THE PROVENANCE of the LatinX term is different than the “Latin” ethnoracial classifications of the not-too-distant past, the Latino/a (or Latina/o) and Latin@ now limping toward senectitude. Whereas Latina/o and Latin@ put forth the ethical inclusion of gender within the Latina and Latino landscape, individuals and networks challenging the exclusion produced by rigid gender assignment and ethnoracial expectations have gravitated toward the LatinX configuration, which Merriam-Webster added to its dictionary in September 2018 (Schaub 2018).
A cadre of activists and news outlets has weighed in on the impetus for ungendering Spanish and the relationship among language, subjectivity, and inclusion (see Latino USA 2016). My intent is not to undermine or dismiss the X’s usefulness and political logic for transgender and other queer-identifying individuals. “The use of the ‘x’ is really important to me,” Chicanx performance artist Artemisa Clark told one venue. “The ‘x’ shows a development of broader Latinx movements, one more actively concerned with issues of gender and queerness” (Padilla 2016). As with Clark, this meditation is not about semantics. My scholarly and creative energies are far from attempting to get the X “straight.” Alba Onofrio, a North Carolina activist, stressed in teleSUR’s electronic pages that LatinX parallels the political use of queer, along the lines of: “‘We are queer and we have a critique of the system, and we want to be entirely different and not just let in.’ That’s the same thing I hear happening with Latinx.” Onoforio continues: “Having the ‘x’ is a way of acknowledging that politicization, even in writing it. It’s like, ‘Fuck the binary, I won’t participate in that.’ I’m not gonna take part in your ‘o’ or ‘a,’ you can’t make me choose” (Jamal 2017).
Onoforio’s observations extract what seems to be painfully clear and available to us in our digital moment: binary, a way of being, has invaded multiple aspects of our present day, from the gendered Latino or Latina, from digital profile to real-life presence, and from writer to reader. Isa Noyola, a program director at the Transgender Law Center, emphasizes that LatinX “is the remedy to the binary, to ignorance and limiting possibilities. It’s what’s on the other side of basicness” (Rivas 2017). For poet, visual artist, and ethnic studies scholar Alan Pelaez Lopez, the X visualizes the Latin American diaspora as both wound and the ongoing wounding of Latinidad (2018). Given its ascendancy, it behooves self-identified LatinXs and pundits, in and out of the academy, to unearth its workings from theoretical, ethnographic, and policy vantage points.
X is a matter for mathematicians, theorists, popular culture practitioners, medical professionals, artists, activists, and ever so many more. Terry Moore, polymath and director of the nonprofit organization the Radius Foundation, delivered a popular TED Talk viewed 3,677,765 times (and counting) entitled, “Why Is ‘X’ the Unknown?” (2012). The conceit of his thesis is that medieval Spanish scholars could not translate certain Arabic sounds such as the letter “sheen” (or, “shin”). X is the mathematical unknown “because you can’t say ‘sh’ in Spanish.” The X is not self-evident, as there is already some mathematical problem at work that must be solved empirically. And yet the X as praxis, as Moore notes, is “everywhere in our culture,” underscoring that there is no burden of proof in forging a nexus with the X in everyday contexts.
Recall, for brevity’s sake, this X storehouse charting various material culture clues: X Prize; X Games; Xbox; Xs and Os, or tic-tac-toe; the X and O wings of “the infamous maximum security cell blocks” where prison activist and Black Panther Party member George Jackson “and others had been incarcerated” (Treviño 2001,183); the epistolary tradition of ending love letters with XOXO for hugs and kisses; an X as a sign for college admission, or the likelihood of acceptance, such as the one a young Sonia Sotomayor uncovered in a postcard from Princeton prior to being appointed U.S. Supreme Court Justice (2013, 118); the X street markings approximating where, in 1963, President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas’s Dealey Plaza; the Roman numeral X; the Los Angeles punk rock group X; the English band the xx (and while jamming to their music, imbibing Dos Equis lagers); XXXX as a substitute for a four-letter swear word; a shady X rating for material to be viewed by adults only; an acne cleanser branded as X Out; XS or XL to abbreviate garment size specifications; X-rays and, as one may say for extraordinary human eyesight, X-ray vision; the X chromosome; SpaceX, the American aerospace manufacturer; “Desert X,” the outdoor art exhibition in the Coachella Valley; Marvel’s X-Men mutant superheroes and their X-filled world featuring Professor X, the X-Mansion, the X-Gene; The X Files; Project X; The X Factor; American History X; TEDx; Generation X, that body of individuals that, in author Kurt Vonnegut’s ready wit, is “two clicks away from the very end of the alphabet” (1994); and, as U.S. Latina and Latino sociopolitical identities evince nowadays, LatinX.
Unlike Latino/a, LatinX’s linguistic details intimate that they are echoes reflecting everywhere. Hence my reason for capitalizing the X at the term’s end: LatinX synchs up, not so sotto voce, with a multitude of discourses and signifiers already in the public eye. The dual-directional semiotics demand a double process of disentanglement for Latin and the X. To step into LatinX being and LatinX spaces means to be as much Latin as X, for as Roland Barthes might put it, X is the sign of our social and ethnoracial world, and it marks our behavior in it. The LatinX horizon bumps up against so many daily uses in a way that Latino/a does (or did) not. There is almost nothing to break down: Latin is occupying a plethora of things in this munificent “X” gathering. One could not, as a case in point, readily “see” the labels Latina and Latino in, say, the Xbox (or, “LatinXbox,” if you wish). The X also stands for anonymity, as when indigenous groups “signed over” their property and land rights to colonizing Europeans, or when Malcolm X claimed the symbol as an action of interpellation to be admitted into American society. LatinX conveniently appears to slide in as it moves “the” Latina and Latino out of the way.
