What happened after I published Latinx
Shortlisted in 2019 for Latinx: The New Force in American Politics and Culture
Ed Morales is an author, journalist, filmmaker, and poet who teaches at Columbia University. He is the author of The Latin Beat, Living in Spanglish and Latinx: The New Force in American Politics and Culture. He has written for the New York Times, The Nation, Rolling Stone, Village Voice and other publications, and is a regular commentator on National Public Radio. His film Whose Barrio? premiered at the New York Latino International Film Festival. He lives in New York City.
When I set out to write my book Latinx: The New Force in American Politics and Culture, I was trying to write about what unites Latin American descendants who live in the USA. My primary thesis was that what gives us the most political power and cultural presence lies in a non-binary view of race. Sometimes that racial difference is expressed through ‘mixedness’, at other times through blackness and indigenousness, and because of the migration of primarily Chinese laborers in the nineteenth century many of us are of Asian descent. It was an attempt to map out an identity that thrived in contradiction, that was defined by difference.
The original title I proposed for the book was ‘Raza Matters’, a play on Race Matters, the landmark 1993 book by Cornell West. ‘Raza’ is the Spanish word for race, and early in the book I write about how the modern idea of race was formed during the period of Iberian colonisation of the Americas, long before the Enlightenment and nineteenth-century race science. But soon after I began writing, my editors felt that the title should be changed to include something that alluded to ‘Latino’, a label used to designate Latin American descendants living in the USA. Eventually we agreed to change the title to Latinx, a new term that I had picked up from my students at Columbia University’s Center for the Study of Ethnicity and Race.
In my seminars at Columbia, my students and I began to see a parallel between the Latino fluid relationship to the US racial binary and the Western gender binary. Going back to the 1990s, a discourse had emerged, particularly among Chicano/a (Mexican-American) scholars that alluded to the letter ‘x’ as a marker of intersections between the Western, indigenous and black cultures. Feminists like Cherrie Moraga saw the ‘x’ as a symbol of queerness and indigeneity, reflecting identities ‘robbed from us through colonisation,’ akin to Malcolm X’s use of the letter in place of his slave name.
For me, ‘Latinx’ had a futuristic aspect, a way to imagine a world when marginalised people are finally free, much like Afro-futurism’s intersection between science fiction, funk, poetry, and jazz.
For me, ‘Latinx’ had a futuristic aspect, a way to imagine a world when marginalised people are finally free, much like Afro-futurism’s intersection between science fiction, funk, poetry, and jazz. I embraced its playfulness, and the idea that, by at least debating the revision of its identifying label, US Latinos were the first racial or ethnic group to include the LGBTQ community. Even though the book itself was more focused on racial difference and intersectionality, as originally conceived, I hoped the new title would spur new conversations.
But soon after the book came out, perhaps because Latinx’s use had organically begun to spread in mainstream and social media, an enormous controversy broke out. Conservatives said the label was not fitting because it violated the rules of Spanish, and that it represented an imposition of US culture, an ‘Americanisation’ of being Latino. This criticism ignores the permeation of English words in casual conversation all over Latin America, while also missing the point of how US Latino culture has always been a rebellious hybrid of Latin and Anglo- America. I appeared on a National Public Radio program debating this issue with a conservative writer who eventually joined the Trump campaign’s Spanish-language arm in Florida.
After Trump’s surprisingly good draw of Latino voters in the 2020 election, even moderate Democrats joined the anti-Latinx bandwagon, claiming that the use of Latinx by liberal Senators like Dianne Warren was a maker of elitism that was driving US Latinos away from the Party and towards the Republicans. They continually cited an early set of polls that found few used or embraced the term, while newer studies reflected its growing use among young people.
Making the case for a broader, intersectional group identity is difficult, particularly during a period of increased economic inequality that makes inequities between races even more apparent.
There has also been understandable criticism from younger people of Latin American descent who find any variation of ‘Latin’ part of a colonial project, one that reinforces the largely unrecognised racism that still exists in Latin America. Before some of my students at Columbia began using ‘Latinx’, there was a widespread sentiment that ‘Latino’ and ‘Hispanic’ served to erase individual national identities like ‘Mexican’, ‘Puerto Rican’, ‘Colombian’, ‘Dominican’, etc. A growing effort among Afro- and indigenous Latinos to expose the fallacy of racial democracy among Latin Americans and the diaspora in the USA has been an important part of this pushback.
Making the case for a broader, intersectional group identity is difficult, particularly during a period of increased economic inequality that makes inequities between races even more apparent. Drawing on my studies of the political vanguardism of the 1970s, I still see the potential of Latinx as an internationalist, anti-racist, and anti-colonialist identification, and through its intention to include LGBTQ people, a crucial step forward.
Even during my 2019 visit to London, I saw how Latinos were coming together and developing a sense of Latinx identity, sometimes citing what they had seen in the USA as a model. While it is true that Latinx has its contradictions and needs to strongly centre the needs of its black, indigenous, and queer members, it can be a safe space to protect against the increasing intolerance that has invaded our political life. It can be the base of a politics of marginalisation aware of its intersections, what the late scholar José Muñoz described as ‘feeling together in difference’.