes and excludes, how to address the needs of those calling for the “Latinx” term and find a way to incorporate Spanish speakers from around the world.
The terms that have grouped Spanish speakers and other people from Latin America together have evolved over time. For instance, “Hispanic” refers to all Spanish speakers including Spain, but excludes Brazilians. This term was first used in the 1980 Census after much debate and lobbying. In contrast, “Latin@” refers to Romance-language speakers, including Brazil and Haiti. The term is much older and it is an abbreviation of “Latin American,” a political and cultural unit that emerged after independence from Spain and other colonial powers. The least inclusive term is “Spanish” as it only includes people from Spain. More recently, scholars have introduced the term “Latinx” as an alternative to the gendered nature of the Spanish language.
Unlike other demographics in the United States, Latinos are a multilingual, pan-ethnic and multiracial group. Mexican philosopher José Vasconcelos has referred to this phenomenon as the “raza cósmica,” or the “cosmic race.” Indeed, Latinos identify as Brown, Black, White and Indigenous, while others identify with all or none of the above. They speak dozens of languages — from Portuguese to Nahautl to Quechua. Moreover, Latinos are the product of 400 years of colonial history that ended with independence in the 1800s. The only term that honors both the ethnic, racial and linguistic diversity, and acknowledges the colonial history and subsequent independence is “Latin@.” The terms “Hispanic” and “Spanish” do not work because they include Spain and are too restrictive because of their emphasis on the Spanish language.
The need for a gender-neutral term for Latinos is understandable, but it is not up to scholars to decide how Latinos call themselves. According to a Pew Research Center survey, only 3% of Latino adults use the term “Latinx.” Most Latinos do identify with the male/female binary, so the term “Latin@” makes the most sense for the group as a whole. Latinos who do not identify within that binary should feel free to use a term that more accurately represents their identity, such as “Latinx.”
Finally, the term “Latin@” should be a welcoming term. The Spanish singer Rosalía has been under fire on multiple occasions since she has been labeled as “Latina” by the global music industry — something she has not always immediately corrected. Even though Rosalía is not Latina, she is part of the global Spanish-speaking community. This controversy is not an opportunity to call people from Spain “colonizers,” as many have done online. Instead, this is an opportunity to educate the global community about the complex history of Latin America, the limitations of demonyms currently in use and how we can connect with the broader Spanish-speaking community.
Latinidad, “Latinx” and Rosalía are different, but not mutually exclusive.