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On May 21, Latino students at the University of California, Santa Barbara met with several high-ranking university officials for six hours to present a list of 30 demands on behalf of the Latino community on campus.

The students, who said there’s an “extreme lack of care” for Latinos enrolled at the university, are part of a group called VOCEROS or “spokespeople” in Spanish. Among their list of demands was instituting a Latinx Parents Weekend, Latinx-specific housing and maintaining a student space for Latinxs, known as El Centro. 

“It’s Saturday, we should be relaxing … but I’m here meeting with you all and that’s because these things are very important and these are things that affect people’s lives,” said student Joseline Garcia at the gathering.

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They’re the latest in a growing number of Latinos to embrace ‘Latinx’ identity. Contrary to the traditional terms ‘Latina’ or ‘Latino,’ which are gendered, Latinx (pronounced by many as LA-TIN-EX) is a gender non-conforming term that describes people of Latin American descent.

Though originally used by activists, academics and members of the LGBTQ community, the term has gained popularity among the general public in recent years, becoming a movement, of sorts, as Latinxs look to break away from gender- conforming and antiquated labels of who they are. The term has become particularly popular on college campuses, with students using the term as a rallying point. 'Latinx' has appeared in Internet searches since as early as 2004 but skyrocketed in online searches in 2015, according to Google trends data.

“Using Latinx is a reflection of the desire to eliminate and do away with gender binaries,” said Filiberto Nolasco Gomez, founder of the Latin American news and culture blog, El Huateque. “It challenges sensibilities about gender and sexuality.”

Gomez said he began using the term about one year ago as a result of his work with California’s Gay Straight Alliance Network, which he says taught him to “appreciate and respect” gender fluidity.

Gomez says he still gets push back from some readers for using the term on his website, but that most are OK with it after it’s been explained to them. “I think fundamentally, language changes and society changes and we have to be responsive and adaptive to what’s happening in the world,” he said.

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But not everyone feels the same. In an essay for Swarthmore College’s student newspaper, students Gilbert Guerra and Gilbert Orbea rendered the term a “buzzword” and argued that replacing the a’s and o’s with an “x” would cause Latinx to be incomprehensible to Spanish speakers who have no proficiency of the English language.

“It effectively serves as an American way to erase the Spanish language. Like it or not, Spanish is a gendered language. If you take the gender out of every word, you are no longer speaking Spanish. If you advocate for the erasure of gender in Spanish, you then are advocating for the erasure of Spanish,” the pair wrote.

Dr. Robyn Henderson-Espinoza, visiting assistant professor of ethics at the Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley, said Latinx identity is much too rich and complex to be labeled with just one word. Henderson-Espinoza doesn’t just use a single term to identify the surrounding community. In addition to Latinx, Henderson-Espinoza uses Latina, Latino and Latin@.

“As we know, the experience of Latinidad and our gente are wide and varied,” Henderson-Espinoza said.

“We live in a world that has forced us to assimilate into white culture and divest our own identity. My response is that, actually, we have a rich, rich identity that speaks to the multiplicity of our experiences. And we should harness that.”