The ‘Latinx’ Label Centers European Heritage. We Should Stop Using It.
Let’s rethink an identity built on destruction, conquest, and the plundering of the Spanish empire
As we approach Hispanic Heritage Month, which runs from September 15 to October 15, various organizations, politicians, and corporations celebrate Hispanization or Latinidad. September 15 was chosen as the day to begin this celebratory month because it is the anniversary of independence for Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua. Mexico’s independence day is September 16. The government’s website for Hispanic Heritage Month notes that Columbus Day, October 12, falls within this month. On the eve of these calendar markers, conversations are occurring within the Latinx community about identity and the colonial concepts that supposedly link Romance language speakers and their descendants throughout the Americas. The concept of Latinx and Hispanic communities center a common European heritage. In celebrating Hispanic or Latino Heritage Month, we are celebrating colonialism.
Both Latinx (or any of its variants) and Hispanic take on different meanings in different locations and within various groups throughout the U.S. But many whose identities may fall under these umbrella terms openly question whether they should cancel the concepts of Latinx and Hispanic communities that center a centuries-old, European project of conquest and empire.
Some indigenous communities feel that they are encouraged to assimilate into the Latino community even if they do not speak Spanish. Odilia Romero, an indigenous Zapotec based in Los Angeles who serves as the co-founder and executive director of Comunidades Indigenas en Liderazgo (CIELO), doesn’t like how Latinidad is projected on her and feels that there are inadequate choices for identification when it comes to bureaucratic tasks like filling out forms.
“Everywhere we go where there is paperwork to be filled, there is no room for indigenous people,” Romero said. “Not enough effort has been made to count indigenous people from Mexico and Central America, and many of us will be counted as Latinos even if we come from communities that have long existed prior to the arrival of the Spanish.”
Another narrative being promoted in the media is that Latinxs are the most impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic. Romero explains that it’s rarely mentioned how indigenous displacement has been affected by the public health crisis in California and how many indigenous people have died because they are labeled as Latinos or Mexicans. In her own advocacy and translation work, Romero knows that more than 20 indigenous people who work in the Los Angeles garment industry have died from Covid-19, but these deaths are not acknowledged as a loss to indigenous communities because of how the media frames these losses.
Meanwhile, there are critics of Latinidad who say that it’s anti-Black and note how what is marketed as typically “Latinx” often excludes Black people from different parts of the Caribbean and North and South America. For instance, the default Latina portrayed in the media is often someone who looks like Jennifer Lopez or Selena Gomez — light-skinned mestizas.
The concept of Latinx and Hispanic communities center a common European heritage. In celebrating Hispanic or Latino Heritage Month, we are celebrating colonialism.
Colombian-American actor John Leguizamo recently tweeted, “Why can’t we Latinx have a piece of the pie? We are the largest ethnic group in America and missing as if we didn’t exist!” while referencing an article published in the Los Angeles Times about Black actors receiving Emmy nominations. Leguizamo received pushback online by people pointing out his assumption that some Black actors are not Black Latinos (Leguizamo appeared in the Netflix miniseries When They See Us with Black Dominican American actor Jharrel Jerome last year).
“Blaming Black folks for taking up too much space or suggesting that they didn’t have to fight for generations for that space is another way that proponents of Latinidad erase us,” explained Alicia Sanchez Gill, an Afro-Puerto Rican. “Black people created #OscarsSoWhite, so there’s a selective dismissal about the organizing that Black people have done to have a sliver of the visibility that they have now.”
From its inception, people have questioned what the terms Hispanic and Latino (Latinx is a more recent, nongendered term) mean. These terms developed in the U.S. after activists realized that they needed to find a way to count this population to fight for resources. For example, Mexican Americans had been counted as “white” even though they were not treated like white Americans. Cristina Mora, an associate professor of sociology at UC Berkeley, writes how the Hispanic identity was constructed in the ’60s and ’70s and institutionalized by government officials and the media. Some thought that it didn’t make sense to lump Mexican Americans with Cuban refugees, but proponents of this construct felt that the Spanish language was a foundation that could be built upon.
Dr. Jonathan Rosa, an assistant professor at Stanford’s Graduate School of Education Center for Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity, is a sociocultural and linguistic anthropologist who has been critical of Latinidad. He thinks that people should be aware of who benefits from the construct and who is excluded while at the same time paying attention to institutional actors, both political and economic, that promote an anti-Black and anti-indigenous Latinidad.
“As we critique these labels, we should keep our focus on the political and institutional actors who have an interest in maintaining this group as a consumer base and look at those forces that are invested in Latinidad as it’s currently projected in this country,” Rosa explained.
In the end, Spanish is still a colonizer’s language, and lighter-skinned Latinxs tend to be the ones who benefit the most from Latinidad. In centering a common Spanish or Iberian heritage, the Latinx and Hispanic labels signal proximity to whiteness built on a white supremacist foundation that is reinforced by the media and by those who are invested in marketing products and ideas to people who may fall under these labels. We can simultaneously critique the Latinidad construct and how it is projected onto a diverse group of people and still honor solidarity work that has occurred between groups in the U.S. and throughout the Americas. At the same time, we should examine the contradictions presented in Hispanic or Latinx Heritage Month and respect those who claim identities that aren’t imposed by bureaucracies, marketers, or that center a colonial relationship to Europe.