But is it a sticky term? Is it a theoretical breakthrough? Does the X turn into our “common” language? And what does it mean when social and political problems with gender are not enunciated—when they are somehow not being attended to through LatinX, even as gender served as the catalyst for the move toward LatinX?
Previously, the distinction of the o/a in Latino/a was being forced into English discourse. Replacing the o/a in Latin with an X pushes these subjectivities far away. Both transgender and cisgender individuals are now, on the face of it, equally LatinX. And yet this is the reason there is both skepticism and excitement for a term like LatinX. It is restive and hard to pin down, and it pushes against those things we thought we knew and understood.
The very appellation of Latino/a, Latina/o, Latin@, and LatinX Studies speaks to the field’s open-endedness. The intellectual language that frames Latino/a Studies at the institutional level enunciates and references the tensions and instability of Latina and Latino embodiments in its multiple iterations. Ironically the one static “thing” that stands “there”—unasked—is another gender-neutral term, centuries-old, with its own problematic conundrum: “Latin.” The approaches to the queries just raised—what LatinX is, or can be—indeed vary and are evolving. They motivate us to keep open a sense of intellectual curiosity, or “the philosophy of curiosity,” as Ilhan Inan puts it (2012).
This conceptual exploration raises a host of questions along the way. It is a thinking piece that rhetorically performs attempts at coming to know something. I delve into the instability of the matter: to feel the pulse on the open X-ness of it all as well as the abstractions and motley connections that are happening with this new signifier. My recurrent concerns are a way of going about something larger—a philosophical unknown where the interrelated questions being asked could be approached differently and reworked—well beyond these pages’ scope. Scrutiny admits discursive engagement: it is a method of contemplation that encourages people to be part of the conversation because they are, after all, part of this analytic endeavor. Building on questions, as translator Edith Grossman postulates, peg “the almost impenetrable difficulty of a subject” (2010, 5–6).
X-Bodies: Symbolic Locations of the X
Long before LatinX’s extant materialization, Chicana and Chicano ethnoracial articulations of “X-bodies,” to borrow from cultural theorist Scott Bukatman (1994), attest that the X has been a significant precursor to the exploration of self-naming and of going from being an “un-identified” group to new political subjects. An abridged tally of Chicana and Chicano orientations toward the X illuminates, as historian Arturo F. Rosales summarizes, that the category “derived from the ancient Nahuatl word mexicano with the ‘x’ being pronounced as a ‘shh’ sound” (1997, 261). Feminist activist and playwright Cherríe Moraga makes known that she motions toward “Xicana and Xicano with an X (the Nahuatl spelling of the ‘ch’ sound) to indicate a re-emerging política, especially among young people, grounded in Indigenous American belief systems and identities” (2011, xxi). Together with those denominations, the distinction of MeXicanas and MeXicanos arises in Moraga’s A Xicana Codex of Changing Consciousness, a collection of essays and poems published in 2011. In it, the X “reflects the Indian identity that has been robbed from us through colonization, akin to Malcolm X’s use of the letter in place of his ‘slave’ name [. . .] As many Raza may not know their specific indigenous nation of origin, the X links us as Native people in diaspora” (xxi). Per critic Juan Velasco, this symbol has fashioned “a performative model of subjectivity through the recuperation and reconstruction of ‘X’ as a signifier of the Indian” (1996, 226).
In 1984’s The House on Mango Street, poet and novelist Sandra Cisneros ascribed the X to the young Esperanza, who desires to begin afresh through an alias. Therein, Esperanza christens herself as “Zeze the X”: “a name more like the real me, the one nobody sees” (13). Hers is not a perfect designation, but “something” that “will do.” The “Zeze”/seesee alliteration carves out a moniker with a personal value, an X identifiable to—and voiced by—the self, and perhaps mirrored by “the other,” the reader who must pronounce Zeze the X’s “funny” name. Writer Ana Castillo proposed, in 1994, the term Xicanisma as an approach to Chicana feminism that would “allow for self-evaluation” through one’s “indigenous connection to the Americas” and perspectives (161, 6). Xicanisma—or, “Xicanista” as Roberto Rodríguez, author of the syndicated “Column of the Americas” for Universal Press Syndicate, speaks of it—is “a fusion between Chicanas, feministas, and activistas” (1996, 7). Castillo’s Xicanisma strives “to understand ourselves in the world, it may also help others who are not of Mexican background or women. It is yielding and based on integration, not dualisms” (1994, 166). Her frame of reference aspired to be “carried out to our work places, social gatherings, kitchens, bedrooms, and the public sphere” (21).
In 1996, Rodríguez self-published The X in La Raza: An Anti-Book. The X rewrites “problems of representation around new notions of difference” (Velasco 1996, 220). Rodríguez’s X elicits Xicano participation “in indigenous networks throughout the Americas, particularly in support of the Zapatistas,” thus forming the “X generation” (6, 8). On the Mexican literary front, author, philosopher, and diplomat Alfonso Reyes penned, in 1951, La X en la frente (or, “X on the Forehead”) alluding to the enigmatic homeland and national challenges as an X. “Once you bring up the question of the X,” Reyes remarked, “you open the problem. The word Mexico: should it be written with an x or a j?” (129; my translation).
Philological concerns aside, Reyes’s X functions as a crossing of planes and roads. He deems it “as a historical relic, a discreet sign” that allows Mexicans “to recognize each other thanks to that X on the forehead” as a cultural identifier (Molina 2012; my translation). The X on the forehead potentially evokes the popular expression, or indictment, by Mexicans to Mexicans of having “el nopal en la frente,” or “a cactus on the forehead.” This negative saying, a projection of origins and value, is uttered when someone does not recognize or denies one’s “authentic” Mexicanness. While we all understand what a cactus is, we do not share its cultural meaning. If the forehead’s X designates a symbolic location, it depends on others to confirm that it is there, as no one can see what is on their forehead. The correlative to the cultural meaning of cactus is that otherness, rather than the self, determines it. The self is minimized in this transaction because the X on the forehead is mutable.
