[I recommend first reading my article “What the Hex a Latinx?” to familiarize yourself with the origin and purpose of the term “Latinx” as used by progressive people of Latin American descent.]
Within hours of being sworn in as governor of Arkansas, Sara Huckabee Sanders issued seven executive orders. One of them forbids the teaching of critical race theory in schools. Another prohibits the use of the term “Latinx” in government documents.
Why these two particular targets? How does banning them tie into the political goals of the new governor and her party?
Both are tools, largely constructed and promoted by progressive people of color, for reframing conversations dominated by straight white voices. CRT is a theoretical lens for uncovering systemic racial bias in law, media, literature, etc. And “Latinx” is an umbrella term that seeks maximum inclusivity of gender when describing people of Latin American descent, usually as they stand in political solidarity with each other.
In order to paint progressives as intolerant and hateful, Republicans have reframed CRT as an attempt to “make kids feel guilty about being white.” Distracting their base and ill-informed independents, the GOP can then draw attention away from the well-documented critiques of their own white supremacy while wrestling with the strawman they’ve created.
Governor Sanders and those of her ilk are attempting something similar with the term “Latinx.” Having noted that there was some pushback from the more traditional, conservative, and older segments of different Latin-American communities in the US, the GOP have systematically sought to wedge their fear of progressives into those cracks, widening them into gaps and chasms in the hope of either enticing or frightening voters who’ve historically supported Democrats into abandoning ship.
It’s an unconscionable tactic. Certainly, there’s a debate going on about what labels our communities should use when standing in solidarity. I’m Mexican American, but when I’m on a panel with Cuban, Guatemalan, and Peruvian friends of multiple genders, the question of what we should call ourselves collectively matters. While there is no consensus, it’s an internal conversation fraught by vestiges of colonialism, colorism, nationalism, transphobia, queermisia, and so forth.
It’s absolutely a fact that the vast majority of US residents of Latin American descent (see how unwieldy circumlocutions can be?) don’t call themselves collectively Latinx folks (or latines in Spanish). But many do. In the circles that I move in — scholars, academics, teachers, librarians, writers — and among the Gen Alpha kids that I present to at schools, that secondary label is increasingly prevalent. And it is meant in the most positive way possible, not as an obligation, but as an option for those trying to make their language as gender-neutral and inclusive as possible.
Not a single progressive Latinx I know would “correct” someone else for saying “Latinos” to refer to the cultural group, nor would they ever encourage members of their community to abandon their primary labels (Chicana, Cuban, Dominican, Boricua) to solely use Latinx / latine for self-identification. However, prompted by right-wing outsider interference, reactionaries in our community have decided to perceive the use of neologisms in that way.
Now that they have fomented that internal strife, Republicans appear bent on leveraging it to shatter the Latinx political coalition that has been a thorn in their side for decades. Painting themselves as the true defenders of the dignity of “Hispanics” (a label that emphasizes our rootedness in white, European Spain), GOP politicians are railing against such “woke” terminology.
The tactic is evidenced by the way Governor Sanders cites the Real Academia Española and a single Pew research report as showing that “Latinx” is incorrect, unpopular, and offensive: “ethnically insensitive” and “pejorative language,” to quote her executive order.
Of course, in reality, this white saviorism is a smokescreen for further oppression of minority viewpoints, both from communities of color and from the LGBTQ+ community. Yet I have seen fellow Mexican Americans in my own Rio Grande Valley fall for the rhetoric.
It’s not an unfamiliar tactic. For the better part of a century, the US Right has been dangling the forbidden fruit of whiteness before Latinx folks — nearly all of us racially mixed, blends of Indigenous, African, and European. LULAC, the League of United Latin American Citizens, urged Latinx folks in the mid-20th century to assimilate into the dominant European culture of the US. Since they swallowed the Right’s lie that racism was purely an individual and not a systemic phenomenon, that version of LULAC — like modern reactionary “Hispanics” — imagined that they could combat discrimination within the framework of autocratic white capitalism.
That assimilationist viewpoint pushes back hard against any radical members of a given Latin American community who insist on rocking the boat with progressive demands to dismantle and remake social institutions. And I submit that such a backlash is what we’re beholding today: the last gasp of a white supremacist framework for society, thrashing against the looming threat of true pluralism, democracy, and freedom.
Latinx has become a shibboleth now rather than simply an inclusive option. The enemies of diversity and inclusivity have drawn a line in the proverbial sand.
But I know which side I choose. Dignity, every time.