Depending on the occasion, Baltimore City Council member Odette Ramos refers to her heritage in different ways.
When the 50-year-old Abell resident talks about herself, she prefers Latina. But that is also evolving to Latine, which she considers more inclusive of all genders.
“When I’m saying I’m the first Hispanic person elected — I don’t want them to miss out that I am the first person, man or woman — I am Latine. Latine is not being used as much, but I am trying to integrate that more into my language,” said Ramos, who has been a Baltimore City Council member since 2020. “I’m very proud to be Latina. But those of us who have been in this for a while are trying to figure out how to be more inclusive. But not the [Latin]x. Who decided on the X?”
When it comes to how Latinos in this country self-identify, it ultimately depends on the person as well as various factors at play, including age, location, class, race and an evolving view of sexual identity.
What further complicates things is the balancing act in the United States, where English is primarily spoken but where a growing, diverse Spanish-speaking population brings its own language — a gendered language — and its cultural rules. And just as with any language, as it evolves — along with attitudes about self-expression and fluidity — the terms used to describe this population also reflect those societal changes.
In short, that’s why there is no umbrella term that reflects the totality of the community, according to experts.
“I think the very existence of these terms reveals an ongoing mismatch between categories and the complex social reality they purport to describe,” said Alessandro Angelini, assistant professor of anthropology at Johns Hopkins University. “All of those terms, for example, elide Indigenous peoples from this hemisphere, for whom ‘Latin’ will likely always sound like a foreign descriptor that reinforces white colonizer hegemony.”
The majority of the terms have their own set of problems, Angelini added.
“‘Hispanic’ presents the problem of excluding Brazilians and Indigenous people from Latin America. Latino carries the gender exclusion problem. And Chicano, borne out of the Mexican American civil rights movement of the 1960s, excludes people from other Latin American countries. Spanish is also problematic, as it is a demonym for someone from Spain and in its usage is meant to define people by the Spanish language, which not all Latin Americans speak,” Angelini said.
Tania Lizarazo, associate professor at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, believes there is no need to “police” language or identity.
“It is very difficult to tell people how they should identify. And that applies to any group,” said Lizarazo, who is part of the Department of Modern languages, Linguistics and Intercultural Communication as well as the Global Studies Program. “It’s like a learning curve for everyone. There are different waves of immigration. My experience as a Colombian who came to California as a student in 2009 is different from people who arrive in Baltimore as undocumented workers. A lot of people do not know what Latinx is.”
Lizarazo, 40, said labels weren’t required for self-identification in California, where there was a larger, more established Latino community.
“The conversations are different in Maryland,” said Lizarazo, who does not use the word Hispanic because she says that Spain should not be grouped together with people from Latin America. She uses Latin American or Latina when referring to herself and Latinx, Latine or Latin American for the community as a whole.
Lizarazo launched Latinas In Baltimore as a way of better connecting with the Latina community in Maryland. The platform does everything from raising awareness about COVID-19 to advocating for social justice.
As the nation marks National Hispanic Heritage Month, here is a look at the various terms.
Hispanic is a term coined in the 1970s for the purpose of the Census Bureau, which believes that Hispanics can be of any race due to the fact that Hispanic is an ethnicity and not a race. Despite that, many descendants of Central and South Americans object to the term.
According to a 2015 Pew Research study, 42% of Hispanic adults said that being Hispanic is a matter of culture, 29% said it was a matter of ancestry, and 17% said it was a matter of race.
“It groups people by language, which makes sense because the U.S. has the second-largest group of Spanish speakers after Mexico in the world,” said Lizarazo. “The issue with this label — at least in Maryland — is that includes people from Spain as minorities, which reproduces colonial logics of identity.”
For that reason, Lizarazo believes “Latino is more expansive because it doesn’t center Spanish, so it doesn’t include Spain, but can include Brazil, Haiti, and acknowledges the existence of multiple Indigenous languages in the region.”
The concept is difficult to grasp, according to Angelina Cotler, director and senior lecturer in the Program in Latin American, Caribbean, and Latinx Studies at Johns Hopkins University.
“You have a bureaucratic way of counting your population. It’s difficult. Identity is very fluid. You change your gender, status. It’s complicated to define one person and define them one way,” said Cotler, 55, a Charles Village resident, who is originally from Mexico and Peru. “The assumption that all Latino immigrants have one background — this is changing. People are now more aware that the way that Latinos are depicted in the media or the way that white people see Latinos as Mexican or Puerto Rican. Latin America is a continent where there are millions of Europeans, Asians and people from slavery. It’s hard to depict.”
Even though it is a gendered term, many consider Latino or Latina to be more inclusive and accurate than the term Hispanic from a standpoint of race and spoken language. It has emerged as the most preferred term among people from Central America and South America living in the United States.
Because there are millions of people throughout the Caribbean, Central and South America who do not speak Spanish and have no Spanish ancestry, being under the umbrella of Latin America is more fitting for them, many of them say.
Such is the case with Brazil, where the official language is Portuguese and the country — because of the the transatlantic slave trade — has the largest concentration of people of African descent outside of Africa.
Somos Baltimore Latino, a Baltimore-based newspaper with a circulation of 30,000 and a social following of 75,000, uses the terms Latino and Hispano when referring to people from Latin countries.
