Updated: Oct 19, 2022
By Alexandria Román Irizarry
In Dr. Cristóbal Salinas' class on "Latin*: Challenging norms of language, patriarchy and gender", I learned a great deal about the history, use, and misuse of the term Latinx in higher education. As a Ph.D. student interested in studying el lenguaje inclusivo in Spanish, particularly the use of morphemes –e and –x as gender-neutral alternatives in Spanish, this class challenged my initial assumptions about the term Latinx and the use of –x in Spanish.
As someone who was born and raised in Puerto Rico for 24 years of her life, I identify as puertorriqueña and not so much with Latina because it is not a label that we use much in Puerto Rico. Therefore the term Latina feels a bit foreign to me. Nevertheless, the first time I encountered Latinx was when I was doing my undergraduate honors thesis on the –x as a gender-inclusive morpheme in Spanish. I reached out to a gender studies professor at the University of Puerto Rico, and she pointed me to Vidal Ortiz and Martinez's work (2018). It was in their paper that I first encountered the term Latinx. As someone who had been immersed in a linguistic environment, the University of Puerto Rico at Río Piedras, where students and activists would write things with –x instead of the masculine generic –o (e.g., Educación accessible para todxs lxs estudiantes), seeing the term Latinx instead of Latino was not surprising to me. And so, I thought it was cool that the neutral value of the –x was crossing not only languages but also different contexts (mainland US versus colonized Puerto Rico). However, as I presented the results of my undergraduate thesis at conferences in the United States, I noticed that people asked me about my opinion on the term Latinx. At the time (2019-2020), I thought that it was used the same way as the –x was used by Puerto Rican students and activists, as a gender-neutral alternative for people that identify outside the male/female binary. I was unaware that, unlike in my context, where –x was frequently used with different nouns, articles, and adjectives due to Spanish's grammatical gender system, the term was heavily politized in the US as it was confounded with nationality. My initial reaction was to think that the discourse on lenguaje inclusivo and the term Latinx were completely different due to the different contexts in which they were used. However, after taking Dr. Salinas' class, I have realized that the gap between lenguaje inclusivo and the term Latinx is not as comprehensive as I initially thought. I think that what we know today about the term Latinx can be used to understand lenguaje inclusivo in Spanish better. In his research, Dr. Salinas has shown us that originally Latinx was intended to (1) visibilize non-binary and gender non-conforming people in language, and (2) to decenter the use of the masculine generic in Spanish by naming the Latino community Latinx.
Despite this well-intentioned, using Latinx to refer to a whole community of people of Latin American descent brought unexpected challenges. Cis-gender and trans people were referred to as Latinx, which led to the neutralization of gender and the erasure of the struggles that come with identifying with a gender minority. This, in turn, led some trans and gender-nonconforming folks to stop using the term Latinx because it was stolen from them. These speakers have moved to other innovative forms such as Latine, Latini, and Latinu. To correct the misunderstandings caused by Latinx, Dr. Salinas proposes the term Latin*, where the star invites readers to "fill in" the space with their gender marker of choice. This serves as a way in which the reader can choose how to identify themselves instead of having to be misgendered by the researcher. And so, the star represents the potential that Latinx had, without the political connotations associated with the pan-ethnic term.
When I think about the queer community in Puerto Rico that uses non-binary Spanish, I wonder how they would react to the use of the star instead of –x and –e, which are the predominant non-binary forms in language. Even though my experiences with the queer community in Puerto Rico have shown me that these two morphemes are used both in written and oral discourse, there is still much we need to understand and learn. Would they be willing to adopt the star in place of –x and –e? Or would they reject the star because it would exclude people that rely on text-to-speech programs? In regards to the x, how is the –x in lenguaje inclusivo different from the –x and Latinx? How are speakers using the different meanings of –x? In other words, is –x being used as the new epicene instead of –o? If so, will this lead to the same neutralization of gender that the term Latinx caused? Will speakers eventually move to the morpheme –e because it is already present in gender-neutral nouns? What happens to the visibility of cis and trans women when the new generic plural neutralizes them in language? How do gender-conscious Spanish speakers navigate these tensions? All of these questions require further research, which I hope to be able to explore in my work further. I thank the Lavender Languages Institute for challenging me to revise my original assumptions by moving from what I think I know to what I don't know.
Alexandra “Alex” Román Irizarry was born and raised in Bayamón, Puerto Rico. She grew up in a bilingual household where she spoke Spanish and English with her parents and older brother, often mixing the two languages. Her early life experience as a Spanish-English bilingual led her to discover her passion for studying languages. Alex has a BA in Modern Languages (i.e., French, Mandarin, and Japanese) and Hispanic Linguistics from the University of Puerto Rico, Río Piedras Campus (UPRRP). At UPRRP, Alex experienced firsthand what it was like to be in a community of students that used lenguaje inclusivo “Non-Binary Spanish.” As a linguistics, and someone who recently discovered her cuir [queer] identity, Alex decided to study lenguaje inclusivo by combining psycholinguistic and sociolinguistic methods. Alex is a second-year Ph.D. student at the University of California Irvine’s School of Education. She works with Dr. Judith Kroll at the Bilingualism, Mind, and Brain Lab, and with Dr. Julio Torres at El Areyto Lab. As a graduate student, Alex is studying the cognitive and social factors involved in the linguistic processing of lenguaje inclusivo. Alex is also a Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship (MMUF) Alumni and a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship Program (NSF GRFP) Fellow.
UCI Portfolio: Alexadnra Román Irizarry
Bilingualism, Mind, and Brain Lab: Alexandra Roman Irizarry
“Be a Fruit Loop in a world full of Cheerios”
What advice would you tell other graduate students?
The best advice I can give to graduate students or aspiring graduate students is to find your voice and never let it go. It is crucial for you to believe in yourself and the potential that your ideas have, even if a renowned scholar tells you they are not worth pursuing. I once had someone I looked up to in academia tell me researching lenguaje inclusivo was not worth it because it was such a small thing in the cosmos it wasn’t even worth doing. That message almost made me not apply to graduate school and give up on my dream of becoming an academic, but I was lucky enough to have the support of my partner and my undergraduate advisors at UPRRP. The bottom-line message here is to find a place where your ideas will be respected and validated, even if that means turning to Faculty that are outside your field of study. I found my place at UCI with Dr. Kroll and Dr. Torres, I hope many of you can find your own place as well! And remember “Be a Fruit Loop in a world full of Cheerios”!