Liz Alarcón: “Ay, do we really need to talk about this?” I’m gonna be honest, this was my first reaction when we were brainstorming the episode you’re about to hear. Another conversation about Latinos and language? It just gets so contentious. Nuestra gente, you all listening, us – we’re so passionate about the opinions on the right or wrong way to speak English y Español. It feels like even touching the subject is a recipe for conflict. So de we actually have something new to add to the ongoing dissection of our languages and how to use them here on the Pulso Pod, Maribel?

Maribel Quezada Smith: Yes, I think we do. And I know that it’s gonna be shocking for you because I’m usually on the other end of this conversation when it comes to language, but I have to say that I realized something. Earlier I was like, well this doesn’t really affect me so what’s the big deal? And that was the key. It doesn’t affect me and that’s why I don’t necessarily feel the need to always have a conversation about gendered language. Because I’m comfortable going as Maribel, female, she, ella, but other people are not. And I think that’s why we need to have these conversations, because language, much like everything else, needs to evolve if we wanna be better humans. If you really wanna believe in the tradition of language, or if you really wanna preserve something, we have something called Latin. So, I’m not a linguist, you know, I’m not sure if that’s the correct way of phrasing this, but I do think that we need to evolve the language and the conversation needs to probably start around why it affects other people, and seeing it from their perspective.

Liz Alarcón: Oof, that’s sitting with me. The part about the need to evolve and the want for all of us to be better humans has convinced me, Maribel, that actually we do have a different perspective to talk about this subject and we do have something to add to this debate. So here is goes, you all. Our producer Jackie went forth to create this episode for us all to listen, reflect, and learn about the role of gender in laguage, how it’s evolving away from the masculine and feminine binary we’re used to, and why we should reconsider how we speak Español.

Jackie Noack: A few months ago, I was on the phone with my mom, and I shared about how, on one of the podcasts I was working on, the host started by saying, “Hola a todos, todas y todes. Bienvenides a [dot dot dot]”. And my mom cut me off and said, “Que es eso? TodEs? BienvenidEs?”. And I explained that not everybody likes being referred to as “todos”, because it defaults to masculine. Same with the term “Latino”. And how neutral terms like “Latine” or “Latinx” were becoming more common in certain circles. She responded by saying, “Entonces que? Esa es la mes-ex? Y la sill-ex?” “So what, is that now the table-x and that’s the chair-x?”
I feel like so many thoughts rushed to my head all at once. Was I going to get into an argument with my mom? Was I going to share that I now go by she/they pronouns in English and ella/elle pronouns in Spanish? Or that I actually LOVE the term “Latine”? Instead, I chalked it up to a generational difference and moved on. But this conversation really made me think. What DO Latin Americans think about these gender neutral words? And how can old-school, traditional Latinos come to terms with changes, when the Spanish language itself is so gendered?
As we all know, Spanish is a gendered language. Nouns, articles, and adjectives are all gendered. For example, “the pretty girl” in Spanish would be “la niña bonita”. Notice how all three words end in “A”? And let’s say you’re talking to a group of 100 people – 98 women and 2 men. In Spanish, you would default to addressing a plural group of people with the masculine, “todos.”
We’ve seen the word “Latinx” pop up in social media in the past decade. This term rose in LGBTQIA+ circles in order to be more inclusive than the default term, “Latino”. And although there are continued efforts to normalize inclusive language, a Pew Research Center survey conducted in 2019 found that about 1-in-4 US hispanics have heard of the term “Latinx”, and just 3% actually use it. And that young hispanic women are among the most likely to use the term, which makes sense if you think about it.

Fernando Quiroz: Since day one, I was quite a feminine child. And that was pretty okay. I’ve been queer since always, I guess.

Jackie Noack: This is Fernando Salinas-Quiroz. They are non-binary and their pronouns are they in English and elle in Spanish. Fernando, who’s originally from Mexico City, is an assistant professor at Tufts University who specializes in working with LGBTQIA+ individuals and non-traditional families, and children.

Fernando Quiroz: I’m too boring for queer folks because you like children and they are not like a hot topic, usually in queer spaces. And I am too queer and weirdo for people in child development and family psychology. So I’m this kind of hybrid.

Jackie Noack: And Fernando uses their position to push boundaries within the academic world.

Fernando Quiroz: When I published my first book, I wanted to use the E because you can talk about todas, todos, todes. You are making a symbolic space for folks that do not identify with those two categories, binaries are for computers, right?

