While the Library of Congress and the National Endowment for the Arts are shining a well-deserved spotlight on the contributions of Latinx communities, there are too few conversations about the term “Hispanic” versus “Latinx” and how these words contribute to or erase the identities of communities of color. We convened a Latinx Bitch Media roundtable to talk it out.
Ashley Duchemin, production editor
Lisa Factora-Borchers, editorial director
Dahlia Grossman-Heinze, senior engagement editor
Soraya Membreno, director of community
Patricia Romero, community programs coordinator
How do you identify? What does that mean to you?
Dahlia Grossman-Heinze: I identify as Chicana or Mexican American. I use “Chicana” because it situates me as specifically Mexican American. I’m very white-presenting, but my Latinidad is a really important part of my identity, so I feel like I have to be proactive about identifying myself upfront so that people in my life really know who I am and where I come from.
Patricia Romero: I identify as Mexican-American or Latina. As I am trying to figure out how to explain what these identities mean to me, I am having such a hard time accepting them for myself. I can’t remember the last time I was able to freely say this out loud and not feel a bit of shame. I don’t feel shame in the identities themselves, they are me and I know that. But, I just feel that I don’t fit into the pictures and narratives that are associated with these identities. I know who I am, but I don’t believe it at times. Does this make sense?
Ashley Duchemin: That makes total sense, Patricia. That shame is something I’ve grappled with with my own identity. I identify as Dominican, afrodescendente, and mixed. My journey of how I have identified through the years has been a grueling process. Being of Dominican descent alone has so many layers of complexity built into claiming it as an identity, and I’m not only that, I’m mixed with a handful of European ethnicities that change depending on who I’m talking to in my father’s family. But because both of my parents are Dominican (my father is half) and the way I grew up, I most identify with that. And it’s no secret that many Dominicans have struggled, and continue to struggle, with anti-Blackness and colorism. For so long, that shaped the way I presented myself to the world. When I was younger, that meant denying ties to any Blackness, which was easy to do because I look so much like my father’s father’s side of the family and because of my last name. Plus he took me to get my first alisado (relaxer) at 5 years old, so from a young age, I understood in some sense that with straight hair I passed as white. As I got older, it meant educating myself, learning from those around me, and having hard conversations with my family, who to this day still struggle with their own anti-Blackness. I’ll never claim to know what it’s like to walk through the world as a dark-skinned person or as someone who is immediately perceived as Black, so I try not to center myself in those conversations, but it’s important to me to recognize and celebrate my roots in whatever way feels right to me.
Soraya Membreno: Coming from Miami, everyone is from somewhere else. So for me, it’s always been about specificity: I’m Nicaraguan. I’m a first-generation Nicaraguan American. Now that I’ve moved around so much though, I find myself also repping Miami more than I ever did when I actually lived there. Not that it’s an identity, per se, but I try to be specific about where I’m coming from, especially as I’ve moved to other cities with their own distinctive Latinx culture. Like I just moved to LA, but I’m not going to pretend like I know LA just because I speak Spanish or whatever. It’s its own city with its own history and dynamics. I do have very strong opinions about Cuban pastries though.
Lisa Factora-Borchers: I’m Filipino-American. My parents migrated to the States from the Philippines and my maternal Lolo/abuelo/grandfather is from Spain. That, along with 300-plus years of Spanish colonization, the Filipino identity remains—how do I put this?—beautifully amorphous. I was born and lived half of my childhood in New Jersey and then in Ohio. I have deep roots in both regions. English is my first language. I can speak Spanish well enough to ensure survival, but bring me a few drinks and I speak it tremendously well when I’m not inhibited. Tagalog comes out sparingly, and because there’s so much overlap with Spanish, I have intensely mixed emotions about my fluidity and general ease in speaking colonizers’ languages.
When was the first time you realized you were Latinx?
