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Finding Latinx: A Book Review and Reflection

Photo from Paola Ramos on Twitter

Over the past few years, the use of “Latinx'' has gained a lot of traction but definitely not without controversy.

The term “Latinx” made its debut in the late 2000s. In 2015, it was officially added to the Oxford English Dictionary and while there’s no clear definition of the word, it usually refers to a person of Latin American origin or descent. “Latinx” is a gender-neutral or non-binary alternative to the gendered words “Latino” or “Latina.”

Some dislike the word because it’s too exclusive, leaving out Black and Indigenous people. Others highlight how the “x” at the end alienates non-English speakers, because of the difficulty of pronunciation in languages like Spanish and Portuguese. Many understand the term to be too absolute a way for LGBTQ+ people from Latin America — or of Latin American descent — to identify, the argument being that the use of “Latinx” as an all-encompassing term overshadows LGBTQ+ recognition and identity.

Even still, there are some who appreciate the term as an inclusive alternative for everyone regardless of race, sexuality and location — including Vice News, Telemundo and MSNBC correspondent Paola Ramos, author of the novel “Finding Latinx: In Search of the Voices Redefining Latino Identity.

Ramos began identifying with the term “Latinx” in 2016. For Ramos, the “x” at the end of the word “set free the parts of myself that had deviated from the norms and traditions of the Latino culture I grew up in in a way that, interestingly, made me closer to, not further from, my own community.”

In her book, she sets out across the United States to put faces and names to what she deems as the Latinx identity.

Throughout her book, Ramos interviews people in the South, Southwest and Midwest to find out more about their life experiences, perspectives and hardships. The chapters and sections feel like vignettes, giving you just enough to form a momentary connection to the people Ramos speaks with, but not enough to feel like you know their whole story — which is one of the most fascinating things about this book.

While Ramos’ storytelling provides enough information to begin understanding the person Ramos is highlighting, she never circles back to them. There is no way for the reader to check back in with the transmigrant, Karolina, who migrated to the U.S. from Mexico in 1995 and spent three years in a detention center before being granted asylum in 2012 or with the unnamed asylum-seeking Guatemalan woman and her son at Casa Alitas. Instead, the reader must take in the complexity and nuances of Latinx identity in the moment in order to recognize that there is no single clear-cut way to identify as Latinx. Having to process the identity encourages readers to understand that variety exists even under a label that broadly encompasses different experiences, different home countries, different sexualities, races and locations.

I read this book as a Puerto Rican graduate student who has spent the last two years studying Latina/x representation in media. In other words, I wasn’t coming to the book as a beginner. I was in search of a new outlook from Ramos — one that would be adding to the conversation that many scholars, activists and students are having and have been having for years. Overall, I found the book interesting, but I couldn’t tell if Ramos’ goal was really just to put names and faces to a community that is often homogenized under broad labels or if there was something more to be said.

Photo from Penguin Random House

On this topic, Afro-Indigenous poet, installation and adornment artist Alán Pelaez Lopez said: “Transgender and gender-nonconforming Latin Americans living in the U.S. have used the “x” as a reminder that their bodies are still experiencing a colonization invested in disciplining them to fit a standard gender identity, gender presentation, sexual orientation and a particular sexual performance.”

While I understand and appreciate Ramos’ idealized inclusivity of the term “Latinx,'' I'm not sold on it. In the span of just over 300 pages, Ramos introduces us to so many different people who fall under the umbrella of “Latinx” — but that’s just it, Latinx is nothing more than an umbrella term (in some ways, so are “Latino,” “Latina” and “Hispanic,” but that’s a discussion for another day).

It’s no surprise that U.S. mainstream media often groups together people from various Latin American countries or of Latin American descent under broad stereotypical personality traits and common cultural traditions. This kind of generalization has been going on for years. We see it in entertainment media, in politics, on the news, in magazines, the list could go on. Even as groups advocate for a greater understanding and representation of who “Latinos'' or “Hispanics” or “Latinxs” are, we still see homogenization, we still see a reduction to tropes and stereotypes, the centering of white bodies and the marginalization of Afro-Latinos.

Advocating for the use of “Latinx” deserves such a complex conversation, that in some ways I feel Ramos doesn’t flesh it out enough. Yes, she calls attention to the different people who identify as Latinx, but this analysis is constrained to certain parts of the U.S. What about the remainder of the U.S.? What about the people living in Latin America? There are so many stories left out of the narrative.

This isn’t all on Ramos, though. There will never be one term that suits everyone, much less one that everyone can agree upon. Many of the younger generations like the fluidity of the term “Latinx.” But on the other hand, older generations may choose to identify as Hispanic or Latino or they may opt for a country-specific identification. Additionally, when using the term “Latinx,” I think we need to be cautious of how we define it and who we’re intentionally or unintentionally leaving out of the conversation — a discussion I didn’t really see go into enough depth in the book.

Personally, I identify more with a location-specific approach first and then a broad approach second. In other words, I would identify myself as Puerto Rican before saying I’m a Latina and I wouldn’t say I’m Latinx. But, that’s just me. There may never be a set way to define the group as a whole but ultimately, the most important thing is to simply understand the way people choose to identify themselves and to respect what that means for them.

Whether they are “Latinx” or “Paraguayan” or “Hispanic” there will always be complexities in all terms, but the identity is personal.

If you enjoy “Finding Latinx” and are looking for other books about Latinos/as/xs, you may be interested in the following books:

  • Karla Cornejo Villavicencio’s “The Undocumented Americans”

  • Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s “Mexican Gothic”

  • Carmen Maria Machado’s “In the Dreamhouse”

  • Jaquira Díaz’s “Ordinary Girls”

To read the rest of Alan Pelaez Lopez’s statement on the use of the word “Latinx,” check out their article “The X In Latinx Is A Wound, Not A Trend” on Color Bloq.

See more of Paola Ramos’ work on her website, Instagram, and Twitter.

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