Jackie Noack: But this, did not go over smoothly. For years, Fernando fought in the Latin American academic world to have the gender neutral “e” recognized and accepted in their works. And time after time, they were faced with citations from the Real Academia Española, known as the Royal Spanish Academy in English, which is the institution that ensures the quote “stability of the Spanish language.”

Fernando Quiroz: Oh, so a bunch of white, old Spanish folks are going to tell me how to talk? No, ma’am.

Jackie Noack: But Fernando’s university did not accept the work. So Fernando decided to fight back.

Fernando Quiroz: The only thing that I can come up with is then I only want to use femenine. So my book only talks about niñas and I need to make a footnote and there you see how people don’t read. But that was like my first political statement, because I think that one can do some sort of academic activism or resistance or other ways. So that was the first one.

Jackie Noack: Fernando has a lot of thoughts about gender inclusive language, including the very Americanized term “Latinx”.

Fernando Quiroz: The X makes sense here. And I’m delighted to see it more and more and more in, you know, documents and people normalizing it. Uh, but it’s pronounceable. Latinx.

Jackie Noack: Given that it doesn’t quite roll off the tongue in Spanish, Fernando explains that the word “Latine” is the more widely used term.

Fernando Quiroz: Folk starting using Latine or Latini, in Spanish and in Portuguese. So I think that they both have the same intention that is going beyond the binary and making more and more folks feel included. And I think that both options exist and for some people will make sense. And for others, won’t.

Jackie Noack: I’ve lived in the United States most of my life, and although I have ties to friends and family in Latin America, I had never heard of the word “Latine” until this year. I wanted to talk to someone outside the US to see how they were using this, so I called my friend Rosina from Buenos Aires, whose friend group has completely adopted the use of the gender-neutral e.

Rosina Castillo: I don’t exactly remember when I started to use the inclusive language in Spanish, but it was like, it felt really natural, like with my group of friends and my boyfriend, and it was really nice to start using to feel inclusive. Not also feel yourself included, but also make your friends feel included as well.

Jackie Noack: Instead of saying “hola amigos”, Rosina says “hola amigues”. But similar to folks who are incorporating inclusive language in the United States, Rosina talks about having to adapt to your audience, especially when talking to more old school people.

Rosina Castillo: In my case, I have like a like a switch. Like if I’m in a, you know, like a safe space, friendly space, I can use it. But you really have to be careful because sometimes I don’t know if you just use it all the time. There are places where they would just say, no, we don’t use that kind of language here. You have to talk in another way, because otherwise we. You know, reply to you or take your query or whatever you are doing.

Jackie Noack: And this pushback against incorporating gender inclusive language goes far beyond Rosina’s community. This issue came to a head on a national level when Cristina Fernández de Kirchner was elected President of Argentina in 2007.

Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner: Yo, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner juro por Dios, la patria y sobre los santos evangelios desempeñar con lealtad y patriotismo el cargo de presidenta de la nación y observar y hacer observar fielmente la constitución de la Nación Argentina.

Jackie Noack: In Spanish, the word for president is “presidente”. Note the “e” at the end instead of the “o” or “a” that typically genders the word. Kirchner actively chose to gender it, calling herself “la presidenta”. These two words cause an uproar. People were citing the Royal Spanish Academy, claiming that she was bastardizing the language. But her supporters were quick to push back with examples of the words “sirvienta” and “secretaria” – which mean female servant and female secretary. These are some of the only words in the Spanish language that purposefully default to femenine, and that’s no coincidence.
And that wasn’t Kirchner’s only challenge to the system.

Rosina Castillo: She would say hello to every Argentinian person, instead of Olas, she would say Ola Atos S which is like, hello to everybody in masculine and in feminine. So she started being criticized because of that, because grammatically, it doesn’t make sense because you are kind of saying two times the same thing, but she wanted to emphasize that it’s important to name the feminine side.

Jackie Noack: Obviously there had been folks paving the way for gender equality and inclusion for a long time, but this display of feminism at such a high level was a catalyst for the movement.
So after hearing from Fernando about the academic world and Rosina about the political world, I wanted to bring our conversation a little closer to home. I called one of my best friends from childhood, Yesenia Parra. Born to Colombian parents, Yesi – as I call her – grew up in New York. We met when we were 12 years old, and quickly bonded over our love of emo and pop punk music, while attending an all-girls Catholic school. To say that we didn’t fit in was an understatement.

Yesenia Parra: I came out as a lesbian when I was like 15, 16 years old. I honestly don’t remember. You might remember better than I do cause remember you were one the first people I told.