Ashley: The first time I remember having a conversation about being Latinx was in the fifth grade. I had a friend who constantly talked about being Boricua—wore Puerto Rican flags and color-coordinated outfits and all that—and I wanted to be just like her. Funny enough, that entire year I pretended to be Puerto Rican (for the record, my father says we might be Puerto Rican, but he also says French, German, Irish, Italian, and the entire spectrum of ethnicities, so I have no idea). The next year when I went to middle school, I finally met another Dominican girl, and I remember feeling so relieved that I could just be me. I’m sure it had been talked about in passing before then, but that was the first noticeable moment for me.
Patricia: Hmm…I am having some trouble answering this question because I am not sure if there was just one time that I realized this. I would say it has come in segments for me. At home, school, and at work. As I occupy these spaces my identity comes with me. As Gloria Anzaldúa states, “I am a turtle, wherever I go I carry ‘home’ on my back.”
Soraya: Oh, I can nail this one down to the day. Not that I didn’t know what I was before, but again, to me it was always “I’m Nicaraguan.” I didn’t have someone else refer to me as Latina or Hispanic until my freshman year of college. My JA (which was our version of RA’s) took some of us to our first get together with older students and introduced my friend and me as “the Black girl and the Hispanic girl in the entry,” and I remember just standing there going through our dorm in my head and counting. And she was right. We were. Which is when I realized the school distributed us this way intentionally. And then on another occasion, also freshman year at college (I had a great time at college, can you tell?), I was in the student center talking to a couple of people and someone said something in Spanish and another student said something like “oh you guys must be friends! You’re both Spanish!” So actually that was the first time I learned I was “Spanish!” News to me.
Ashley: Soraya, that’s so funny because in New York, it was like anyone not Latinx almost exclusively called everyone who was “Spanish” from a very young age. I legit cannot remember the first time someone called me that, or when I started calling myself that.
Lisa: I’m so careful with language and its implication of earned identity. I identify most strongly with “pinay” and just, literally, JUST started reading “The Latinos of Asia,” which explains the bone-pulling magnetism of Filipinos to Latin culture. There’s so much that feels like home and yet I don’t want to claim it, mostly because I don’t want to take up space that belongs to another. And at the same time, the Philippine diaspora is large, expansive, and frustratingly/wonderfully multi-tribal. I can and could belong in many places. This comes with equal parts liberation and ambiguity. So, do I say that I’m Latina? No. Do I hang out in Latinx culture, shop in mercados, pig out of foods, and consume movies because Latinx culture feels familiar to my mixed Pinay blood with questionable origin? YES.
How do you feel about the word “Hispanic”?
Dahlia: Thumbs down.
Ashley: Double thumbs down. If I’m honest, I don’t hate the word. I hate the way it’s used as some sort of all-encompassing term for both Latinx and Hispanic folks. We’ve learned extensively how that isn’t the same thing, and every day, there’s someone/something new that comes out and tries to discuss that difference. I think everyone thinks of it differently, and so the line becomes blurred. Even those informational articles and videos about it explain it differently and say it means different things. It’s possible that everyone here thinks of it in a different way, too. But the main thing for me with that word is that it can be debated until the end of time, but it will always represent the colonizer.
Dahlia: Yes. Imperial Spain erased languages and cultures in all the countries that now get lumped together as “Hispanic.” We are considered “Hispanic” because Spain brutally colonized the countries where we come from.
Patricia: Caca. I don’t like the word because it is associated with Spain and their caste-setting ways. It not only removed indigenous folks from the narrative, it made lighter facial features something to praised and also the erasure of indigenous languages. I can’t even begin to tell you how embarrassed I get when I can’t remember how to say the simplest phrases in Spanish. Like?! What?! I should know this! But they also forced Spanish as the primary language because they felt it was superior. I tend to feel ashamed about not being able to speak with confidence in Spanish, but I have to remind myself that this was not something I chose, it was forced. But I will keep practicing. Also, If Selena can speak in Spanglish, I will be alright.
