April 10, 2021

By Luis Miguel Messianu, Creative Chairman & CEO, Alma

Throughout my life I’ve been called many names. In fact, I remember growing up in Mexico City being fondly referred to as “Güerito” (blondie,) in spite of having dark hair. This name had to do with the fact that I am the son of Rumanian immigrants, so I was whiter than most of my other friends. However, in spite of my foreign origin, last name, and my looks, I was always, and still am, very proud of being Mexican.

Little did I know that when I “crossed the border” to come work in the US Hispanic market my new name would become “Hispanic.” It was during this time in my life when I received comments like “You don’t look Mexican.” and “Where is your accent from?” To the point where I created defense mechanisms such as “Excuse my English, it’s my third language.” I also constantly quoted a great line from the movie A Walk in the Clouds (1995): “Just because I speak with an accent doesn’t mean that I think with an accent.”

The term “Hispanic” was a badge adopted by the U.S. Government in the 70’s, used to track social and economic progress of this “group” vs. the general population. It went on to become adopted by the corporate world, and more specifically by the marketing and advertising industry. In the 1980s, the US Census Bureau started counting an influx of Latin American immigrants using the new term “Hispanic,” connecting them by linguistic heritage. But the term didn’t do justice to Portuguese-speaking Brazilians, and it could also include Spaniards. So, in 2000, the word “Latino” appeared on the census, and it has since achieved widespread use as an umbrella term for people and communities south of the US border. The term Latino/a was adopted by the U.S. government mainly due to the popularity in the West Coast.

Cut to 2016 when the term “Latinx” enters the social lexicon. It was a word that leaped off the page: “Latinx” (pronounced la-TEEN-ex), provided a gender-¬neutral way to describe people of Latin American heritage. In fact, it was after the mass shooting in Orlando that we started hearing the term more often, as 90% of the victims were Latinx. But it wasn’t just because of Pulse, Google Trends showed a massive spike in searches for the term in the month following the massacre. Since then, the word has gained steam, especially among LGBTQ+ activists and student groups, and eventually earned a spot in the Merriam-Webster dictionary in September 2018.

Latinx was originally conceived in the early stages 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. Clearly the term is more widely accepted, but plenty of people still dislike it. I have to confess I myself resisted the word at first. But then I started to see it through a new lens. This quote nicely sums it up: “It’s about inclusiveness, making sure everyone is accounted for. Spanish, in particular, is a heavily gendered language; everything is male or female. So, what about non-binary trans people? We love our culture and want to be included too. I identify as Latinx to ensure everyone’s voice is heard.”  -- Cristina Licea, Cuban-Latinx living in Miami

One thing is certain, Hispanic identity is complex, fluid and continuously evolving. As marketers, we need terms we can use to refer to, and help segment groups of people. It’s not about speaking to or at our audiences with them. We shouldn’t be telling them who they are. It’s about showing them as they are, and authentically representing their voices and stories. After all, specificity drives authenticity.

So, to answer the question many clients keep asking: Should we be using Latinx when we refer to Hispanics? Here are a few thoughts:

  1. Though some suggest it has been imposed on the Hispanic population by the government or the media, tracking of culture indicates that is not the case.
  2. Its use among all Hispanics is not widespread, however, for some groups it is their preferred name. For any organization that is customer-centric, it is one more identifier that can be used to show empathy for how audiences define themselves.
  3. When speaking about Hispanics there are many options available: Hispanic, Latino, and Latinx are the most common. These can be used interchangeably, though the tendency is to use Latinx more when we refer to younger consumers as they are the ones who use it the most.   
  4. In addition to any organizational DE&I views, which should also factor into the discussion about Latinx use, marketers have a responsibility to understand the diversity of the world we live in and the consumers we serve, in order to best serve all audiences in a way that creates brand growth.

To put it more simply, any organization that aims to be “consumer driven” or to “put customers first” should be judicious in understanding all consumers. Only through such understanding can we better serve customers and prospects by developing programs that serve their needs and that reflect them in messaging as they see themselves. That includes Hispanic in all their self-identified and culturally nuanced forms, whether they are Hispanics whose identities intersect with Black (i.e., Afro-Latino), with LGBTQ+ (Latinx), Mexican and Black (Blaxican), young and urban (Latinx) and on and on.

While marketers who want to make sure to use the right word, everyday Hispanics themselves are most likely to identify with their country of origin or descent. Some Hispanics identify as “American” first, and Latino heritage second. Those who have close cultural ties to their Latin-American country of origin or were born abroad will typically identify first in the hyphenate “country of origin-American” or just by their country of origin.

So, you may still be wondering, “should I use Latinx?” and the answer is:  maybe.

There are those who fully embrace it, and others who prefer not to use it to avoid debate. Yet, others who use it when crafting strategies will often switch to Hispanic or Latino with certain stakeholders. All of these are correct, because, as many marketers know, names and labels come and go.

For example, fifteen years ago the question was “Should we use Hispanic or Latino?” As recently as 2013, only 33% of Hispanics preferred Hispanic. Today it’s now at 61%. The position then was similar to what we’re discussing today. These terms can be used interchangeably as best fits in a given context, but the most important recommendation from back then applies fully today: As marketers, segmenting and labeling people is useful when we do the work that consumers never see. It helps us get to the specificity that drives authenticity. When we speak to our customers, we aim to create empathetic communications that resonate with the intended audiences without saying, “Hey Hispanic person, this is for you.” When we engage them, consumers should feel seen, not singled out.

Unlike “Hispanic” which was handed down to us by the U.S Government, Latinx was born out of young Latinos who have a different view on the world and is a consciously modern expression of Hispanic identity and values. We could say Latinx is a cultural unifier and even a rally cry, so in the name of inclusion, equity and justice, let’s be open minded about the term.

Names convey a sense of identity, so do me a favor: call me “blondie”, call me Mexican, call me Latino, Hispanic or even Latinx. I will certainly appreciate you taking my heritage, my culture and my unique upbringing into context. Now more than ever a respect for diversity is the right thing to do!


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