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Hispanic? Chicano? Latinx? What's In A Name?

Norma Martinez | Texas Public Radio
Dr. Norma Cantú, Maria López De León, and Andrew Salinas discuss ethnic identity at Palo Alto College in San Antonio.";s

What exactly does “Hispanic” mean? To whom does that term apply? Would “Latino” be preferable? What about “Mexican American,” or “Chicano”?

Palo Alto College has held platicas, or talks, in September and October to commemorate Heritage Month on campus. One platica focused on the different identifying terms used among Latino and Hispanic populations.

Norma Cantú is a folklorist, poet, author and professor of the Humanities, Modern Languages and Literatures at Trinity University.

As a graduate student in Lincoln, Nebraska, in the 1970s, she was tasked to talk to teachers about cultural acceptance after they found themselves dealing with an influx of Vietnamese immigrants.

“At one place, the superintendent introduced me as ‘Spanish,’ said Cantú. “I’m from Laredo, Texas. I have never been called Spanish. I may have been called ‘Mexican-American.’ Maybe at one point ‘Tejana.’ But never as Spanish.”

“I asked, ‘Why did you introduce me as Spanish?’” Cantú recalled.  “So then the man tells me, ‘I didn’t want to insult you by calling you Mexican.’” 

This angered her. The superintendent asked Cantú what she preferred to be called. “And for the first time in my life,” I said, ‘I’m a Chicana.’”

“Chicano” and “Chicana” are loaded words. They have come to mean beassociated with political activism.

We’re now hearing newer labels. “Hispanic” and “Latino” were commonly used. Now we’re hearing “Latinx” and “Xicanx.”

The X implies gender neutrality.  Gender weighs heavily in the Spanish language -- “El Chicano, La Chicana.” Most words imply a gender.

Maria López De León, executive director of theNational Association of Latino Arts & Cultures (NALAC), said her organization leans towards “Latinx,” though she considers herself a Chicana.

“The idea that you are being punished, or you are being other-ed, just because you look different, just because you speak a different language, is something that really pushed me towards calling myself a Chicana,” De León said. “It was more than just my heritage, but it was about my positioning on policies and being an advocate and being a voice to join many other voices in our community.”

Student Andrew Salinas called himself a chameleon. He’s the president of Palo Alto College SomosMAS, a student organization that promotes civic engagement.

Salinas said his identifying word changes depending on his audience.

“In some circles I won’t feel comfortable saying Latinx,” said Salinas, who is openly gay. “As we all know, it’s not really ok for some people to be openly gay, lesbian, transgender, bisexual, any of that, within the Latinx community. I will either use that in a safe space, or...to rustle the feathers a little bit.”

Credit Norma Martinez / Texas Public Radio
Left to right: Norma Cantú, Maria López De León, Andrew Salinas, moderator Lori B. Rodriguez.

The panel discussion was a Hispanic Heritage Month event, but the panelists avoided calling themselves Hispanic.

Cantú said the origin of the word lends weight to the European Spanish heritage in the Americas.

“There is no such thing as Hispanic culture,” Cantú emphasized. “I’m a folklorist. I study culture. There isn’t one language, there isn’t one food, there isn’t one music. It’s all of it. It’s very different when you superimpose that onto all of the Americas. For me, ‘Hispanic’ is a total misnomer. There is no such word.”

Even Palo Alto College cut the word “Hispanic” out of their Hispanic Heritage Month commemorations. It’s simply been called it “Heritage Month” for the last five years. A name change is in the works. 

Lori Beth Rodriguez, coordinator ofMexican American Studies at Palo Alto College, said she identifies as Latinx. 

“A lot of people don’t understand the ‘x,’” she said. “It’s like, does that mean I have some sort of sexual identity? No. It’s gender neutral. It’s respectful of all gender identities.” 

Rodriguez said “Latinx” is a broader term with several categories under which she identifies. 

“I am also Tejana,” she said. “Born and raised in South Texas with my roots going generations back. And Mexican American. And Chicana. Proud Chicana. ChicanX. It’s a long list. All of the above! Those are my preferences.”

And what about those who argue that we need to eliminate hyphenates and labels, and simply call ourselves “Americans”?

Cantú says there is no either/or. Latinos are American, she said, but they can also also be Chicano/a and Native American. 

“Especially Native Americans,” Cantú said. “They are the true Americans.”

Hispanic/Latinx/Xicanx Heritage Month ends Oct. 15.

Norma Martinez can be reached by email at norma@tpr.org and on Twitter @NormDog1.

Norma Martinez can be reached at norma@tpr.org and on Twitter at @NormDog1