Literary critic Gloria Elizabeth Chacón lays out how LatinX unfolds for indigenous Mesoamerican populations and their presupposed fixed—and “non-alphabetic” in the Western sense—recognizability. LatinX “troubles ways of knowing and what is known about the Indian.” The X’s explicit shape (its slashes) infer “a violent juxtaposition of two different temporalities, calendars, and historical genealogies. The X makes a return to the sixteenth-century use of the Latin language, when, during this ‘LatinX moment,’ the X’s phoneme expanded to represent an indigenous language sound. It is a confrontation between the Latin and indigenous languages—a ‘mother tongue’ that refuses gendered language. Feminine/masculine articles don’t exist in Maya or Zapotec. But this does not mean that gendered ideologies are nonexistent.” X is not a facile substitute but a collision evoking a presence, old and new. It is a powerful reminder that this X is sayable in the present tense and cannot fade. Under Chacón’s premise, “The X is the ineffable indigenous language that keeps returning, a spontaneous ‘speech’ that attempts to resemanticize the Indian that has been physically, sexually, culturally, nationally, and geographically crossed—X’ed—out. Still, LatinX can also be an ethical position that engages with indigenous populations—X’s—that are implicated everywhere in the US Latino/a worlds and its ‘others.’” LatinX, as a shared signifier moving back and forth, is an opening toward social affiliations and political allegiances (Chacón 2019, 51–52).
Some scholars bemoan LatinX’s overuse and misuse, appraising it as “an elitist attempt to erase a history of more traditional gender roles, or as a distraction from other pressing issues facing Latinos in the United States” (Nuño-Pérez and Aviles 2019). This rift downplays how LatinXness can partake in ethical demands and dilemmas, political emergencies, care for society, and higher intellectual pursuits. For Houston-based writer and performer Josh Inocéncio, LatinX’s X “Anglicizes (i.e., whitewashes)” Latinas and Latinos. He advocates, instead, for another alternative term, “Latine,” with an emphasis on the “e.” Latine, under his scope of interest, “is more consistent with Spanish pronunciations and is gender neutral” (2017). U.S. LatinXs are positioned as this identifier’s primary users, imposing it on the Hispanophone Americas.
But as the Spanish international news agency EFE has reported, both the X and the e are employed in the region’s evolving linguistic landscape. The wire service has written that these letters’ prevalence—gaining much traction in nations like Argentina—is driven by the feminist movement, transgender communities, and youth to include dissidences. Schools employ gender-neutral Xs and e’s. One EFE source declared, “the reality is that most of the teachers speak with the ‘e’ and write with the ‘x.’ Many of the students’ tests are written in an inclusive language” (EFE 2019). Infobae, an online Argentine news outlet, headlined this debate on genderless Spanish, asking, “Is the Spanish Language Sexist?: The Debate about the ‘at’ Sign, the X, and Sexist Terms” (Benavides 2018). The Royal Academy of Spanish (RAE), the world’s largest institution safeguarding the language’s proper uses, has unequivocally dismissed any word ending with an X, @, or e (Jenner 2018). Hark back to this rather persnickety RAE tweet: “It is not permissible to use the letter ‘x’ or ‘e’ as a gender mark. It is also unnecessary, since the masculine grammar works in our language, as in others, as an inclusive term to refer to mixed collectives, or in generic or nonspecific contexts” (January 22, 2018).
To quote journalist Socorro Carrillo, LatinX “is equal parts social-media firestorm, social movement, and social divider” in the United States (2016). The millennial-targeted website Fusion—a digital space the Atlantic calls “the corporate ‘Frankenbaby’ of ABC and Univision” (Meyer 2015)—“allows and champions the use of Latinx, but if an individual identifies as Latino or Latina, we honor that preference and identify them as such” (Rivas 2017). The Huffington Post employs LatinX as a term to collectively denote Latinas and Latinos, “rather than only those who identify as genderqueer” (Carrillo 2016). LatinX communicates gender disruption, veers toward gender neutrality, embraces fluidity and multiple geographies, and speaks to “a mix of different ‘latin-esque races’” (Reichard 2015).
LatinX, as a term and lifestyle, is being packaged—or, “coded”—and “sold” to U.S. and Latin American bicultural audiences. On October 3, 2018, Telemundo and E! News premiered a weekly thirty-minute entertainment, fashion, and celebrity gossip program, Latinx Now! Produced in both English and Spanish, Latinx Now! airs on E! News’s and Telemundo Entretenimiento’s YouTube channels. As an NBCUniversal executive commented, the show’s formula strives “to bring relevant and engaging content to our GenM (millennial, multicultural, mobile) audience and offer more choices and flexibility” (Marti 2018). X—always updated and refreshed, with immediate access on the go—is the cultural climate of our time, marking the “things” that NBCUniversal’s GenM is made of.
American Theatre magazine devoted a special section in 2016 to “Latinx Theatre in the U.S.” It explained that while Latina/o has “never taken hold as a style in most publications,” LatinX “has emerged as the most inclusive adjective for people of all gender expressions.” Yet this edition pointed out that “Latinx makes a poor noun; though we’ve certainly heard people try, ‘Latinx-es’ doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue. What’s more, the indeterminacy of ‘x,’ which can sound inclusive in an adjective, feels somehow inhuman in a noun (person = x?)” (Weinert-Kendt). With this interrogation in mind, and in a context where undocumented migrants are dehumanized, the X does not necessarily present an option for liberation or self-realization in the American theater of our daily lives.
