It was a few years ago when I was writing my play Salvador: A Latin-Canadian Fantasia that I first discovered the gender-neutral term Latinx. I was in the middle of a research period. I tend to have several, usually between drafts, and they often involve hours upon hours of Googling and reading, Googling and reading. I think I had typed in ‘Latin theatre in Canada - what gives?’ which brought me to a collection edited by Natalie Alvarez called Fronteras Vivientes: Eight Latina/o Canadian Plays. This collection led me to its wonderful companion, essays also edited by Ms Alvarez entitled Latina/o Canadian Theatre and Performance. You’ll notice neither of these titles includes the term ‘Latinx’. But they opened the door to deeper thought on something I had been struggling with for quite some time.
But before we get into that, for those who don’t know, Spanish is a gendered language which means most words have both masculine and feminine versions, some are strictly one or the other, and some are considered ‘ambiguous’. For example, a kitchen is la cocina (feminine), an oven is el horno (masculine), a cat can be both el gato (masculine) and la gata (feminine). If you are a male of Latin-American descent you are referred to as Latino or Hispano, a woman is Latina or Hispana. These terms have a broad application and don't distinguish between the many different races that live in Latin America. According to a study by the Pew Research Centre, 51% of Latin or Hispanic people prefer to identify with their family’s country of origin (eg Guatemalan, Mexican, or Bolivian) and only 24% prefer the broader terms Latina/o or Hispanic. This makes perfect sense. While we (mostly) share a language there are major differences between the people of each country.
Despite what the Pew study suggests, I find it odd to identify as El Salvadoran. When I’m inevitably asked, “Where are you from?” I often say, “My family is from El Salvador, I was born in the United States, and I grew up in Canada.” It’s long-winded and people find it pretentious but I don’t give a fuck. I wasn’t born in El Salvador and have only been back three times in 33 years. Once when I was in grade three and twice within a few months while I was researching Salvador. It’s a country that I have a complicated love for, a country that can seem completely foreign to me. My only saving grace is the fact that I can understand the language. But I’m only barely capable of putting together a sentence in Spanish so we’re essentially back at the beginning. Therefore, identifying as El Salvadoran is out. So is identifying as American since I lived there for all of about six months after being born. And despite being back several times I view it through a very (stereotypically) Canadian lens. In other words, I am both attracted to and repulsed by the United States in equal measure.
That leaves identifying as Canadian.
This can be confusing to a lot of white people since I’m also brown skinned. And in the eyes of many white Canadians, only white people are actually from Canada. Plus, I’m technically not from here because I was born somewhere else sooooo… we return to Latina/o or Hispanic.
Surprise, surprise, I’ve never been a fan of ‘Hispanic’. Why? Its roots are blatantly colonialist. As per Wikipedia the term “applies to countries once owned by the Spanish Empire in the Americas and Asia.” [emphasis mine]. If you don't find the grossness in that sentence, we can't be friends.
Latina/o are also not my fave. I’ve always had a complicated relationship with gender. As a boy, I was expected to play soccer, mow the lawn, keep my emotions to myself, and help my father with the neverending home renovation projects he cooked up. I was terrible at all of these ‘boy’ things and more. While playing soccer I’d get lost in dreamy reveries and got pissy whenever the ball came near me because that meant I had to stop creating the little world I was creating in my head. It was always a fight to get me to do the “boy chores” but I would happily help with the “girl chores” like washing and drying the dishes, or helping with food prep. Keeping my emotions to myself was something I managed until I didn’t and then they came out in such savage ways over several years that I’m still dealing with the fallout. As for being my father’s helper on home reno… let’s just say he eventually accepted that all I was good for was handing him whatever tool or fixing he needed from across the room and chatting awkwardly about life. These examples are mostly light but the gendered aspects of my upbringing, the threads of misogyny and homophobia that are woven so thoroughly in patriarchal Latin culture, left deep scars on this sensitive, feminine person as it has on many others.
