Words matter. They help us create stories that shape representation, and therefore the narratives in our society. At Yelp, we are intentional with the words we choose and closely observe how they illustrate our communities. In my work creating and leading these initiatives for the past three years, we have transitioned what has historically been ‘Hispanic Heritage Month’ to ‘Latinx Heritage Month (celebrated from Sept. 15 – Oct. 15). Although we’ve talked about this change internally, we want to share our process and insights more broadly.
In the 1930s, census records show that the government counted Latinx people under the catchall category “Mexican.” According to Pew Research Center, it wasn’t until 1970 that the Census Bureau asked people living in the U.S. if they were either “Mexican, Puerto Rican, Cuban, Central or South American, Other Spanish” or “No, none of these.” This proved to be confusing, with people in the U.S. reporting themselves as being from Central and South American because they thought the category referred to the south and central regions of the U.S.
In 1975, a debate rose within the Ad Hoc Committee on Racial and Ethnic Definitions regarding the choice between using ‘Hispanic’ and ‘Latino.’ Although there was no proper consensus, Grace Flores-Hughes of Spanish and Mexican descent won the argument with ‘Hispanic’, since ultimately, they had “to transcend labels. For the purposes of the census it was important to know who we were, because we were an underrepresented population.” ‘Hispanic’ is derived from “Hispana,” a term used for Spain’s cultural diaspora. Due to this, the word “Hispanic” carries a lot of complex emotions for many.
‘Latino’ defines a person of Latin American origin or descent and embraces Portuguese-speaking Brazilians. The word has also helped center experiences for Afro-Latinos, Muslim Latinos and Asian Latinos. In 2000, the Census added the term ‘Latino’ so the question read “Is this person Spanish/Hispanic/Latino?.” This counted more than 35 million Hispanics/Latinx. Ultimately, most members of the community have no preference for either term, and 51% say that most often they use their family’s country of origin to describe their identity (i.e. Mexican, Cuban, Colombian).
The word ‘Latinx’ has existed online since 2004 and serves as a gender-neutral alternative to Latino and Latina. The debate has focused on whether the word makes sense and how to pronounce it. Many have even felt like it’s an attack on the Spanish language. While ‘Latinx’ has received heavy criticism, it has made those in the non-binary community feel seen.
It hasn’t been easy to move forward with this choice. It took time to wrap my head around the word ‘Latinx’, having always identified as Puerto Rican or Boricua, especially while I lived on the island. People have tried to denounce the decision to use this word, and critically dissect our reasoning. It’s hard not to take it personally. I’ve often wondered if it’s even possible for a singular word to encompass all the nuances that exist within the range of unique Latin communities. The reality, however, is that as a queer, Puerto Rican woman, my Latinidad is a large part of who I am and ‘Latinx’ serves as one of the best vehicles to currently express that. More importantly, I’m not the only one who feels this way.
So what does all of this context leave us with? Words matter, but some are far from perfect. At Yelp, we recognize the long history within the identifiers for the Latinx community and we acknowledge we haven’t found a word that resonates with everyone. What we do know is that we will always aim to be as inclusive as possible. Using Latinx allows us to include the broadest range of our communities, and we wouldn’t have it any other way.