Shakespeare's "a rose by any other name" aside, names have always mattered. Even if we're all human beings underneath, you can't get around the fact that how people identify you — what they call you — has a huge bearing on how you're seen and how you're accepted. How you name yourself (how you self-identify) is critical, too.
Latinos know this as much as any other group. Latinos have been known as Chicanos, Hispanics and Latinas, to drop a few names. Some even go with Latinx, maybe the newest identifier for people who, roughly speaking, trace their heritage to Spain or Latin America.
"They're very important," historian Paul Ortiz, a professor at the University of Florida and the author of "An African American and Latinx History of the United States," says of the terms used to identify different racial and ethnic groups. "And I think people have the right of self-definition. I think that's kind of fundamental to the human condition."
What's In a Name?
"Back in the day, in the '50s or earlier, generally [the] term, 'Chicano' was actually a term of derision. If you walked up to me and called me that term, there could be some trouble," Ortiz says. "It becomes a term of pride with the rise of the farmworkers' movement, the Mexican student movement in California and Washington. And so people began using that term, 'Chicano,' as a term of pride. As a term of self-respect.
"It was kind of like the term Black for African Americans. Back in the day you would never use that term. But with the Civil Rights movement, 'Black was Beautiful.'"
As with Blacks (who also have been named, among other terms, Negroes, Afro-Americans and African Americans through the years) and other groups, those of Hispanic heritage change how they identify themselves depending on a lot of factors, including which generation is doing the naming. By now, Chicano has generally fallen out of favor.
(A short aside: Hispanic is the official term used by the U.S. Census Bureau. According to its definition: "Hispanic origin can be viewed as the heritage, nationality, lineage, or country of birth of the person or the person's parents or ancestors before arriving in the United States. People who identify as Hispanic, Latino or Spanish may be any race." It's a broad term. Anyone who says they're Hispanic or Latino is, according to the government. That was nearly 61 million people in 2019, about 18 percent of the American population.)
Adding to the confusion is that different people in different areas of the country may prefer different terms. Most, according to the Pew Research Center, would rather identify themselves by their family's country of origin — they're Guatemalan or Mexican or Honduran — than by some "pan-ethnic" term like Hispanic, Latino or Latina.
"Where I grew up," says Ortiz, who was born in 1964 and raised in California and Washington state, "Hispanic was not very popular. My elders would say, 'Hispanic is something that the government tries to call us. That's not who we are.' It is a census term. It is an official term that the government has for people like us. But in Florida, it's different. In Florida, Hispanic people have no problem with the term."
Hispanic — which, Ortiz says, used to refer (if not officially) mainly to people with a Mexican heritage — gave way to Latino and Latina in the latter part of the last century as different groups from Latin America made their way to the U.S. and searched for a term that was more inclusive and less "Mexican." Latino now is used interchangeably with Hispanic, even by the Census Bureau. Latina (the feminine noun) is preferred by many.
And, in the last couple of decades, yet another term has emerged.
So What Is Latinx?
Its pronunciation is somewhat contested — Ortiz says "Latin x," sounding it like two words, though others say "lat-EEN-x" or "luh-TEEN-x," and Merriam-Webster, which added the term to its dictionary in 2018, suggests "luh-TEE-neks" — but the term's meaning is not disputed.
Latinx, based on an LGBTQ-inspired desire to go gender-neutral, is what the words Chicano and Latino and Hispanic all have tried to be, and what all have meant to different generations: It's an identifier for a wide-ranging and growing group of Americans whose heritage lies in Spanish-speaking and/or Latin American countries.
"The book I wrote," Ortiz says, "the title was really picked by my students. At one point I was going to use the term Latina ... but they said, 'You know, Professor Ortiz, we really would prefer you use the term Latinx. We know, among your generation, it's still not too popular. But the world is changing.'
"The cool thing is, they're not using the term as just a term of self-definition. They're using the term to try to create ridges of understanding between, say, Mexican students, Dominicans, Puerto Ricans, Haitians ... It's kind of a bridge-building term."
According to an August 2020 survey by the Pew Research Center, the term has a long way before it catches on, though. The survey found that only about 23 percent of Hispanics have even heard the term Latinx, and only 3 percent use it. And those who are using the term tend to be younger, born in the U.S. and predominantly English-speaking.