Recall the X utilized for railroad crossings and the different meanings and unnamable hauntings this dangerous mode of transportation may connote for unauthorized Central American migrants (see Martínez 2014). They board the freight trains known as the Beast en route to the United States from Mexico. The X-ing here is not really a crossing. It is an X-out, a crossing-out, a continuous embodiment of X: X as expulsion, expendability, being expunged. X can also mean the unfamiliar—X as a blank—as not having a crossing or many points in common. The “alienation or dislocation” that “los otros dreamers” find upon being deported—or returned—to some Latin American nations signals that “many of these young people have no childhood memories of Mexico, no immediate family in Mexico” (Anderson and Solis 2014, 13, 1). Scholar Jorge Huerta joked in American Theatre that “‘Latinx’ sounds like the name of a laxative (‘Latinx—get all the shit out!’).” Writer, director, and performer Raquel Amalzan told this same venue: “Latinx is a rejection of stereotypical representation and the limitations of the colonial past, and an attempt to move us into the future” (2016).
LatinX’s deeper reaches are found, too, in the Ford Foundation’s recent philanthropic work. In September 2016, the foundation partnered with acclaimed Cuban American conceptual artist Teresita Fernández to hold the U.S.–Latinx Arts Futures Symposium at its Manhattan headquarters, bringing together leading visual artists, museum directors, curators, and scholars. The hosts used the LatinX qualifier, Fernández punctuated, to avoid the “default term [that] often becomes masculine: ‘Latino’” (Morton 2016). LatinX is part of “a ‘linguistic revolution’ that [. . .] is inclusive of the intersecting identities of Latin American descendants living in the U.S.” Fernández gives attention to how “the term implies a new conversation, one that purposefully seeks to address the intersectionalities that Latinxs represent across race, class, and nonbinary gender. As an inclusive term, it also gives a very specific space to young Latinxs. [. . .] It was important [. . .] to frame the day’s conversation around the future, which will be defined by this younger generation that relates more to the term ‘Latinx’ than to ‘Latino/a’” (Morton 2016).
Academic tomes attest to the unfolding of a canonical lexicon for twenty-first century Latinas and Latinos. Historian Gary Y. Okihiro explicates in Third World Studies: Theorizing Liberation that he subscribes to LatinX as a “nongendered form of Latina/o that implicates race, gender, sexuality, class, and nation and their intersections” (2016, 173). Guest editors Macarena Gómez-Barris and Licia Fiol-Matta employed LatinX in their 2014 special issue of American Quarterly (or, Las Américas Quarterly) “to signal a route out of gender binaries and normativities we can no longer rehearse. From the South and in the borderlands, the ‘x’ turns away from the dichotomous, toward a void, an unknown, a wrestling with plurality, vectors of multi-intentionality, and the transitional meanings of what has yet to be seen” (504). Sociolinguist scholar Lourdes Torres, who edits the field journal Latino Studies, wrote that the first time LatinX appeared in the publication was in its first 2017 issue, employed in an article about urban fiction (284). Since then, she added, there has been an approximate 20 percent increase in the terminological use of LatinX in Latino Studies manuscripts.
Three special journal issues have sifted through LatinX as a label and as a research method: “LatinX Studies: Variations and Velocities” in Cultural Dynamics (Milian 2019, 31.1–2); “Theorizing LatinX” in Cultural Dynamics (Milian 2017, 29.3); and “Latinx Lives in Hemispheric Context” in English Language Notes (ELN) (Windell and Alemán 2018, 56.2). Also consult, as brief illustrations, these titular LatinXs in Frederick Luis Aldama’s edited volume, Latinx Comic Book Storytelling: An Odyssey by Interview (2016) and his coedited anthology with Christopher González, Latinx Studies: The Key Concepts (2019); Iris D. Ruiz and Raúl Sánchez’s edited collection, Decolonizing Rhetoric and Composition Studies: New Latinx Keywords for Theory and Pedagogy (2016); Antonio (Jay) Pastrana, Juan Battle, and Angelique Harris’s study, An Examination of Latinx LGBT Populations across the United States: Intersections of Race and Sexuality (2017); Patricia A. Ybarra’s Latinx Theater in the Times of Neoliberalism (2017); Paul Ortiz’s An African American and Latinx History of the United States (2018); Ralph E. Rodriguez’s Latinx Literature Unbound: Undoing Ethnic Expectation (2018); Ed Morales’s Latinx: The New Force of American Politics (2018a); and Ricardo Ortiz’s Latinx Literature Now: Between Evanescence and Event (2019).
Per Inside Higher Ed, LatinX is increasingly prevalent in university settings: “Google trend data show it began to appear in Internet searches” in 2015, and the label suddenly soared in November of that same year. “Experts say it first began to spread in academic literature about two years ago” (Logue 2015). And it’s not just in the United States. LatinX’s scale is circulating across the Atlantic. The London College of Fashion hosted the Mundo LatinX exhibition from February 8 to May 4, 2019, as a means to survey “the dominant narrative, played out in the media, that characterises Latin Americans as exotic, criminal and powerless” (Smyth 2019). Elizabeth Horan, a professor of English at Arizona State University, elucidates that LatinX “started in online chat rooms and listservs in the 1990s” (Rivas 2017). Fusion cites Horan as “the first to use the word” in a Fall 2004 volume of the journal Feministas Unidas, where the category “Latinx/@” surfaces (Rivas 2017; Horan 2004, 25).
The University of Denver offers a Certificate Program in LatinX Studies. The Yale University Library research guide highlights “the principal library resources for Latinx Studies” (guides.library.yale.edu). LatinX is “seen on protest signs and in names of student groups that ha[ve] historically included Latino in their names. Seattle University now has a Latinx Law Student Association, and Yale University’s Divinity School has a Latinx and Latin American Christianity program. San Jose State University has a Chicanx/Latinx Student Success Task Force” (Rivas 2017).
