CLEVELAND, Ohio — Folks – ustedes, mi gente — we have to talk.
May is Mental Health Awareness Month, and in the spirit of the month, I want to focus on the mental health benefits of inclusion, specifically in the Latinx community.
Yes, I used the term Latinx. And I hope you will join me in embracing this term and abandoning the gendered terms of Latino or Latina.
Who, particularly should adopt this change, in my opinion? Fellow Latinx people in the United States. For several reasons it is a more practical term in the U.S. than in, for example, predominantly Spanish-speaking countries, like my mother’s native El Salvador.
This is complicated, I know, but hear me out.
According to the Pew Research Center, 23 percent of the US population self-identifies as Hispanic or Latino. Of that, only 3 percent of people identify as Latinx. So, what is Latinx, and why is it different?
In a nutshell, Latinx is a gender-neutral term intended to be encompassing of people in our own community who do not identify with being Latino or Latina, which have male and female associations, respectively. Even as a cisgender woman, I think it is important to stand in solidarity with those who embrace being Latinx because they feel the heteronormative Latino or Latina terms don’t represent them. They may not be the majority within the Latinx community, but they matter.
As someone who uses she/her pronouns, I wanted to connect with someone who identifies as Latinx and uses they/them pronouns about the broader impact of this big cultural shift in terminology.
“I personally use the term Latinx when speaking in English, and then I use the Latine when I’m speaking in Spanish,” explained Christian Contessa Aguilera (they/he), who works at the LGBT Community Center of Greater Cleveland. “I know that sometimes there is this argument people have that Latinx isn’t open or available to Spanish speakers. That construction of having an ‘x’ at the end isn’t typical in Spanish, therefore it’s alienating a population. I personally think Latinx is a term that was created for people who primarily speak English.”
The research appears to support his assertion regarding the term.
“The U.S. born are more likely than the foreign born to have heard the term (32% vs. 16%), and Hispanics who are predominantly English speakers or bilingual are more likely than those who mainly speak Spanish to say the same (29% for both vs. 7%),” according to the Pew Research Center.
Contessa Aguilera, 23, is Honduran and a linguistics major who grew up in a Spanish-speaking home, so his insights on the change in terminology were admittedly more nuanced than my own. He noted that given the history of misogyny and sexism in the U.S., compounded by what is, at times, a machista culture in Latinx households, the term Latinx steers us toward gender equality.
How do you explain all this to older generations? To our abuelas, moms, tias, tios and others in our family? I cannot even imagine tackling this topic with my own abuelita or mom. This conjures in my mind a scene from “One Day at a Time” when Lydia, played by 90-year-old Rita Moreno, asks her granddaughter – “What the hell is a Latinx?” How do you connect the dots on mental health and inclusion for generations – here I’m speaking solely from my experience – that have not exactly been quick to embrace the necessity for either?
For this, I needed to talk to a Latinx mental health professional. Luckily, I have a few in my family. My cousin, Priscilla Flores, MSSA, LSW, of Cleveland, is a clinical therapist. Her main advice: Make the issue personal and boil it down to a granular discussion about one’s humanity rather than a broad political or ideological change.
It’s something she encounters in her profession, both being an inclusive advocate for her clients and educating those who might be struggling with understanding why the term Latinx is necessary. I get it. I once dropped a therapist who debated with me on whether or not Chief Wahoo was offensive. Inclusion is important.
“Being a mental health therapist, being inclusive, is probably one of the biggest things and if you’re not, that can be really detrimental to a client,” she said. “I always try to keep up with inclusive language, so I am always an ally.”
I know my anxiety lessens when I am around people who not only accept my identity as a Latinx and Indigenous person but embrace it. When people go the extra mile to be welcoming, I feel more relaxed. Comfortable. Less isolated. Especially in spaces where I’m the only person of color. I’m able to let my guard down. So, I’ve personally experienced the mental health benefits of inclusion in my everyday life and wondered if those for whom the term Latinx is a better alternative have felt the same.
“What I notice in individuals who establish those conversations with their families or their support systems and they adapt, they feel so much more confident and secure in who they are because now they’re being accepted,” Flores said. “When it comes to adapting, it really impacts the way one sees themselves. And literally just changing one letter in a word changes the whole scope of someone’s perspective about who they are and how they roam this earth.”
She added, “It’s breaking down all these barriers so people can be their authentic selves.”
Amen. Isn’t that what we all should strive for? Empowering and uplifting others so they feel welcome in all spaces?
Though I am a cisgender woman, I feel it is important to be an ally in this cultural shift. That’s why I identify as Latinx. We’ve got to normalize these changes not just for ourselves, but for the generations to come.
A Clevelander from the Slavic Village neighborhood, Nancy Kelsey started her career in journalism before working in communications. Her biggest loves are her husband, family, dogs, volunteering, traveling, writing, learning about oth
er cultures and sharing her own. You can reach her at [email protected].