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Polling Matters
Controversy Over the Term 'Latinx': Public Opinion Context
Polling Matters

Controversy Over the Term 'Latinx': Public Opinion Context

Labels matter, and nowhere have we seen this exemplified more throughout the centuries than in controversies over names used to describe racial and ethnic groups. One recent example was provided by an article on the Axios news site earlier this week. The review summarized disputations surrounding the use of the label "Latinx" to describe people of Hispanic, Latino and Spanish origin. The article, entitled "Latino Groups Want to Do Away With 'Latinx,'" reviewed pushback on the use of the term in a number of different quarters.

Axios noted the announcement by U.S. Rep. Ruben Gallego of Arizona, first vice chair of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, stating that his office "is not allowed to use 'Latinx' in official communications." Gallego noted, "When Latino politicos use the term, it is largely to appease White rich progressives who think that is the term we use. It is a vicious circle of confirmation bias." League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) President Domingo Garcia announced in December that his organization will cease using "Latinx," saying, "The reality is there is very little to no support for its use and it's sort of seen as something used inside the Beltway or in Ivy League tower settings." And, exemplifying the controversy, Hispanic columnist Angel Eduardo called the use of the term "lexical imperialism," adding that it is "almost exclusively a way to indicate a particular ideological leaning."

Opinions of the People Actually Involved

One of the central threads in critiques of the use of "Latinx" is evidence measuring the opinions of rank-and-file Hispanic Americans themselves. These data show that relatively few Hispanic adults have even heard of the term, and very few indicate an interest in using it to describe their ethnicity.

My colleagues Justin McCarthy and Whitney Dupree reviewed Gallup's research this past summer. Only 4% of Hispanic Americans surveyed by Gallup preferred "Latinx" as the label of choice to describe their ethnic group. The majority (57%) said that a choice among the labels "Hispanic," "Latino," "Latinx" or another term didn't matter to them, while another 23% preferred "Hispanic" and 15% preferred "Latino." These results were very similar to those from a Gallup survey conducted in 2013.

Hispanic Americans' Preferred Term for Their Ethnic Subgroup
The terms "Hispanic," "Latino" and "Latinx" are used to refer to this ethnic subgroup of Americans. Which term do you think should generally be used -- Hispanic, Latino, Latinx, another term, or does it not matter to you either way?
Jun 1-Jul 5, 2021
Hispanic 23
Latino 15
Latinx 4
Does not matter 57
Another term/Other 1
No opinion 0

A follow-up question asked the 57% of Hispanic Americans who initially said it didn't matter to them which term was used if they leaned toward the use of any of the labels. Only 5% of this residual group (equivalent to 3% of all Hispanics) leaned toward the label "Latinx"; most tilted toward the use of "Hispanic" or "Latino." Overall, then, Gallup data show that at most 7% of Hispanic adults have an interest in the use of the term "Latinx."

These results have been replicated in other surveys. Pew Research in 2020 reported that 76% of Hispanic Americans had not heard of the term "Latinx," while only 3% reported they actually used it and 4% said they prefer it be used to describe the Hispanic or Latino population.

Origins of the Controversy

An important aspect of these data is the apparent lack of interest among Hispanic Americans in the labels used to describe them, despite the intense reactions of others. As noted, the majority of Hispanic adults in Gallup's research say they don't care what label (among the three tested) is used. By extrapolation, the majority presumably don't care if "Latinx" is or is not used. There is a preference for "Hispanic" or "Latino" over "Latinx," but this doesn't tell us if Hispanic Americans actively dislike the term or if it is simply not preferred. Research conducted by Bendixen & Amandi International in November did find that 31% of Hispanic voters say the use of the term "Latinx" bothers or offends them either a lot or somewhat, but that leaves the majority in the indifferent category.

Overall, to the extent there is a controversy, it is apparently not so much generated from the bottom up -- that is, discontent in the ranks of Hispanic Americans over the labels used to describe them -- but rather a controversy developed by thought leaders and activists from the top down.

Context for the Creation of the Term 'Latinx'

The origins of the term are somewhat hazy, but it was apparently developed as a replacement for the gender-specific aspects embodied in the words "Latino" and "Latina." As Professor David Bowles at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley noted, the word "Latinx" is a "non-gendered, nonbinary, inclusive way of pushing back against the default masculine in Spanish."