The University of California San Diego substituted the Latino and Chicano categories for Latinx and Chicanx. “The new word changes,” the Los Angeles Times disclosed, “mean that the school will use Latinx and Chicanx in a lot of its official communications, such as news releases and publicity. The words also might end up being used in the naming of certain campus events” (Robbins 2018). New York University anchors the LatinX Project, which “explores and promotes U.S. Latinx art, culture and scholarship through creative and interdisciplinary programs” (https://wp.nyu.edu/latinxproject/). The University of Texas Press launched the “LatinX: The Future Is Now” interdisciplinary book series. Just a short while ago and in another academic context that pinpoints how LatinX learning is being shaped, the University of California, Riverside announced an open-rank faculty search for “Greater Mexico and U.S. Latinx Perspectives,” with preference given to candidates focusing on areas of expertise including “Latinx/barrio urbanism”; “Latinx literature”; “Latinx performance, culture, and the visual arts”; and “Latinx education and equity” (chroniclevitae.com 2016).
These groupings are all provocative. The notion of LatinX urbanity is engrossing and merits a revisit. LatinX as a mode of being—as a designation of self—has been propagated by the outside. All kinds of things external to the LatinX self have now taken on that identifier: LatinX is LatinX because of the things encompassed by this panorama. As one approaches the world with critical LatinX eyes, in the contemporary sense of the word, one seeks precision on the term’s performance. One might ask: what is a LatinX barrio?
This is not a frivolous query on LatinX syntax. Urban planners and housing activists must take up this exploration on the structuring of social reality too, for how is a LatinX barrio different than a Latina and Latino barrio? A U.S. barrio—el barrio—that houses so many constituents who would fall (and not) under LatinX subject positions, should be modified, for stylistic and conceptual consistency, to “barriX.” A LatinX space may demand, as philosopher Henri Lefebvre prods, “x-dimensional spaces [. . .] spaces of configuration, abstract spaces, spaces defined by deformation and transformation” (1992, 2). A LatinX barriX is, as Lefebvre may put it, “a space of spaces” with different cultural systems that are not collapsible to Latino/a embodiment. Such a crowded, transitory barriX is a harbinger of numerous Latins and incomputable Xs.
Think back to art historian Fredo Rivera’s outline of Miami as a global city and as a site of a layered LatinX pastiche where evolving urban realities lack a singular referent. Miami is an assemblage resting at the continental United States’ edge. It is coevally Latin American, Caribbean, and LatinX. But LatinX “does not reflect on an identity.” It connotes a more generalized Latin assortment that is cobbled together—or “a more spectacular proclamation”—of a Latinidad existing “at the scale of the global city and new media. The X is an exclamation indicative of the excess, exceptionalism, and eccentricity that constitute Miami as a port city, a globally lauded touristic haven, and a cultural and economic powerhouse” (Rivera 2019, 63). There are no fixed Latin boundaries under Rivera’s purview, just LatinX immersion, in bits and pieces, where the inclusion of Haitians as LatinX is integral to Miami’s transformative LatinXness.
The phases and spaces of LatinX urbanity weave together—in performance studies scholar Alexandra T. Vazquez’s phraseology—a “mezclapolis,” a sonic landscape with “mega mixxxxxes” (2016, 111). Vazquez devices five lowercase and lingering x’s, as each one imitates, echoes, and intensifies the other, not unlike an intense assembly of dispersed and unavoidable LatinX urbanities. Different self-imaginings dissolve and are put together again in this mixxxxx-and-match (or, mixxxxx-and-patch). Ways of living and being alive are invigorated: Xs are activated through sensorial experiences, chaotic sounds, wandering melodies, and visuals. These mega mixxxxxes have “a way of subverting narrow tales of genres—of creating the new sounds it needs for itself and for us” (117). A sensory experience behind a LatinX sound may not come clearly and meticulously in “Latin.”
Groundbreaking singer, actor, and supermodel Grace Jones, for instance, concretizes this LatinX mode of being in any barriX—meaning, urbanities in the world at large. The Jamaican-born iconic artist admits in I’ll Never Write My Memoirs that she had “studied to be a Spanish teacher,” and so she “had the Latin already” (2015, 115). Likewise, this observation imparts that Jones is already Latin, especially when she acknowledges that “I live in four or five time zones simultaneously, and I have four or five accents blended into one, a kind of French-Scandi-Latin-Jamerican” (341). If Jones’s case is extravagant, let’s pore over her reflection on the characteristics and kinds of groups that make a barriX possible. Jones comments that it is “the nobodies, the real damaged weirdoes, obscure hipsters, gay, blacks, Latinos” that shape “the city itself” due to its “erratic, heady energy” (95).
The widespread mention of—and yearning for—“LatinX food” is another example of the seemingly coherent transference of the politics and social behavior of the “real world” to cookery and nutrition. If we return to Huerta’s richly symbolic assertion of LatinX’s laxativeness, the consumption of LatinX food by the LatinX body becomes less appealing. LatinX is what it says it eats. But what, once again, is LatinX food? How do sounds, smell, taste, inspiration, rebelliousness, and pleasure fit in the longing of a particular kind of LatinX gastronomic package that, in all probability, may alter and break the traditional mold of abuelita’s “true” recipes? What are the main dishes that give this cuisine its “Latin” and “X” character as well as thrilling flavors?
Renowned Mexican chef Enrique Olvera proffers some insights on how “food is a way of communicating,” in his case, the Mesoamerican nation’s “old and mystical foodways and techniques, its unknown flavors, its seductive botanical diversity” (Adler 2015). I do not advocate edible excess, elaborate food adventures, or fine-dining affairs. I am trying to get a sense of the textures of how Latin taste is being adjusted in movement, not unlike the amorphous LatinX body. Consider Argentine American Korean photographer Michael Vince Kim’s project chronicling Korean Mexican communities who relocated to this nation dating back to 1905 when Korea was under Japanese rule. Kim shows that one of the most memorable cultural elements is that Korean Mexicans have retained kimchi, altering their recipes to use local ingredients and gravitating toward Korean Yucatecan cultural and ethnic identifications (Gear 2017).