Ashley: I feel you, Patricia. I learned Spanish later on in life, and I still struggle so much with shyness and not feeling Latinx enough because of it. I speak my Spanglish proudly, and luckily in New York, that’s widely accepted, but I still get looks when I say, “I’m Dominican. I speak Spanish…but I’m shy.”
Soraya: Oooooh ok. I have an unpopular opinion on this one. “Hispanic” is definitely bullshit (thanks U.S. Census), but I must confess: I hate the term Latina. Specifically the feminine Latina. Because, again, growing up in Miami everyone speaks in specific terms. You’re Nica, or you’re Dominican, or you’re Venezuelan, etc. So the only time I ever heard the word Latina was usually by some dude, and usually couched between “feisty” and “spicy” or some other cringey thing like that. So in my head Latina equals porn and I just get grossed out. To be fair though, the emergence of Latinx has definitely lessened the association and I like that better.
Ashley: Wow, I never thought of it like that! But I did most often hear and see it in that context when it wasn’t coming from someone who is actually Latinx.
Soraya: Right! It just always felt like a fetish phrase we never used ourselves.
Ashley: In New York, we were specific, real specific, but many people took pride in being “Latino” or “Latina,” and were pissed about being called Hispanic or “Spanish.”
Have you ever bumped up against “white spaces” as a Latinx person?
Ashley: I just want to note that there are white Latinx people, but getting into the details of that could take all day. For most of my life, outside of the white members of my immediate and extended family, I’ve existed in predominantly Black and Latinx spaces. So there were little microaggressive moments around family and in visiting my mother on Long Island, but I experienced the most abrasive sensations of entering white spaces when I entered the workforce in service of my potential future career outside of customer service.
The instance that really sticks out in my mind—that I think about all the time when I think “How did I get here?”—is when I was interning at an ad agency as part of a multicultural internship program that seeks to bring diversity to advertising. Out of 25 interns at the specific agency, there were only a handful of people of color, so I immediately felt out of place. Up until that point, I didn’t know what it was like to feel like a literal “minority.” I had been commuting to school in Harlem, so when a couple of the white interns talked about attending the same university like it was a party every day, I told them I wished I had the opportunity to go away. One day they wanted to show me a video of one of those school-wide college-festival, day-drinking type of things, and they were really excited about it. But when the video ended, the first thing out of my mouth was, “I saw, like, two people of color in that.” They were so visibly peeved by what I had said, and started denying it by saying, “We have Black fraternities and sororities. They just don’t show up to this event.” I steered away from them for the rest of the internship, and I still think about how annoyed they were at my statement and how hard they tried to invalidate it.
Dahlia: Portland. The older I’ve gotten, the more important it is to me to be in communities of color, and the more difficult living in Portland has become. I moved to Portland for college, and I’ve been here for ten years. I used to unequivocally love it, but it is so white. Oregon has a long history of white supremacy, and it would be a mistake to think that hasn’t left its mark on Portland just because it’s “progressive.” I had this really uncomfortable experience in a Portland restaurant with my family recently when I looked around and realized my mother and I were the only people of color in the entire place, from servers to diners. That feeling of being unwelcome or an outsider is often palpable in Portland.
Ashley: Yes! Almost every day in Portland has the potential to be a shitshow. I immediately felt that when I moved here almost a year ago. I had no idea it was going to be this bad, or that I was going to have such a visceral reaction to it. But one thing I constantly think about and miss is the proximity to other Dominicans that I had in New York. I definitely took that for granted. There isn’t even one Dominican restaurant here. Not ONE!
Soraya: [Laughs] My entire college career? But I’ll spare you the details. I do have two really distinct non-college memories. One was in high school. An English teacher my junior year asked, super casually and out of nowhere, in front of the entire class: “English isn’t your first language is it?” Mind you I was a super nerd in high school, so my first thought was, oh my god, I failed this paper. And he was like, “Oh, no the paper is great. But in this one sentence you used the word “floor” instead of “ground,” and those two words don’t actually mean the same thing. But it’s a mistake I see often from kids for whom English is not their first language.” That blew my mind. Apparently I have all these little tells in my writing.