Jackie Noack: If I recall correctly, my response to Yesi was, “Cool! Do you want to go to lunch?” We’ve talked about that moment a lot throughout the years, because although I fully supported and embraced her when she came out, the same could not be said about her family.

Yesenia Parra: So when I came out, it was like super expos to lots of emotions. they were very much like, what did we do wrong? And then my dad was like, do you hate men? Do you hate me? Do you hate your brother?

Jackie Noack: I remember inviting 7 or 8 friends to sleep over and Yesi was never allowed to spend the night, because of her family’s assumptions of what she would do with the other girls.

Yesenia Parra: You recall? Like sometimes I would have to, like, my dad would pick me up at a certain hour and if I wasn’t there, I would get in so much trouble. And at the same time, cuz Adam and I grew up in the same house. We had Adam who clearly was a very, very obviously queer kid.

Jackie Noack: Adam is Yesi’s trans nephew, but we were all pretty close in age so he was more like a cousin. Back then, he had not yet transitioned so he was always referred to using female pronouns.

Yesenia Parra: I remember sometimes his mom would come to me. Like, can you just talk to him and tell him to, well, he would, she would say her at the time, tell her to like, just be a little bit more feminine. Like it’s okay. Like she’s also a lesbian. I don’t care. Just like just, you know, dress like your, your sex. I remember being like, did you ever think that Adam might not be female? And I remember having that conversation and her just exploding, like. You’re putting this idea into his head.

Jackie Noack: Despite these really difficult times, Yesi continued advocating for herself and for Adam.

Yesenia Parra: So was always just trying to like push them to use the heat and like, not talk about trans people as transvestites, like trying to change a lot of that terminology, especially even for gay, not calling people like mud, um, if they were gay, like it was, it was a lot of work and explanation.

Jackie Noack: In Latin America, the tendency to use transphobic and homophobic slurs is rampant, and even normalized. Thinking back, I remember hearing them as the butt of jokes or as machista insults at family gatherings in Peru and at school when I lived in Mexico.

Yesenia Parra: There was always a lot of shame in like talking about us. Like when my family would ask about me having a boyfriend, my mom would avoid that subject, until I was like in my twenties. We were kind of hidden. We were like the black sheep of the family. And I’m always having to advocate for him and be like, just let him be. He’s not causing you any harm.

Jackie Noack: It wasn’t until Yesi was in college that she was able to form a stronger connection with her parents and receive the acceptance that they hadn’t given her before.

Yesenia Parra: And I think a lot of it had to do with like me leaving and kind of, they really realize like, okay, she she’s independent, she’s on her own. This is not a phase. And it was around that time that Adam started telling the family, like, my name is Adam. It’s not Stephanie. Um, don’t call me she. And so it took my mom, like a, maybe a good year to get used to calling him. He, so they were both kind of at the same time.

Jackie Noack: Yesi married her wife, Nour, in 2016. I asked if her mom referred to Nour as her wife, which is “esposa” in Spanish.

Yesenia Parra: I think it’s over like a few months, but now she has no problem saying it. And my dad too. And with Adam, he has a girlfriend. Like they’re always talk like now they talk about no and Adam’s girlfriend, like they’re part of the family, you know, like when they joke about in-laws and stuff like as a family, like they talk about them like that.

Jackie Noack: Hearing Yesi tell me about her more recent family dynamic completely warms my heart. I remember what she and Adam went through growing up. I remember how Yesi was treated by administration and teachers at our Catholic school. I remember how Adam was given looks and misgendered when I’d hang out with both of them. And it’s just so wonderful to see that even their resistant and old fashioned family members learned to embrace them for who they are.

Yesenia Parra: I remember being a teenager and seemed like just, just very dark, and I’m glad I made it to present day. I realize that people can change and people can grow. You just have to like, be true to who you are and just enforce language, acceptance.

Jackie Noack: And Rosina from Buenos Aires, she agrees, it’s about respect

Rosina Castillo: I think there is a political side, which you can agree or disagree based on grammar and history and whatnot. But there is also this other side, which is you are trying to respect what the other person it identifies with, and I think it’s really, really important and fundamental that we can respect that.

Jackie Noack: For me, the word I focus on is “acceptance”. People can choose to use Latinx, Latine, or even continue using Latino, but it’s important to acknowledge that language is always evolving. And it’s even more important to listen, learn, and accept people for who they truly are.

Fernando Quiroz: Even as an adult, I can deconstruct myself. And now, as I play with E and Latine and Latin, Latinx and Latini and whatever I I’m also, I hope for me to keep changing from here till the day I die.