And give attention to Guatemalan American feinschmecker and North Carolina resident Sandra Gutierrez, who has given form to “Latin foodways, a tradition with twenty-one different cuisines” in the U.S. Southeast (2016). This heterogeneity has opened an array of opportunities for the author of The New Southern Latino Table. Gutierrez dubs her fusion the “New Southern-Latino Movement,” an homage to a new regional way of life. Her recipes, Gutierrez states, are “happening naturally and by chance. Southerners and Latinos share similar culinary histories, ingredients, and cooking techniques, but we interpret them in very different ways. I find it exciting that, having found themselves in the same territory, these culinary traditions are correlating and intermingling” (The University of North Carolina Press 2011). Are “we” ready to embrace unrestricted LatinX creativity on a plate, going beyond dyads of authenticity and inauthenticity? Just as individuals of all ages “are reimagining their identities on platforms like Tumblr and Instagram [via] hashtags for Salvadoreñx, Argentinx, and Colombianx,” will emendations be made to “our” food and eating vocabulary: arepX, arrXs con habichuelXs, biscochX, buñuelXs, chicharrXn, gazpachX, mofongX, plátanXs, picX de gallX, pupusXs, quinoX, tacXs, tortillXs, and so on (Rivas 2017)?
Google suggest—or, autocomplete—shows that curious minds are surfing and tracking LatinX’s comings and goings. Precisely or imprecisely, its predictions reveal and rank information about Latinas and Latinos. They point to preoccupations about the world that are ostensibly giving cohesion to LatinX being. The internet search engine exhibits LatinX’s temporal qualities and transitions. From practical questions such as “what is Latinx plural” and “why are people using [it]” to how this logic extends to other ethnoracial groups—“what is Chicanx”—these public keystrokes are crammed with many Xs shaping LatinX’s story online.
The vexed concern of Latina portrayals—“what is the meaning of Latin girl,” as Google indicates—is still hanging around. As is well known, the pantheon of this erotic, made-in-Hollywood Latin tradition is traced to Italian American actor and sex symbol Rudolph Valentino (1895–1926). The female counterpart to this Latin twinning includes having a racialized and promiscuous sexuality and a hot-blooded disposition, as well as being a spitfire or a tittupping figure like the Portuguese-born Brazilian performer Carmen Miranda (1909–1955). Her current millennial representation is actualized through Sofia Vergara’s impersonation of Gloria Delgado-Pritchett—a curvy trophy wife with a heavy accent whose televised biography scripts an underdeveloped and rural Colombia as her homeland—in the hit ABC sitcom Modern Family. Vergara and Delgado-Pritchett coalesce into one Latin body. A segment of the 2017 Golden Globes Awards ceremony had the actor—the highest paid television performer five years running—pretend “her accent prevented her from being able to pronounce the word ‘annual’” (Butler 2017). The words “anal” and “anus” were enunciated instead. In this sense, a “Latin girl”—a recurring LatinX girl, let us say somewhat incompatibly—becomes, in a manner of speaking, the “X-rated material” that gives LatinX an urgency around groupings that evoke degrees of uncontrolled pleasure and explicitness.
Latin, needless to add, has a vast and porous genealogy, extending long before the United States existed as a nation, or Spain claimed the Hispanic borderlands as part of its empire. Latin has culturally and ethnoracially jelled to Latina and Latino bodies in the American hemisphere, largely in stereotypical ways that collapse these subjects as foreign and exotic within the U.S. landscape. Renowned scholar Américo Paredes sketched “little Latins” in George Washington Gómez: A Mexicotexan Novel to highlight assimilatory struggles by Mexican Americans in Texas and the Southwest, a terrain that was annexed during western expansion and the 1846–1848 U.S.–Mexican War (1989). This war’s final stage brought a formal agreement, the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, legally incorporating Mexicans who lived in the present-day states of Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas, and Utah into the United States.
Despite their U.S. citizenship, Mexicans became a conquered population through a new racial and class structural order. The “Mexicotexan” rubric captures the unhyphenated quiddity of national and regional subjectivity straddling monumental American history. Paredes’s category for Latin Americans—abridged to “little Latins” or “little things”—illustrates “a polite term” that conceals the violence of a pejorative lexicology uniting skin color with animal fat and fatty oils, as is the case with “Greaser,” or a racialized nationality like “Mexican” (149, 118). Under Paredes’s pen, “little Latins,” inured to U.S. racism since elementary school, learn English. But they invariably think as Americans, in English, despite feeling “infinitely dirty” (148–49). Dirt can be read as the grimy substance, or as the matter that matters in the historical narration of a people who have been scaled down to a Latinness-cum-Mexicanness presumably voicing its abjection in a “Latin” tongue (see Milian 2016). It is so “Latin” and “out there,” outside the “new” Texas, it might as well be LatinX.
This analytic ambiguity and fluctuation of the Latin and otherwise—a slippery Latin/X—pushes us to continually rework our tools of engagement with these categories. The letter X, as the Oxford English Dictionary enumerates it, is “the twenty-fourth letter of the modern and the twenty-first of the ancient Roman alphabet. [. . .] X was adopted by the Latins with the value /ks/ from the Greek alphabet introduced into Italy.” The value of LatinX, as it were, is X-squared, or Latin Latin. Put another way: Latin = X and X = Latin. Yet we somehow end up at square one, as both the Latin and the X remain indeterminable: What is Latin? And what is X?
