Latin What? Thoughts About Modern Monikers and Valuing Purity and Tradition in a Beautiful Language
Senior Vice President, CultureBeat
Patricia (Patti) Fernandez
Vice President, Communities & Panels
Two hundred times. That’s how many times I had to write the word “hasta” (“to” or “until” in English) in first grade so that I’d remember a silent H is its first letter. My mother made me do it (multiple times) so that I would later write and spell properly in Spanish and so that it wouldn’t be confused with “asta” which means “pole” (as in what you find holding a U.S. flag). I dreaded it then, but I thank her now for her tenacity—ensuring I learned and respected the language that became the vehicle to express our love for each other. Language is more than just words and sounds; it is emotions, thoughts, decisions, experiences, memories, actions, and tradition.
At the time, writing correctly also mattered because I went to a Catholic school run by Marists from Spain, and they were utterly keen and zealous proponents of the proper use of Spanish. These days, the grown-up multicultural consumer research practitioner in me values the grammatical correctitude as much as the cultural value and heritage of the Spanish language.
LANGUAGE & MARKETING
While languages are, indeed, living and ever-evolving (minus Latin and other antique languages), proper use of language matters for functional reasons in marketing. And that’s true for any language! You have likely seen the cheesy t-shirts with the phrase, “Let’s eat grandma! Let’s eat, grandma! Commas save grandmas.” Cheesy? Yes, yet accurate. As marketing tools go, language is the most basic and quintessential resource marketers have to connect with consumers and convey their brands’ stories. And, while creative and artistic licenses are immensely valuable in branding (think Qdoba, Chick-fil-A, Froot Loops, etc.), proper use of language ensures messages are delivered the way they were intended. Without proper use of language, marketing would be the Wild West of social communications, and there would likely be more liability and trivial lawsuits than there already are.
LATINX, SPANISH GRAMMAR, AND MISINTERPRETED SEXISM
If you have found yourself wondering about or witnessed debates around which term, “Latinos” or “Hispanics,” is the correct one to use: you are not alone. And you were likely more baffled when someone suggested the use of “LatinX” in your marketing communications and strategy. It can be frustrating.
Here’s the short, oversimplified version of grammatical context for Spanish:
- Nouns, articles, and terms that belong to the masculine gender generally—although not always—end in the letter o (“niño” for boy, “abuelo” for grandfather, etc.).
- Most terms ending in a refer to the feminine gender (“niña” for girl, “abuela” for grandmother, etc.).
- In plural form, the above generally applies to either gender.
- However, when both genders are included, the language defaults to what is known as the masculine gender form (“niños” if there are both boys and girls, “abuelos” if referring to both grandma and grandpa).
Enter the famous—or infamous—”LatinX.” It has certainly grown in popularity and is more frequently used today than when it made its original known appearance in the early 2000s. Proponents of the term argue that, traditionally, the Spanish language has promoted an oppressive, patriarchal, and sexist use of language by defaulting plurals to the masculine form. Advocates and neologism enthusiasts might use the rationale, “Why say Latinos if there are women and non-binary in our community? Let’s use ‘LatinX’ instead!” While they mean well by trying to ensure that our language is more inclusive, the language was always inclusive!
We are not linguists; we are researchers. But we argue that those advocating for “LatinX” as the norm fail to see that Spanish is already an inclusive language—one that embraces plurality while respecting the individual. Moreover, they are susceptible to falling into the modern trap of misinterpreting sexism and failing to address the issue of gender identity.
Perhaps because of my mother’s focus on proper spelling and grammar (and my educators’ grammar pedigree), when I heard the word “todos” (“all” or “everyone”) growing up, I never assumed it exclusively referred to males. I knew that females were likely included, because “todos” includes males and females—or just males! Same goes for English. If someone says, “everyone in the room was excited,” it is on me if I assume a gender-exclusive context.
WHY NOT “LATINX ”? WHAT’S THE BIG DEAL?
I argue that the push for the term is capricious, experimental, rebellious, and unnecessary. Not only is the use of the term “LatinX” impractical, it has several pitfalls despite its creative appeal.
- It can lead to confusion in marketing. “So, what is it: “Latinos,” “Hispanics” or “LatinX”?” One might argue that it’s all of them, or some of them, depending on what’s convenient. Confusing? I rest my case.
- It is awkward to pronounce, and it fails to deliver specificity, something that comes in handy in marketing. If non-Spanish speakers already struggle rolling their Rs, imagine what adding this can do to non-Hispanics’ understanding of who we are as a collective and integral part of U.S. society!
- The term undermines Hispanic cultural heritage and tradition. Using the term entails severing ties with the Spanish language and the cultural heritage that millions of people (consumers no less) have fought to have acknowledged in the U.S. social fabric, politics, academia, economy, and all dimensions of life. It suggests that an essential part of who we are, with our values, needs to be relinquished.
- It opens the door for futile and endless linguistic and marketing arguments. What do we do with all the gender-neutral words in our language?
- If the spirit behind the use of the term “LatinX” is advocacy-driven, changing a word in the vernacular is insufficient and will barely scratch the surface. We would rather see efforts focused on active advocacy: promoting inclusion in political discourse, advocating fair employment and compensation practices at work, volunteering for relevant social causes that benefit all Hispanics and all races, etc.
We acknowledge the argument is very much alive, and we are sensitive to the voices advocating for inclusion and diversity in our society, language, and culture. Undoubtedly, more inclusion, tolerance, and acceptance are welcome.
And, while we admit there might be very specific legitimate and strategic reasons to use the term “LatinX” in well-defined and well-designed marketing initiatives (e.g., marketing campaigns aimed at younger Hispanics or creative activation programs, where the use of the term builds on the branding or strategy—for instance, if your brand has the letter x in it), we suggest that the term should be used cautiously.
Hispanics have long worked extremely hard to contribute to U.S. society. Not only do we bring the beauty of diversity to the table, but we also bring a wealth of cultural richness, including food, music, entertainment, politics, business, social causes, and so many other dimensions of our nation’s vibrant life and history. Our language is a vital component of our cultural identity. Burying the words “Hispanic” and “Latino” to make room for a trendier term would be a disservice to that heritage. Rather than focusing on whether to use “LatinX” as a term, focus on the Hispanic and Latino consumer by being inclusive, purposeful, and authentic. Millions of women, men, and non-binary persons make up our cultural identity community—they want to be acknowledged and treated right. They’re not thirsty for a new label; they’re thirsty for respect.