“The word Latinx does not appear in the Royal Spanish Academy. We don’t use it,” said Pedro A. Palomino, director and chief executive officer of the Palomino Media Group, which oversees the publication.
“I consider myself Hispanic and Latino,” said Palomino, 62, a Gwynns Falls Park resident who is originally from Peru.
Chicano is a political label that was embraced by Mexican American communities, primarily in the Southwest U.S., starting in the 1960s.
“It has been criticized for co-opting Indigenous identity and culture and I haven’t seen the label used in the East Coast as much,” Lizarazo said.
Andrea Quintero, a 38-year-old Hampden resident, has been identifying as Chicana since middle school.
“I didn’t feel the need to change the terminology I use when I was exposed to Latinx later in life, despite being glad that it was an option for others,” said the business intelligence analyst. “In my mind, Chicano(a) fits me because I was born in the U.S.A. and my dad was born and raised in Mexico. Additionally, I like that it invokes the association to the political movement of the ’60s and ’70s.”
Quintero said there should be a “parallel between asking people about their pronouns and asking people about identity terminology.”
She added: “There is no right or wrong answer, no better or worse answer. People should politely ask someone and then respect that choice without asking the person to explain why. Having more terms means that people have choices to make and can pick what feels right to them.”
The term was conceived in LGBTQIA activist and academic circles around 2004 as a way to circumvent the gender binary in Spanish and Portuguese, according to Angelini.
“I can’t really say whether it was coined by white culture, but it hasn’t gotten much traction as an identity term among the people it is supposed to denote,” Angelini said.
Johns Hopkins University recently reinstated its Latin American studies program, but renamed it the Program in Latin American, Caribbean and Latinx Studies, or LACLxS, according to Angelini.
“So clearly my institution has embraced the nomenclature of Latinx for its sense of inclusivity, with no explanations or qualifiers necessary, perhaps with hopes that it becomes more normalized in broader culture,” Angelini said.
One in four Latinos have heard of the term Latinx and only 3% use it, according to a 2020 study from the Pew Research Center.
“I hate the term Latinx. It doesn’t define us well at all,” said Veronica Cool, head of Cool & Associates LLC, a management consulting firm that connects organizations to the Hispanic community.
Cool said she prefers the term Latina or a derivation tied to her nationality. In her case, that is Dominican.
“I understand the intended neutrality of the Latinx term, but I appreciate the language, traditions and custom more. Perhaps hate is too strong a word, but the beauty of the Spanish language feels trampled — maybe with more exposure and finesse we can consider Latine,” Cool said.
Simonee Lopez, 29, uses Latinx and Latina interchangeably.
“I go by Latinx because its gender-neutral and provides inclusivity,” said the Highlandtown resident. “I do use Latina interchangeably in certain spaces. The Spanish language is very gendered and it makes sense to have gender neutral terms like Latinx and Latine.”
There is one term that Lopez won’t use.
“I don’t identify with Hispanic, since it means someone that speaks Spanish and it kind of takes away agency. The resistance I see from people in the Latinx community in using gender-neutral terms is interesting and shows how there is still much educating that needs to be done,” Lopez said. “I’ve seen many articles over the years say it’s a liberal, elitist, American term that is being forced onto people and it honestly isn’t. I definitely think being from a younger generation has shaped that view, but I know people my age who don’t feel the same way.”
The Afro Brazilian factor
When race is added to the equation, as is the case of Afro Brazilians who do not speak Spanish, the term Hispanic doesn’t apply.
Ariel Barbosa, a 24-year-old Mount Vernon resident who identifies as Afro Brazilian and white, prefers the term Afro Latina.
“Race is always in flux,” said the visual artist. “I love when they have the option of checking off more than one box: Black, Latino, Hispanic, white.”
Growing up in the United States, and not having an accurate term that described her, was difficult for Barbosa. In college, when she was the president of the Latino Student Alliance, she felt conflicted because she didn’t speak Spanish.
“I was always questioning whether I should be leading that community,” she recalled. “But I am Latina. I am Afro Latino. I am a part of that community.”
Latine and Latinx are relatively new terms that reflect a generational change in attitude that considers an inclusive language, according to Cotler. She added that the term Latine specifically comes from Argentina, where it has been used since 2019, when same-sex marriage was legalized in that country.
“Whereas Latinx is gender-neutral or nonbinary, Latine is a term mainly used in Latin America by Spanish speakers, and refers to a group of people with multiple genders or someone identifying as nonbinary, gender-fluid, and gender-nonconforming,” Cotler said.
Many of the younger people interviewed for this story immediately saw the benefits of using the term Latine as a way of better embracing a greater number of people in Latina America — regardless of gender, race and language.
It’s a reason why Ramos, who is Puerto Rican, said she began embracing it two years ago.
“I prefer that,” she said.
Barbosa, who said she was not familiar with the term until recently, has immediately gravitated toward it.
“With Brazilians ... our language ends with the a and the o,” she said. “I want to create the terms necessary to represent people who don’t have anything that resonates yet. Revolving terms around identity should accurately represent the way that people actual are. People have been existing but they have been identified by people who don’t know the right term. It’s time for our language to represent how people actually are by their own agency.”