There is little evidence speaking to the issue of the actual use of the term "Latinx" in ordinary discourse in the U.S. Its use is obviously frequent enough to have generated controversy, although this must be considered in light of the Pew data showing that three-quarters of Hispanic adults have never heard of the term.

Pew in its 2020 report also conducted an analysis of Google Trends data and found an increase in searches for the term "Latinx" in recent years, particularly after the deadly shootings in June 2016 during Latin Night at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando. But the absolute numbers searching for the term are still very low, particularly when compared with searches for the terms "Latina," "Latino" and "Hispanic." And, of course, while Google searches are indicative of interest in the term, they do not tell us how often it is used in daily life.

There is also no research I am aware of measuring non-Hispanic adults' awareness and use of the term "Latinx," nor measuring non-Hispanic adults' attitudes toward the term or their thoughts on its use by others.

'Latinx' Controversy Part of Larger Cultural Trends

The development and use of the term "Latinx" reflect larger social trends, including an increased focus on the power of words and an increased emphasis on identity groups.

College campuses today are embroiled in discussions of what does and does not constitute free speech, and some campuses have famously instituted trigger warnings to alert students to their forthcoming exposure to words and content they might find disturbing.

Advocacy organizations now publish guidelines for the use of appropriate words in the context of their populations of interest. GLAAD (Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation) provides a media reference guide that lists terms to avoid and terms that are preferred when writing about lesbian, gay and bisexual issues. The American Medical Association has published "Advancing Health Equity: A Guide to Language, Narrative and Concepts," which was "created to give a fresh perspective about the language we commonly use, and to recognize the harmful effects of dominant narratives in medicine." Several groups interested in equity and diversity have published a Racial Equity Tools Glossary addressing label controversies, noting that "whether to use the terms African American or Black, Hispanic American, Latinx or Latino, Native American or American Indian, and Pacific Islander or Asian American depends on a variety of conditions, including your intended audiences' geographic location, age, generation and, sometimes, political orientation."

Labels gain particular significance in a time of the elevated importance of group identity in social and political spheres -- with each group seeking to emphasize its own collective identity and to express its special grievances. The focus on the words currently used to describe racial and ethnic groups is also reflective of efforts to correct the long historical record of the use of demeaning racial and ethnic labels.

Could Become Political Football

As is true with many issues today, the "Latinx" controversy has potential political implications. The use of the term could become a factor in coming elections if Republicans attempting to increase their showing among Hispanic voters try to make the label a symbolic indicator of liberal, progressive overreach. Along these lines, the Bendixen & Amandi poll found that 30% of Hispanic voters would be less likely to support a politician or political organization that used the term "Latinx," while 15% said they would be more likely; about half said it would make no difference. The Pew data showed that Democratic Hispanic Americans are somewhat more familiar than Republican Hispanic Americans with the term "Latinx" and are slightly more likely to use it, although use among both groups is very low.

Final Note

There is a certain irony in the fact that pollsters must use a group label to define groups in their surveys in order to ask that group about the term they want to be used to define themselves. Gallup, like other pollsters, closely follows the wording used by the U.S. Census and asks respondents, "Are you of Hispanic, Latino or Spanish origin -- such as Mexican, Puerto Rican, Cuban or other Spanish origin?"

The Census Bureau's race and ethnicity labels adhere to those developed by the U.S. Office of Management and Budget (OMB). These in turn "generally reflect a social definition of race and ethnicity recognized in this country, and they do not conform to any biological, anthropological or genetic criteria." The Census Bureau in conjunction with the OMB reports that "since the 1970s, the Census Bureau has conducted content tests to research and improve the design and function of different questions, including questions on race and ethnicity." Thus, it is possible that the OMB and the Census Bureau might change their questions asking about Hispanic identity in the future, and that presumably includes the possibility of adding a new term such as "Latinx."

At this time, however, there appears to be little indication -- from the people's perspective -- that "Latinx" is a term in wide use or one with wide understanding, and thus its use as an additional label for Hispanic or Spanish ethnicity doesn't appear to have much empirical underpinning.


Frank Newport, Ph.D., is a Gallup Senior Scientist. He is the author of Polling Matters: Why Leaders Must Listen to the Wisdom of the People and God Is Alive and Well. Twitter: @Frank_Newport

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