The Great Latinx Debate
The term “Latinx” is trending and has seen a steady uptick in search over the past two years, peaking in 2019:
It is during this “Latinx apex” that we decided to take a closer look at how popular the term “Latinx” really is among U.S. Hispanics and if it has staying power.
So what is Latinx? According to Merriam-Webster:
Latinx was originally formed in the early aughts as a word for those of Latin American descent who do not identify as being of the male or female gender or who simply don’t want to be identified by gender. More than likely, there was little consideration for how it was supposed to be pronounced when it was created.Nevertheless, people have attempted to assign some pronunciations to it. The most common way to pronounce Latinx is the same way you would Spanish-derived Latina or Latino but pronouncing the “x” as the name of the English letter X. So, you get something like \luh-TEE-neks\.
What started as a movement against traditional gender signifiers within the Spanish speaking community (i.e. Latina/o) has now been adopted by progressive Hispanics on social media, in academia, and increasingly in media. The proliferation of the term on social media this year has led marketers to rethink the usage of the terms “Hispanic” and “Latina/o” both internally and externally in their marketing materials. It’s important to take a step back here, however, to gain perspective as to why this shift is important.
Historical data suggest Hispanics prefer to identify by country of origin
About seven years ago, the Pew Hispanic Center conducted comprehensive research on how Hispanics preferred to self-identify. In that study, Pew asked a representative sample of U.S. Hispanics the following question:
Which term do you use to describe yourself most often?
Most respondents (51%) stated that they prefer to define themselves most often by their family’s country of origin — using terms such as Mexican, Cuban, Puerto Rican, Salvadoran, or Dominican. “Hispanic/Latino” was in second place at 24% and closed behind in third place was the term “American.”
The preference for “country of origin” is driven by first-generation (foreign-born) Hispanics. More than six-in-ten (62%) said they most often use their family’s country of origin to describe themselves. That falls to 43% for second-generation and falls further to 28% among third-generation Hispanics.
“Latinx” was not included in Pew’s 2012 research as the term hadn’t reached the mainstream at that point, but it was in use in niche segments.
New research indicates a shift away from country of origin
In October 2019, we conducted a similar study, asking the following question to a representative sample of 508N U.S. Hispanics:
Which of these names do you prefer to describe your ethnicity?
While we asked our question differently than Pew Hispanic Center did in 2012, the shift in response is no less significant. Forty-four percent of respondents prefer to be called “Hispanic,” making it the top preference among U.S. Hispanics. Unlike the Pew research, we put “Latina/Latino” into a separate category as opposed to combining it with “Hispanic.”
At 24%, “Latina/Latino” is the second most preferred term for self-identification.
Combined, 68% of respondents describe their ethnicity as “Hispanic/Latina/Latino.” That’s almost 3X what the data showed in 2012, which reported 24% for the same cluster.
We found that the preference for the term “Hispanic” is consistent across gender, age, income, language preference, U.S. born vs. foreign-born, and country of origin:
While there are no statistically significant differences among the cohorts listed above, there are directional differences worth pointing out:
- There is a 5-point difference in preference among Females vs. Males when it comes to the term “Hispanic.”
- Hispanics ages 25–34 are the most likely cohort to prefer the term “Hispanic” vs. other age cohorts at 47%.
- Hispanics whose household income is $100K or more are the least likely to prefer the term vs. the other income cohorts.
- English dominant Hispanics are the least likely to prefer the term “Hispanic” vs. their Bilingual and Spanish-dominant counterparts.
Other terms of significance were “Country of Origin,” which drops from Hispanics’ preferred way to self-identify (51%) as in 2012 to third place, at 11%. Country of Origin was primarily driven by the foreign-born in the previous research. Now the preference for the term “Hispanic” is almost identical among foreign-born U.S. Hispanics (43%) and U.S. born Hispanics (44%).
Also, worth noting is the precipitous drop in the preference for the term “American.” Since 2012, the percentage of Hispanics preferring to be described as “American” has dropped from 21% to 6%.
“Latinx” is new to our research as it wasn’t captured in 2019. The percentage of U.S. Hispanics that prefer the term Latinx is at 2%.
Looking across the different cohorts, the preference is consistent with a couple of directional differences worth noting:
The only statistically significant difference we found in preference for the term “Latinx” was among U.S. born vs. foreign-born Hispanics. Three percent of U.S. born Hispanics preferred the term Latinx vs. 1% of foreign-born U.S. Hispanics.
We found no Hispanic ages 50+ that preferred to be called “Latinx” in our research, most like due to an allegiance to cultural values.
There is also a directional difference among U.S. Hispanic females, preferring the term “Latinx” vs. their male counterparts.
Factors Impacting the Big Shift
While our research phrased the question of self-identification differently than the 2012 study conducted by Pew Hispanic Center, the research still uncovers a significant directional shift on how U.S. Hispanics prefer to be referred to as. I believe there are several factors leading to this shift:
- Net negative migration — While 2012 was only seven years ago (a short time in terms of demographic shift), we have been experiencing one of the largest immigration shifts in recent history. The U.S. has been experiencing net negative migration from Latin America for the first time in decades. From 2009 to 2014, 1 million Mexicans and their families (including U.S. born children) left the U.S. for Mexico. U.S. census data for the same period show an estimated 870,000 Mexican nationals left Mexico to come to the U.S., a smaller number than the flow of families from the U.S. to Mexico.Furthermore, there has been an increase in the monthly number of border apprehensions since 2016, further depressing the flow of immigrants and refugees from Central America.These external factors, coupled with growth in the U.S. Hispanic population driven by U.S. Hispanic births, has led to a fundamental shift in the composition of the U.S. Hispanic population, thus changing how Hispanics prefer to be referred to.
- Political Climate — It is impossible to ignore the political climate that has caused an increase in anti-Hispanic rhetoric in the U.S. From the president announcing his campaign by calling Mexican immigrants rapists to the tragedy in El Paso, anti-Hispanic sentiment is at an all-time high. While Hispanics in the U.S. come from various countries of origin and diverse cultures, the political climate has created a broader sense of “us” among U.S. Hispanics and we are seeing that bear out in our research.
- Social Media — While the term “Latinx” seems to be everywhere nowadays, the reality is that its popularity is being driven by social media and think pieces that appeal to a segment of the population. As our research shows, this term is barely registering among the collective U.S. Hispanic population. When we delve into who is adopting this term (younger vs. older, female vs. male), some interesting trends emerge. But, it is likely going to be another 5–10 years before we see widespread adoption of the term Latinx, if ever.