Finding Freedom in Latinx: Why Paola Ramos Embraces the Term
The journalist, author, and activist explains the meaning of "Latinx" and why you should use it.
In the year before COVID-19 infected the nation and the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and others inspired tens of thousands of Americans to rise up and demand justice, journalist Paola Ramos drove to Central Valley, CA, a picturesque region dotted with almond trees and produce crops. She was on her way to meet Byanka Santoyo, a local activist and daughter of farmworkers.
Ramos, a former deputy director of Hispanic media for Hillary Clinton's 2016 campaign, wanted to meet the young woman to learn about her work fighting for better wages and conditions. She also wanted to prove her theory that although the women were born into very different circumstances, they were united by the fact that their life stories were not reflected in the broader narrative about Latinos in the United States.
For Ramos, this feeling of not fully belonging was especially sharp when claiming "Latina" or "Hispanic" as an identity term. Though Ramos was born in Miami, FL, to immigrant parents, she was raised in Madrid, Spain, and spoke Spanish with the accent of a Spaniard, which instantly set her apart. She was queer and had grown up with intellectual privilege (her mother, Gina Montaner, is an acclaimed journalist and columnist for El Nuevo Herald and her father is legendary Univision host Jorge Ramos), far away from the fields of manual labor and cyclical poverty that surrounded Byanka in the farmworkers’ region.
But what Ramos knew was that there was another identity term that did unite the women — the word "Latinx." Ramos had been using it since 2016, and it had "set free the parts of [herself] that had deviated from the norms and traditions of the Latino culture" she knew growing up. "Latinx includes everybody," Ramos tells People CHICA. "People think that it's a term and identity for people on the left or that it's just for queer folks. It is nothing but an open invitation for anyone that has ever felt left out of the 60 million of us."
To find the people who defined "Latinx," Ramos traveled all over the United States. What emerged from her reporting trips is a lucid portrait of new American faces, which she beautifully renders in her new book, Finding Latinx: In Search of the Voices Redefining Latino Identity.
The stories are about a plurality of people who Ramos says are reshaping how the United States will look in the years to come. As she writes in her travelogue, they include: "Queer and gender-nonconforming Latinos who had faced discrimination in their own households … Afro-Latinos who had once been told they didn't 'look Latino enough' … Asian Latinos who had never been asked about their background … young Latino men who never found a voice in the criminal justice system … Gen Zers who had once been ridiculed for 'not speaking Spanish' … Indigenous migrants whose history had been erased, and millennials in border towns and rural communities who wanted a greater platform than those typically given to those residing in the far edges of the country."
For Ramos, these stories threw the "x" into high relief as the one space where all people from the diaspora could unite as one. That unity holds the promise of a fairer America with institutions that work for America's Black, Indigenous, and other POC populations. But to embrace Latinx, we need to understand what it means.
Before "Latinx" arrived on the scene, its etymological relative, "Hispanic," was used in the vernacular. The problem was that "Hispanic" highlighted our "white European colonial past" rather than reveal the full scope of our descendancy that includes our Indigenous, African, or Asian roots. Next, "Latino," a masculine term that was meant to include both the male and female gender, rose in popularity. But the Spanish language assigns genders to nouns, which makes it difficult to be gender-neutral when referring to a person.
Enter Latinx. The word's provenance is often credited to queer Latinx who as early as 2004 sought a fuller range of gender identities expressed in the language. Latinx remained largely unused until it popped up again in a significant way in June 2016, when it was used to describe LGBTQ members of Latin American heritage who were massacred at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, FL.
Activists, students, universities, news outlets, and even corporations and brands quickly adopted Latinx. Yet for all of its popularity in the media, according to the Pew Research Center, only "one in four U.S. Hispanics have heard of Latinx," and a mere three percent actually use it. Nonetheless, a growing chorus of voices is asserting that usage of the term will increase because, at its core, the "x" in "Latinx" allows space for anyone’s otherness to be accounted for.
Ramos, 32, is one of those voices, and she is urging politicians to pay attention. "[Latinx] can include a liberal person and a conservative one," she says. "What the election has shown us [is] that Latinos are liberal, but we are also conservative. We like progressive policies, but we, too, perpetuate racism." And if politicians want to keep the younger Latinx bloc supporting their platform in local, state, and national elections, they will need to understand who is embracing the term and why.
So who are America's Latinx? We meet Mayra and Paula, activists known locally as Las Poderosas (The Powerful Women), who work in Hidalgo County in the Rio Grande Valley region in Texas. They inform local women about their reproductive rights and address their abortion concerns. Writes Ramos: "These ladies have figured out the million-dollar question most progressive elected officials haven't: how to talk to Latinas about abortions. During the 2016 election, I remember we always shied away from using that term in the community, always tiptoed around an issue everyone deemed 'taboo'…[but] when you root this issue in a simple matter of dignity, it abides by the principles enshrined in faith."
There are so many more caras americanas. In Canton, Georgia, there's Candy, a Guatemalan-born woman of Maya ancestry — one of thousands in Georgia — whose primary language was Q'anjob'al and who learned Spanish and English when she moved to the United States. She leads Maya kids in commemorating the September 11th tragedy because, as Ramos writes, it's "one of the only days of the year when Americans choose to see ourselves as one, united as Americans."
In Miami, we meet Angel Sanchez, a law student who previously spent 12 years in prison. Angel is an activist who used his story to help persuade Floridians to pass Amendment 4, which would restore voting rights to most former felons.
In Baltimore, there's Jonathan Jayes-Green. He's Afro-Panamanian, queer, undocumented, and the co-founder of UndocuBlack Network, an organization that offers fellowship and policy remedies to help Black immigrants recover from the effects of being undocumented and being targeted by law enforcement for the color of their skin.
What do these people all have in common beyond resiliency? They are the new generation of Latinx voices speaking up for their loved ones who were afraid to make their travails known or didn't know how to bring about lasting, positive change. These Latinx voices are also letting politicians know how their friends, neighbors, families, and co-workers live. And with Ramos's Latinx frame, we see who we really are and will bring about the change our American Latinx community needs.
It's only a matter of time.
For more with Paola, look for the new issue of People en Español, on stands now.