I identify as male so you’d think that simply saying “I am Latino” would be sufficient. It’s not. These days we’re having a lot of conversations about identity and gender, which can be both beautiful and frightening to witness. The transgender community is much more visible than ever before and unfortunately so is the transphobia. The terms ‘gender neutral’ and ‘gender non-conforming’ are much more widely known. Both have opened the world up for some and inevitably caused fear and retaliation in others. While the negative responses to this movement can be mind-boggling in their ignorance, the positives can be overpowering in what they could mean to a new generation.
I often wish I had been exposed to this movement at a much earlier age. There's no way to tell if things might have been easier, and it's not worth dwelling on the possibilities, but the thought does occasionally cross the mind. While I currently identify as male I often feel spiritually aligned with both male and female energies, they’re vitalities that have been in constant conversation since my youth but have yet to find a common tongue. I’m filled with joy that people are out there living their truth but a little saddened - or maybe frustrated is the better word - by the fact that I’m still wading through the waters of discovery, acclimating to how these essential beings translate on my body. I love the theatre of being able to express the feminine one day and the masculine the next. I’ve even gone on a whole Instagram journey to try to challenge the gender biases not only in myself but also in the expectations society has for Latin men. But, again, the language continues to be a stumbling block. As a writer, you can imagine, this has been especially frustrating.
Here's the thing, I know labels can be dangerous if relied on too heavily. But they also have the potential to be the key that unlocks something deeper. Above I referred to myself as a 'writer'. When I typed that I didn't flinch. The only reason I'm able to do this is because one day I told myself, "Start calling yourself a writer if that's what you want to be. That's how you want people to see you, and it simply doesn't matter if you don't have a body of work. By referring to yourself in this way, you will be forced to create one." There is a lot of power in labels that you give yourself.
And so, what works? While I have deeper rivers of Indigenous Central American blood in my veins than straight up European Spanish, I obviously can’t use the term two-spirit. Gender neutral, non-binary, bigender, agender, and pangender all feel wrong because I still, and may always, view myself as male first. I don’t feel comfortable using ‘gender non-conforming’ or ‘genderqueer’ because I’m still experimenting and present as male 99.9% of the time. Beyond the femme fantasias that I create in my own home, it's quite rare for me to go out with any traditional feminine markers greater than lipstick or eyeliner.
When I first saw the cover of Latina/o Canadian Theatre and Performance on the Toronto Public Library website I remember having an overwhelming feeling of… confusion. On their website, as opposed to Playwrights Canada Press which I linked to above, the book cover and title are listed as Latin@ Canadian Theatre and Performance. I had an inkling of what this might mean but it was the first time I had seen a gender-neutral way of identifying Latin people and at first, part of me thought it was a mistake. Then, when I gave it a quick Google and realized it was not, in fact, a mistake, I started to feel good. The circle around the ‘a’ felt like an embrace of acceptance, proclaiming ‘All are welcome here, we do not segregate.’
Still, it wasn’t quite right.
‘Latin@’ seems to me, to only embrace cisgender men and women. I know that's not it's intention, but both Latina and Latino are visually represented so it still feels binary. Also, it’s not all that appealing to look at. It reads too much like the first half of an email address, perhaps something like Latin@morethanjustMexican.com.
Then one day I saw ‘Latinx’.
Not to be too flip about it but in that instance it all made sense. It’s funny how sometimes when it comes to really significant moments you can remember details of the journey, but you can’t remember the details of the epiphany. It’s possible I saw ‘Latinx’ in the pages of that essay collection but it feels in my gut like it was somewhere else. I suppose where that was doesn’t really matter. What matters is the feeling. And this time, since I had already been exposed to gender neutrality in Latin American identity, I didn't feel confusion but instead, I felt healing. There was something so beautiful about the way the ‘x’ seemed to remove so many years of gender expectation in my cultural identity. Instead of an embrace, it was a kiss that said, I love you no matter who you are, wherever you are. It was a kiss out to disrupt. Its unexpected formation on the lips had potential to tear down an entire system. It was no longer the hard stop of Latin-AT, it was the open-ended possibility of Latin-EX.
Obviously, this is a lot to lay at the feet of one little letter. But the power of language should never be underestimated. And while the wounds from years of trying and failing to adhere to strict gender rules may never fully heal, most would gladly take the salve where they can get it.
And ‘Latinx’ can be a balm like no other.