This month, for perhaps the first time in history, the word “Latinx” was uttered during an American presidential debate. As a moderator at that Democratic debate in Houston, I began by telling the 10 candidates that the time had come to discuss “Latinx” issues.
Then, switching over to Spanish, I said: “En este país también se habla español. Este debate se realiza en un momento muy difícil para los Latinos en Texas y Estados Unidos. Pero es importante que ellos sepan — que sepamos — que este también es nuestro país.” (“In this country we also speak Spanish. We are having this debate at a very difficult time for Latinos in Texas and all over America. But it is important to remind them — all of us — that this is also our country.”)
Nothing makes racists in the United States angrier than Hispanics and immigrants reminding them that this is also our country. And it’s true: Today, there are roughly 60 million Latinos living in the U.S. According to the Census Bureau, that number will grow to nearly 100 million by 2050. No candidate will be able to win the White House (or, for that matter, any key political office) without our vote. It’s that simple.
Just look at Texas. A recent Univision survey suggests that the Lone Star State, long a Republican stronghold, could be flipped in the 2020 election. The survey projects that the Democratic candidate will defeat President Donald Trump, winning 47% of the Texas vote to Trump’s 42%.
Sure, there’s still a long way to go before the election — we don’t even know who the Democratic candidate is yet — and, of course, the surveys were wrong about Trump in 2016. But there’s no doubt that the country’s rising Latino population, with its increasing electoral clout, is starting to make its presence felt.
Unfortunately, racism toward Hispanics is also becoming increasingly evident. The El Paso shooting on Aug. 3 specifically targeted Latinos, and 19 of its 22 victims were Hispanic. (Only in the 2016 mass shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida, were more Latinos killed.)
It’s a sign of the times, apparently. It seems that some in the United States are dead set against our sharing in more power and influence.
At the same time, a revolution is taking place within the Latino community itself. The political leadership is changing. Our opposition strategy is changing. Even the words we use are changing.
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the 29-year-old Democratic representative from New York, is at the forefront of this generational transformation. But she isn’t alone. American-born Hispanics, not immigrants, are driving most of the growth within the Latino community. And this in turn is giving rise to a new and dynamic political class. Nothing is beyond their reach.
Instead of playing according to Washington’s rules, a strategy that hasn’t always had the best results, the Latino community’s new political approach includes organizing protests, asking tough questions and mastering the use of social media.
We have much to thank the “Dreamers” for in this respect. Frustrated at the lack of progress on immigration policy, they pressured former President Barack Obama to act. The result was the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which temporarily protected young immigrants who had been brought to the U.S. illegally from deportation. Now, even non-“Dreamers” act like “Dreamers,” because their activist strategy really works.
When it comes to changes in our language, the word “Latinx” is a particularly powerful example of the cultural transformations underway. The gender-neutral term is more inclusive than words like “Latino” or “Hispanic.” It is both singular and plural; it’s pronounced the same way in English and Spanish; and it brings together a wide range of communities with a shared history of oppression — indigenous groups, people of African descent and the LGBTQ community — as well as people from Brazil and the Caribbean. It suggests a new sense of openness and fluidity. “Latinx,” in short, does not discriminate: It raises a big tent.
I don’t know if “Latinx” will replace “Latino” or “Hispanic” any time soon. But “Latino” and “Hispanic” are both male-gendered terms, which already leave out half the population. That’s not fair. “Latinx,” in contrast, isn’t a binary term. This makes it more egalitarian.
As we celebrate America’s Hispanic heritage, the fight continues for the Latinx idea to be seen as an essential part of that heritage, and of the nation’s future. The Latino-American labor leader Cesar Chavez had it right when he said: “We have seen the future, and the future is ours.”