I’VE NEVER BEEN ABSOLUTELY CERTAIN what the frequently used terms Latina and Latino refer to. Or are. And I’m not particularly confident what LatinX is. Or means.
I can begin with a rather laconic personal genealogy: Salvadoran child is brought to the United States by her mother to live in West New York, New Jersey, or the “eternally dissed state of New Jersey,” as artist and historian Nell Painter dubs it (2018, 11). Her town is located in Northern Jersey—colloquially known as the “Embroidery Capital of the World since 1872”—on Manhattan’s fringes. She speaks Telemundo Spanish and comes of age alongside a mélange of Latin American nationalities, many of whom are casualties of the Cold War: Argentines, Brazilians, Chileans, Colombians, Cubans, Dominicans, Ecuadorans, Guatemalans, Hondurans, Mexicans, Nicaraguans, and Puerto Ricans, among other arrivals.
In my vintage years—which is to say, the closing decade of the twentieth century, and to some extent, the early twenty-first—I was reminded that I was part of what constituted “secondary Hispanic” status in the United States. I mention this designation not in judgment but simply to note that the Latina or Hispanic categories—their structuring and my assertion of them—have never been a ready and factual given.
I have observed and analyzed these labels and ontological claims from a distance, making sense of how—and when—Latina and Latino came into being and how these markers and states were understood and accepted, since my sociocultural and political experiences of this category were not deemed as a necessary condition of it. The question I have been invariably asking is: how does one convey and theorize the contested terms of Latino/Latina when—as my formal undergraduate education and graduate school training evinced—there were no academic or cultural concepts that were applicable, or methodological, to my kind of U.S. subject formation?
There was no representational content for (and of) Central Americanness—not just as a geopolitical space, but also as some kind of Latin conceptual experience in the United States (not to mention its human circumstances and dimensions). What I am trying to say is this: mine was an early articulation of LatinX. The X as one that is falling through the Latin cracks—the spaces between the o’s and the a’s, the conventional understandings of what it means to be Latino or Latina.
My first book, Latining America: Black-Brown Passages and the Coloring of Latino/a Studies (Milian 2013), is an exercise in trying to discern the excess of Latin bodies and their accompanying signifiers. This work attempted to stitch together and to unstitch geographies of Latinness from multiple sites. I sought to grasp the magnitude of what the slash in Latino/a or Latina/o meant, as well as the @ sign in Latin@. The semiotics of the slash, the @, and now the X have been standing together with another consistent label: Latin. LatinX is a harbinger of two compounded configurations—Latin and X—dual directional levels of signification. LatinX suggests a break—a force that requires a synthesis of joining Latin and X, which complicates and makes space for discussions that do not solely rely on binary configurations.
Latino/a has hardly functioned as an equivalent for nationality in my uprooted world of the northern Garden State, which has stood for Manhattan’s margins, an epicenter of the hemisphere’s deracinated entities. For years, it has provided the City that Never Sleeps with surplus Latin labor, moving underground, in Manhattan’s subways, in a space of unknowability, of transitions, of crossings: the ultimate X. It is always a site of adulteration, of a fractured Latin and X that could emerge and be substituted by any extricated Latin body. A LatinX body does not necessitate extensive evidence of its arrival point to, and presence in, the United States—or, for that matter, anywhere in the Global South’s shiftiness.
This exposition is undergirded by three pillars of thought—three fundamental anchors inscribed by a futurity implicating our dire contemporary moment: LatinX, the Global South, and ecological devastation. This triad encompasses displacement as well as a speculative subjectivity, a theoretical geography, and the instability of climate change, all coupled with human adaptation to the new laws of nature. These modes of thought work through unexpected linkages from populations and canons of knowledge currently underway.