An account of LatinX warrants a frame for all the other objects, like the phalanx of material cultural items mentioned earlier that arrange and give other forms of “kinship” to Latins and their environments. If, as actor John Leguizamo has expressed, the Latinness conjured up by Tinseltown has offered “a parody of bad, flashy Latin taste,” especially when it is given concrete form through a “really oily Latin accent,” the material world of the LatinX takes us to another level of mass consumption and the presence of objects advancing Latin “personhood” (2007, 53). To search for LatinX––to find meaning in LatinX––we have to step into, as sociocultural anthropologist Arjun Appadurai has signaled, “the social life of things” (1988). Such an approach takes into consideration all things that are tagged with “X”: who’s buying; who’s keying into and using the X; and how do X things speak for “us”?
X is limitless. X can be whatever it wants to be. How far can we stretch it?
The X of the Latin, The X of Our Lives
LatinX takes us to the Xs of the Latin and what they are hauling with them. What kind of X am I—as in: Central AmericanX-AmericanX (consult Arias 2003; Arias and Milian 2013)? The X is unconventional. The X is multiplying. The X is complicated. The X is funky. I like the X. I don’t like the X. I loathe sounding so namby-pamby.
For the time being, I want to give thought to how we may keep pace with LatinX, how it emerges, and its interpretive routes. To get to the long and short of the hermeneutic matter: how is LatinX speaking X? LatinX pops up, in part, through hypercommodification in transnational markets as well as through the quest for intimacy. Allow me to peruse two vignettes. The first is about family ties. This kinship is the product of nonheteronormative arrangements relying on biological links that remain anonymous. The second sketch is about anonymity, discovery, and leaving some kind of imprint, however elusive. Taken together, these installments are about coming to terms with reconfigurations of the self that afford an exploration of a LatinXness of the moment.
In the spring of 2013, Mikayla Stern-Ellis, from San Diego, surfed the Tulane University website in search of a suitable college roommate. Stern-Ellis stumbled upon another Californian, Emily Nappi of San Francisco, who “had a similar build and long, wavy brown hair, just like she did.” They “both also had lesbian parents and were passionate about theater.” Considering the similarities and compatibilities, Stern-Ellis queried Nappi about rooming together. But Nappi had already signed up with someone else. They went on to become Facebook friends, with Stern-Ellis posting an autobiographical social media revelation on Father’s Day: “Thank you Colombian sperm donor, for one of my X chromosomes.” Nappi found it “odd,” as she, too, had parents who had selected an unnamed Colombian sperm donor. Once at Tulane, the coincidences kept stacking up (including sleep talking and sleepwalking), until voilà, they discovered they shared the same four-digit sperm-donor numbers. They are, in a word, half-sisters (Reckdahl 2004).
The Tulane undergraduates detail their parents’ motivations for in vitro fertilization (IVF) in this manner: Nappi “said her mother, a scientist, chose the 19-year-old Colombian sperm donor because he was handsome, tall, smart, athletic—he played tennis—and because he was interested in ecology, saying he wanted to save the world from global warming” (Reckdahl 2014). Stern-Ellis’s parents selected this South American donor “for most of the same reasons, though his Colombian heritage was especially appealing to her because she has very light skin and thought it would be nice if her child didn’t have to slather on an entire bottle of sunscreen every time she headed outside.” Theirs is an undisclosed donor—a “Colombian X,” so to speak—from California Cryobank, which is “known for its stringent selection process and its highly educated, young donors” (Reckdahl 2014). Since the 1970s, California Cryobank has helped create an estimated 40,000 to 50,000 babies. Stern-Ellis’s mother relayed to a newspaper that this finding “is just one of the many amazing gifts” her daughter has “gotten from going to Tulane already” (Manz 2014).
To put it less formally, there’s a lot going on in this story. We encounter gay family units, their rights for procreation, and the emergence of a technology a few years prior to the Reagan–Bush era’s emphasis on family values and traditional mores. IVF evinces a “rapid evolution into established forms of parenthood” (Franklin 2013, 33). And, one should add, this IVF moment sheds some insights on desire through what becomes erotic Latin—or, LatinX—sperm. Concerns about environmental degradation simultaneously spring up vis-à-vis an embryonic LatinXness located in New Orleans, site of the city’s catastrophic 2005 flooding by Hurricane Katrina. This tropical cyclone foreshadows the long-term impacts that are coming in a warmer world. Not only this, but the reproductive quest for a different skin color also turns up through a longing for biologically untanned brownish skin. Facebook’s online social environment makes an appearance for the Tulane millennials as well. But for the half-sisters, this conduit exceeded random content, as it led to a larger mutually constituted reality facilitated by digital consumer technology.
A précis of this fateful event: a nascent LatinXness acts out a shared affect (the two siblings, as noted, sleep talk and sleepwalk) in a geography Kirsten Silva Gruesz frames as “the ‘Latinness’ of New Orleans.” This port city, with its British, French, Spanish, and American influences, is in a “liminal zone between the Anglo and the Latin worlds” (2006, 469). The LatinXness of these two women is manifested through affect. It resonates with how Latin is arranged in sensorial terms. Think of how aural Latinness shapes popular music discourses and consumption. The Latin Grammy Awards is a prototype where particular sounds, forms of expression, and performers amalgamate into “Latin” acts, “Latin” rhythms, and a generic “Latin” genre. The inherited Colombian Latinness of the two women—the fragments and traces of their “Latin” personality—acts out its somnambulism, a LatinXness that has yet to “fully” come into view and assume a representative pattern for a Latina and Latino “collectivity.”
I do not know how these half-sisters choose to politically claim their Colombianness (or ColombianXness), and by extension, what is their general take on LatinXness. The sisters announced on their Facebook Fan Page in 2015 that they found another sibling, a brother named Greg from Fresno, California. Their post almost conveyed excitement in the unknown and in waiting for future family members. This case broadly highlights what I am attempting to disentangle: the politics of Latina and Latino bodies, the cobbling together of ethnoracial identity, the anticipation of the loose memberships that inform it, and the narratives of the corporeal and conceptual passing into a flux of LatinXness.
