Nov. 14, 2018
The New Force in American Politics and Culture
By Ed Morales
368 pp. Verso. $24.95.
In September, just in time for Hispanic Heritage Month, the Merriam-Webster Dictionary recognized the word “Latinx,” which it defines as “of, relating to or marked by Latin American heritage — used as a gender-neutral alternative to Latino or Latina.” I was happy to see the addition, and also more than a little amused. I thought back to my freshman year of college in 1992. As I sat in a computer room in my dorm working away on an early Macintosh, a red squiggly line immediately appeared underneath the word “Chicano” after I typed it into the paper I was writing about my family’s background. When I hit the spell check to see what the problem was, Microsoft Word had a suggestion: Chicago. “You don’t even exist,” popped into my head. Unfortunately, this wasn’t a new experience. Years earlier, in middle school, I’d been asked to fill out a form that included a question about my background. There were three options to choose from: black, white or other. “Well, I’m not black or white,” I remember thinking, pencil in hand, “but I don’t like the sound of ‘other.’” I left it blank.
For many Latinos, stories like these are all too familiar. In “Latinx: The New Force in American Politics and Culture,” Ed Morales fills in that blank as well as the long, painful, complex and intersectional struggle for identity that has shaped America’s Latino community. As Morales notes, Latinx is just the latest in a series of terms, from Hispanic to Latino/a and even Latin@, employed to refer to individuals of Latin American heritage in an inclusive way.
Reading Morales’s dissection of Latinx identity formation, however, one begins to believe that the x in “Latinx” is more than just a means of providing gender-neutrality. As in algebra, the x is variable. How a Latino or Latina perceives himself or herself — and how he or she is perceived by others — often depends on context. Unhappy with the binary notion of race popular in the United States, Morales offers the concept of mestizaje, or hybridity, that encompasses a spectrum of identity, the result of hundreds of years of intermixing among African, European and indigenous peoples in Mexico, Latin America and the Caribbean. Latinos can be black, white, brown or anything in between. Skin color, national origin, whether one lives in the mainland United States or outside of it, and one’s ability to speak Spanish, not to mention gender and sexual orientation, all play a role in one’s self-concept.