I understand that the intrinsic significance of the gender-neutral LatinX category speaks to inclusivity and fluidity. Nuyorican journalist Ed Morales wrote in the Guardian that LatinX “represents a queering of Latino” (2018b). Morales elaborated that he “embrace[s] Latinx because of its futurist implications. Like superheroes of color and the possibilities inherent in girls and everyone else who code, Latinx represents an openness that is increasingly under threat in a political climate that is most intent on drawing borders, keeping outsiders out, and using violence to keep it that way” (2018b). LatinX makes complete sense to me in that it offers a bigger environment to work with. LatinX has a very busy life. You can’t pin down the Latin or the X: they both possess inherent hidden qualities and ubiquity in the world. LatinX delivers us to great unknowns.
Social scientists have spilled considerable ink on the emergence and function of the term Latino/a in the United States. While some academics have highlighted the category’s top-down imposition by the mass media and the federal government on to a heterogeneous population, others have stressed the bottom-up process of self-naming, community formation, and panethnic identification (see Mora 2014; Beltrán 2010; De Genova and Ramos-Zayas 2003; Dávila 2001; Oboler 1995). It is assumed that Latino/a started—or peaked—in the late twentieth century. Yet historians increasingly point to the category’s earlier circulation from the 1920s to 1970s (vide Contreras 2019; Cordova 2017; Fernández 2012; Thomas 2010). Latino/a has been generally employed to reference an amalgamation of peoples of Latin American descent; a U.S. ethnoracial identity and location; cultural connection and similitude; and political solidarity across ethnic nationalist affiliations.
I am partial to LatinX because it shows that Latino/a imaginations are not extinguished, that the terms Latina and Latino are not so “common sense” and complacent, after all. It shows that each LatinX handles and navigates the ontological category differently. And, yes, as Morales champions, LatinX sounds like the future. But it also holds the past and present. LatinX is a mixing and experiencing of these three categories, just as François Hartog frames historical time in our contemporary period and our openness toward the future (2015, xv). LatinX clues us in to how LatinXness is unfolding in the historical realities of our time. It gestures toward the exploration of the world—or an unknown, perhaps even hostile future—more fully and possibly more humbly.
The very enunciation of LatinX sounds strange—intimating dislocation and equivocation—and, as theorist Antonio Viego posits, “one hears LatinX; one cannot say that one sees LatinX” (2017, 163). This exogenous X comes from somewhere, anywhere—an elsewhere that is characterized with profound discrepancies. It forces us to probe into the story of LatinX’s beginnings—not as linear but as processes of starting over and over again and challenging as well as interrogating its origins. To quote interdisciplinary artist R. Galvan, LatinX impels “continuous replenishment” (2017, 190).
What is a LatinX genealogy? What is its chronology? What sustains it? What has made it, and what makes it continuous? Must LatinXs and LatinXness inevitably be folded into “Latinidad”?
Stay with me. The questions shift and expand. What is LatinX? What are its horizons? Where is it dwelling, and where might it be moving? X’s unknowability may signal that all Latin bodies are collapsed into that signifier, which begs the question: what is distinct within a LatinX Latinidad?
My interpretation presents a critical framework for LatinX’s usefulness and pitfalls. This work is not about LatinX identity formation, or an ethnographic rendering of individuals who may or may not identify as LatinX. This scrutiny is also not a genealogical account—or, a full-scale cultural and intellectual history—of all the U.S. ethnoracial labels that have been affixed to Latina, Latino, or “Latin” populations. Nor is this undertaking a definitive statement, a nailed-down explication, or a flat-out resolution of the LatinX category and its proper pronunciation. Its enunciation, in either English or Spanish, varies along these lines: Lah-teen-ex (the accepted standard articulation); Lah-teenks (the frequent metathesistic mispronunciation); or Lah-teen-eh-kees (the admittance of the Spanish sound for the letter X).
LatinX does not have a country or fixed geography. But we might say that it is a “nation” of deracination. Even if we do know what and where LatinX is, we do not entirely know how to express or grasp it, or to manifestly say what it means.
LatinX unavoidably casts a shadow over the present. I gather what is available at this moment, the X, taking LatinX’s “X” as a fruitful incitation, contemplation, and speculation––an urgent hermeneutic necessity for today. Its unifying problematic and interpretable features are linked by crises of the moment: “breaking” news and everyday events, instability, and projected catastrophic disasters and loss, as well as rapid change and disorientation that analytically put us to work.
