As Democrats seek to reach out to Latino voters in a more gender-neutral way, they’ve increasingly begun using the word Latinx, a term that first began to get traction among academics and activists on the left.
But that very effort could be counterproductive in courting those of Latin American descent, according to a new nationwide poll of Hispanic voters.
Only 2 percent of those polled refer to themselves as Latinx, while 68 percent call themselves “Hispanic” and 21 percent favored “Latino” or “Latina” to describe their ethnic background, according to the survey from Bendixen & Amandi International, a top Democratic firm specializing in Latino outreach.
More problematic for Democrats: 40 percent said Latinx bothers or offends them to some degree and 30 percent said they would be less likely to support a politician or organization that uses the term.
At a time when Republicans appear to be making inroads among Latino voters, the survey results raise questions about how effectively the party is communicating with them, according to pollster Fernand Amandi and other Democrats and Latino vote experts.
“The numbers suggest that using Latinx is a violation of the political Hippocratic Oath, which is to first do no electoral harm,” said Amandi, whose firm advised Barack Obama’s successful Hispanic outreach nationwide in his two presidential campaigns. “Why are we using a word that is preferred by only 2 percent, but offends as many as 40 percent of those voters we want to win?”
Amandi emphasized that he wasn’t blaming the erosion of Latino support for Democrats merely on the use of the word Latinx. Hispanic voters have started shifting right for myriad reasons, he said, chiefly because of more aggressive engagement from Republicans who have “weaponized culture war issues at the margins with Hispanic voters.”
But as some on the left began embracing the term Latinx in politics, it started to expose a fault line in the party between moderate traditionalists and the more activist progressive base. Those embracing Latinx have explained that the word — and the trend of making Spanish words gender-inclusive by ending them in an X — is not a product of the U.S. left or white elites, but instead, can be traced back to Latin America and Latinos. It’s also an alternative to Hispanic, a term also criticized for its ties to Spain, which colonized much of Latin America.
While activists and academics for the past decade have actively supported and adopted Latinx, it has only been in recent years that the term has grown in prominence and drawn pushback from those opposed to its usage as an alternative that doesn’t follow the gender binary in the Spanish language.
Spanish is a gendered language, with nouns typically ending in “A” for the feminine and “O” for masculine words. Masculine nouns are typically prefaced with “el” or “un,” while feminine nouns are used with articles, like “la” or “una.” When referring to a group of mixed-gender people, the language defaults to the masculine — Latinos to refer to all genders. Those using Latinx argue that masculine words should not be the default when talking about a mixed-gender group.
But Spanish words do not end in the letter X, which is pronounced “eh-kees,” and some Spanish speakers argue it’s tricky to know how to pronounce Latinx in their native tongue.
The term has become more politicized in recent years as the right has increasingly highlighted its use in an effort to portray Democrats as too out of touch or at least worthy of scorn. In June, for instance, President Joe Biden was widely mocked by conservatives on Twitter for saying that “it’s awful hard … to get Latinx vaccinated as well.” Former President Donald Trump’s campaign similarly criticized Biden for using the term during last year’s presidential race.
Virginia Republican Attorney General-elect Jason Miyares — who is of Cuban descent and will be the first Hispanic to hold the office in the state — said the word Latinx turns off Latinos.
“By insisting on using the incorrect term Latinx, progressives are engaging in a type of cultural Marxism, a recast of societal norms,” he told POLITICO. “Latinos don’t use the term — only upper-educated white liberals who hardly interact with the Latino community. I believe that every time they use the term Latinx, they lose another Latino vote.”
But Chuck Rocha, a Democratic strategist and former senior adviser to Sen. Bernie Sanders’ (I-Vt.) presidential campaign, said it’s “overblown to say the word is a reason Republicans made inroads. The only reason they made inroads is they actually started communicating and talking to Latinos, who they just never took the time to talk to in years past.”
To Rocha’s point, the poll shows that usage of Latinx isn’t a big deal to a majority of Hispanics, even if few choose to use the term themselves. The poll shows that 57 percent of respondents aren’t “bothered or offended” by the term; only 20 percent said it disturbed them “a lot;” 11 percent said it was somewhat of a concern and 9 percent said it was a small annoyance. Also, 49 percent said it makes no difference to them if Latinx was used, compared to the 30 percent who said it made them less likely to support a politician and the 15 percent who said it made them more likely to support a politician or group for using the term.
Other surveys jibe with Amandi’s poll of 800 Hispanic voters, which has a margin of error of 3.46 percentage points and was completed last month. Pew Research last year found that just 3 percent of Hispanics use the term Latinx; a Gallup poll this summer pegged the number at 4 percent.
Rocha said he advises candidates to usually use the word Latino or Hispanic, depending on regional preference, “but if you’re going to sit down with an activist group on the left, you should be conscious of what they’re using, as well, to be respectful to those folks.’”
Nathalie Rayes, president and CEO of the progressive group Latino Victory Project, said that Democrats are simply recognizing the complexity of the various and diverse Hispanic communities, where some not only use the term Latinx, but prefer it.
“We just have to be inclusive and sensitive and understand that it’s not one fell swoop across the Latino community,” Rayes said.
Kristian Ramos, a Latino outreach specialist and Democratic strategist, said there’s a generational split between “young activists who very much identify as Latinx, and then you have your general population that has no idea what that word means and finds it sort of mystifying and ridiculous.”
Ramos said he also uses Latinx judiciously, largely by targeting it to the progressive and young base of the Democratic Party. “Otherwise, it turns into this debate, and then it turns into this tedious, linguistic gymnastics. Look at who actually uses ‘Latino:’ Univision and Telemundo. Their whole audience is Spanish-speaking Latinos. By and large, they avoid using Latinx. I suspect that they know that when they use those terms, they may lose more than 90 percent of their audience and 40 percent of their audience could get offended.”
One of the founders of Univision, Joaquin Blaya, said they built the network around the concept of using the words Latino and, especially, Hispanic, because it reflected the Spanish language and united Spanish speakers from across Latin America. He said his objection to Latinx is that it’s “too weird. It’s dumb. It’s foreign. It’s not Spanish.”
“Democrats are helping Republicans make them look out of touch,” said Blaya, a registered Democrat. “We built a network around our Spanish language and we have a shared culture around it. Why are we trying to change this? It’s offensive to a lot of people.”