My second memory, though I just find it funny now, is at my first literary job in NYC. I was there for years but whenever we had classy staff events at places outside the office the founder always thought I was one of the waitresses. She tried to hand me her wine glass once.
Patricia: Growing up in San Francisco, I grew up in a predominantly Brown neighborhood and I was naive to think that I would never leave the Bay. But when I moved to Vancouver, WA. I wished I never left. Have you ever been to Vancouver? If you think Portland is hella white, check out Vancouver. I was just blown away at the lack of people of color in this town. I felt like I was alone in this town. I tried to make the most of it by attending conferences geared for students of color, and this helped a bunch with feeling less alone.
I wrapped up my community college credits there and then moved to Portland. To my surprise, Portland was still hella white. While finishing up my undergrad I tried to connect with clubs and programs that were centered around Latinx identities, but I just didn’t feel like I was welcome. It felt like my identity itself was being questioned in a space where it was supposed to be a welcoming space for all Latinx folks. This frustrated me because I wanted to be part of something but it felt like there were gatekeepers within these organizations. Maybe this was all in my head, but it made not want to come back a second time.
Lisa: My parents love the midwest. They love the tranquility and ease of family survival here. I’ve moved all over, but now that I’m raising my own family, in order to be physically close to my family of origin, for my children to know their lineage, I had to learn how to be where my parents choose to live, too. So I’ve lived the majority of my life immersed in white-dominated spaces. It’s incredibly isolating. Everything that matters to me has been hurt or broken by white supremacy. But I learned how to create my own communities and beloveds of color elsewhere. I’ve learned how to process and metabolize racism and hate in all forms. It has yielded a deep understanding and grief that I cultivate and heal on a daily basis.
What pop culture do you associate with your identity?
Dahlia: Telenovelas! I was obsessed with all Univision telenovelas growing up. I grew up in the Midwest, and I got most of my exposure to Latinx communities through pop culture. Shakira on the boombox and Univision on the TV.
Ashley: For me, it has always been music. Bachata and merengue are my lifelines when I’m feeling out of touch with who I am and where I’m from. Nothing excites me more than hearing someone passing by in the car playing perico ripiao or Aventura or El Torito, which is almost zero percent of the time in Portland. But every now and then, I hear it, and I want to break out in dance in the middle of the street or in the car, and wish I could be friends with those people.
Dahlia: Same. Last week, a guy was driving down a street in very white Portland playing a Becky G song, and I lost it. I did actually dance on the sidewalk a little.
Soraya: This is not pop culture, but…FOOD! It’s so hard to find Nicaraguan food outside of Miami. Never found it in NYC despite many skeptical NY–natives that insisted New York has everything. Well, it doesn’t have Nicaraguan food so suck it. I also find myself going back to old-school merengue (though by old school, I just mean like ’80s). I feel like salsa is always the placeholder for Latinidad, but actually, we dance merengue! Or at least my family does. But it’s like what you said, Ashley. It’s what I use when I feel far from home. I hated it all growing up because it was boring adult music, but now I blast it in my apartment by myself.
Patricia: Yes! All of your responses resonate with me. Dahlia, telenovelas were my jam growing up. At first I disliked that my mom would not let me watch anything for a certain allotted time, but after watching a couple of the episodes, I was hooked. Do you remember all of the telenovelas that Thalia was in? Oh my, she was in so many. I think one of my favorites of her was Marimar. Currently, my favorite telenovela is Jane the Virgin.
Lisa: Thanks to Soraya, I just started watching Jane the Virgin, and I can’t even talk about how much I love this show. It ME!