This short book sorts out questions about being thrown into what can be understood as a LatinX critical state of affairs, not only in the contemporary moment, but also through the unknowability of social realities that exceed our present knowledge. These LatinX iterations are assessed, in some ways, through the vulnerable presence, the what-ifs, the trajectories, and the extreme inclusions and exclusions of unaccompanied Central American minors and climate change. LatinX garners meaning through these extant illustrations—through these flashes of crises—that mark acute violence and difference. But LatinX is not a Central American ontological embodiment or a satisfactory walking definition of LatinX.
I find LatinX’s fundamental and capricious arbitrariness an invitation to further inquiry that remains open to possibilities. LatinX anticipates deployment. There is no orderly or intelligible inside or outside. Xs are endless—and, seemingly, so are the flows of Latins. LatinX is tinged with doubt. It is allopatric and generates a continuous rethinking of networks and relations. X assemblages reconstitute themselves. X is a possibility for exploring the unknown and the peculiar and for thinking through new political moments, geographies outside the Americas, and subject formations.
LatinX’s ascendancy allows us to think about X not merely as a trend or as something to be in favor of or against, but as a point of orientation that allows us to start charting the realm of LatinX inquiry. LatinX, it seems to me, rearranges our Latino/a dictionary—our largely U.S.-situated lexicon—and moves to other conceptual histories, spaces, and perspectives.
LatinX plunges into what is currently happening and what may be coming. Its primacy—a present tense based on a quotidianness that reverberates in the future—is simultaneously in conversation with the tensions, iterations, and situations that make X possible. This book contours against pathways that LatinX, as a theoretical approach, begins to make seen. The intellectual possibilities for an unapologetic and urgent X worldview are realized alongside a nascent and developing LatinXness. Primary and secondary sources for LatinX approaches and epistemologies are unraveling. This monograph’s X is transported to the uncertain, to what may be anticipated, as well as to present occurrences and conditions, near and far, that unsettle and compel us to submit to new sensibilities and ways of thinking. Sociologists Alex Wilkie, Martin Savransky, and Marsha Rosengarden call this mode of inquiry and its connection to futurity “speculative research” (2017). This framework bolsters my search for “something” that is “X”: analytic patterns, processes of becoming, transformations, and the problematics of the present.
The LatinX moment invites us to think creatively, innovatively, and speculatively, building from the centrality—excessiveness even—of X. If we thought we knew all too well the o/a of the familiar Latino/a, LatinX tells us that things are no longer the same, that there is no secure footing, that the X—an expounding concept—is bound to new bodies and new schools of thought. No rigid definitions characterize this study. Illustrative examples, cultural representations and forms of expression, sociopolitical conjunctures, conceptual landscapes, and discourse analysis all proffer meaning-in-context. Describing and fleshing out how LatinX comes into view and into play figure prominently within these pages.
LatinX has propelled me to pursue and build on topics of inquiry that are affecting the field here and now. What does it mean, I ask, to be in this Latino/a Studies moment where we avail ourselves of the most current research through LatinX Studies? What are we doing with the ethical and political uncertainty of X? This is another way of asking: how are we encountering X, how is it impacting our research practices, what and where are our X sources, and what kinds of vocabularies are being generated through the X as methodology?
LatinX’s advent is tackled here not as a synonym or a substitute for the Latino/a, Latina/o, or Latin@ ethnoracial and political descriptor. LatinX moves through dislocation, awkwardness, and illegitimacy. “Articulations,” this book’s first chapter, explores the fragments, differences, and discursive components chiseling X. X’s present-day movement is also in transit—recording a new formation of LatinX’s beginnings through the abject Central American child migrant—which is a topic canvassed in the second chapter, “Forms.” And it is a space where anything can happen: an amorphous X can frustrate, terrify, and flummox, as the concluding chapter, “Numerosities,” takes stock of climate change, displacement, and migration.
LatinX, to be sure, is in need of more time for theoretical approaches and insights, more time to dream, more time to be.