Notions of Latin completeness come undone through Rafael Antonio Lozano Jr., a computer programmer who majored in philosophy at the University of Texas at Austin and goes by the sobriquet “Winter.” The subject of the 2006 documentary Starbucking, Winter’s raison d’être has been, since 1997, to visit every Starbucks in the world. The objective of his “Starbucks Everywhere” project is to patronize five to twenty shops on a given day and sample coffee from each location.
Winter concedes that he does not promote the colossal Seattle-based company. Yet his gobbling up of Starbucks-branded caffeine yokes him to the unevenly developed coffee-producing nations that blend with the U.S. Latin. Return to another inveterate figure of Latinness—a “Columbianness” constituted over time—through the iconic Juan Valdez, the mythical coffee picker and brand character made up by the National Federation of Coffee Growers of Colombia in 1958. As journalist Juan Forero abridged it in the New York Times, Valdez is “one of advertising’s most successful fictional characters—the mustachioed farmer, a poncho over his shoulder and [a] trusty mule” named Conchita at his side, helping “make Colombian coffee world famous” (2001). Becoming a “gentle and wholesome rural symbol,” in geographer Ian Maclachlan’s words, Valdez, represented and certified “100% Colombian Coffee” (2012, 407). Winter—who is paying great homage to the Global North’s cold season without much reverence for the “natural” ambiance attributed to the “tropical” Latin—uses coffee as another articulation of allegiance and cultural belonging.
Just as memoirist and novelist Brando Skyhorse acknowledges that even though his mother “had been born to Mexican parents, she spoke—and would learn—nothing beyond fast-food Spanish,” Winter, too, hints at how the linguistically “luxurious” Latin becomes manifest by expressing the “instant” pleasures of the senses acquired through the emergent environments of the new American “home” (2014, 22). The excess that shapes “all-American meals” informs this junk food Spanish, an ordinary and omnipresent vernacular. Its stylized repetition may be scanty, limited, and occasionally tripped up, but it improvises and communicates the Latin’s trajectory. Winter’s “coffeehouse Spanish” is an outlet to how Latins, as “common” but indefinable people, operate in the world. The frequency of their jargon—regular; extra shot; “skinny” latte; light roast/dark roast; single-origin; sugar/no sugar; extra hot—insinuates how a Latin “supply” is permutated, a residual X that may break the mood or muddle up the conversation, for they are expressing the (Latin) inexpressible and its characterization of an un-American life. The coffeehouse yields a different way of being “at home,” a social life that can be the “same,” if you will, anywhere.
Winter told a Delaware newscast that Starbucks Everywhere was “a random idea that popped into my mind, while I was at a Starbucks talking about how quickly this company was growing. Everywhere you turned, there’d be a new store in the Dallas area, and I thought, ‘What if I could visit them all? And what if I could be the only person?’ So about a year later, I hit the road, and I just fell in love with the process. I mean, just driving cross-country, trying to find these places, which is sometimes easier said than done, meeting new people, getting to see things that I’d never seen before. [. . .] The thing is they keep building stores, [. . .] so it’s a never-ending quest” (YouTube 2007). The brown subject—or, pardon the unavoidable pun, the coffee-colored Winter—expands the self through corporate growth, frequenting, at last count, 15,077 Starbucks in the United States and Canada and 3,139 stores in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East (Winter n.d.). Latinoness is intangible, as Winter casts light on “something”—coffee, the crop, and the commodity—that is “singularly unique” to him. He stands apart from the business people, the professors, and the crowds who walk in and out of their daily routines. Just as coffee can be ubiquitous, so can the Latin with its mixxxxxtures.
Since 2012, Winter has revamped his mission with the task he now dubs as “Anywhere but Starbucks.” His everywhere and anywhere venture captures a restless energy by being connected to—and “reformatted” by—an elsewhere: “hot spots” of unclear, LatinX genealogies tinkered with along the way. His LatinXness is experienced through deleterious affect—nausea, stomach pain, and hyperactivity due to his constant hits of caffeine—a Latin spectacle walking alongside the locations of Latinas and Latinos in popular imaginations. Winter embodies a new site: he is a localized “foreign” import.
In the realm of the popular culture canon, Winter—our rather “strange” Winter, or, by now, our rather familiar stranger, making a name for himself, making noise in the world—may be deemed as unserious, forgettable, even “trash” reality TV material. But what are the aesthetics of LatinX, and should its cultural ranges always be of “great quality”? What attracts and demands my involvement, alas, are the snapshots of the “fake” and/or improper comings and goings of the Latin and the “public” personality that may be attributed to it. Which is to say that X is a series of ongoing differences. The coffeehouse facilitates these ersatz and fidgety performances of Winter’s being—a “foreignness” in origin that is infallibly “here.” Winter epitomizes questions about new ways of consumption and communication, paired with the supplemental identifications of LatinXs, which move away from recognizable modes of Latinoness and Latinaness. Can we catch up to Winter’s deracinated and unpredictable LatinXness on a global scale?
Sincerely Yours, XOXO
The life of X is passing through the realities of our American and Latin lives. I have taken this occasion to investigate and insist that there’s mandatory work to be done with the plexus of entangled Xs being passed around. Xs are not a single body of ethnoracial, cultural, or gendered identification, but an expressive and communicative semiotic with an array of participants and observers.
In ending with the epistolary rhetorical practice of signing one’s name with the parting phrase “sincerely yours,” I am, in a way, reimagining the “rules” of correspondence. I present a different “agreement.” It is an ending and an opening. It is, sincerely, an attempt to bring to life the friend, the reader, and the critic as a set of individuals, an evolving political family, an unassigned bounty of Xs.
The X can be ordinary. The X can be rich. Kaleidoscopic. Transplantable. The X is flourishing, present, and living. Will you pass it up, or pass it on?