Patricia: I really enjoy listening to podcasts and up until recently there weren’t that many Latinx podcast out there. Some of my favorite ones are Latinos Who Lunch, Tamarindo Podcast, Radio Menea, Morado Lens. I am trying to catch up on my podcast queue because there is a new one that I have been wanting to check out called Anzaldúing It.
Growing up, my family listened to a lot of rancheras and banda, and I was not sure if this was something that I liked or even wanted to be a part of. I was afraid of being too Mexican. This fear was deeply internalized within me and I am in the process of trying to unlearn and unpack so much.
What’s the funniest “culture-clash” moment you’ve had?
Soraya: Is it inappropriate to tell a tampon story? I’m going to tell a tampon story. It was high-school P.E. class, which at my school was always in the water, so swimming or kayaking or windsurfing. (I realize how absurd this sounds to anyone who didn’t grow up surrounded by water, this is the bougiest thing about me I swear!) But my P.E. teacher was a total hard ass about missing class. I had only up to that point ever used pads because my mother was every Latinx mother stereotype manifested. But this teacher was absolutely not taking “but I have my period” as an excuse. She said, “The girls locker room has a tampon dispenser. I expect you out here in 10 minutes.” I was too embarrassed to tell her I’d never used a tampon before in my life, and my mother would kill me, so I just went into the bathroom to try to figure it out. Along the way, two other classmates (not Latinx) realized what was up, and came into the bathroom behind me. They stood on the other side of the stall trying to verbally coach me through it. One of them even offered to help. (I did not take her up on her offer, but did turn 14 different shades of bright red.) I never figured it out. But my time ran out and our gym teacher started yelling, so I just got it about halfway in and went outside. The activity that day was windsurfing, which consisted mostly of straddling the board until she talked us through how to raise the sail. That was…not the most fun experience. And I definitely never told my mother.
Patricia: I have two. First, “culture-clash” moment came when I introduced my partner (white) the proper way to heat tortillas: a comal. Please don’t ever use a microwave to heat up your tortillas. Just don’t.
The second one was when I visited my friends house (Salvadoreño household) in high school and their mom offered me some quesadilla. I gave an enthused “yes,” and I was handed a slice of bread with sesame seeds on top. Confused at first, but once I bit into the quesadilla my confusion disappeared. This moment stays with me because it reminds me that not all Latinx experiences revolve around Mexican-American identities. It was an important moment for me because I realized how much of my pop culture consumption involved lumping all Latinx identities as one.
Ashley: [Laughs] Noted, Patricia! I totally have had that culture shock of eating rice and beans and other foods from different parts of the Caribbean and realizing that while there are certain similarities that tie us together as children of the diaspora, every single version is so different and is it’s own thing. And until I moved to Portland—and honestly, worked at Bitch with all of you—I really didn’t grasp that Latinx identities are so varied. I really appreciate that distinction.
My funniest culture-clash moment was probably the opposite of everyone else’s? Since I learned Spanish later on in adolescence, I had some pretty funny moments with my family. Like, once when I was maybe 4 or 5 years old in the car on the way home with my mom, stepfather, and siblings, I said, “I know Spanish!” And they asked me to say something in Spanish, and I started singing “Twinkle, twinkle, little star.” They still bring that up at every chance. The one that really sticks out to me that no one will remember, probably, (thanks, anxiety!) is once when I was at my great grandmother’s house, we were all ordering food from a Dominican restaurant and when it was my turn to say what I wanted, I decided to say a new Spanish word I had learned that week and yelled, “Chivo!” Everyone stopped in their tracks and looked at me because I was so young, there was no way I was going to eat goat. But I was adamant about it because no one said what the word meant in English. Yeah, I didn’t eat the goat.
Lisa: When I was in college, I spent three months in Nicaragua with a bunch of Spanish-fluent gringos and on countless occasions, so many people assumed I was the translator and I had the least amount of language skills. Admitting my futility was SO AWKWARD. These days, I practice-teach Spanish with my kids and when my partner who is white tries to mimic and roll the “r”? HILARIOUS.