Gender troubles 1: Latin@s

Chris Laning wrote me yesterday about some attempts to deal with reflections, in texts in English, of grammatical gender distinctions in other languages. The first of these has to do with the Latino/Latina and Chicano/Chicana distinctions in Spanish.

In working on a Chicano/Latino History website, Laning came across the usage Chican@-Latin@ — an attempt to orthographically package together the gender-marked Spanish nouns (as well as using both the Chican- and the Latin- labels). The spellings with @ were new to Laning, and in fact they seem to be a fairly recent innovation.

I have the @ spellings in the title of a 2005 essay by Immanuel Wallerstein (“Latin@s: What’s in a Name?”) and in the title of a 2007 book by Elizabeth Rodriguez Kessler and Anne Perrin (Chican@s in the Conversations). There are plenty of other hits for the @ spellings, in English (the group Latin@s Against the War [in Iraq and Afghanistan]) and Spanish (a Facebook page for Teolog@s Latin@s, that is, for “Latino/a theologians”).

Latino, for ‘a Latin-American inhabitant of the United States’ (OED2), is itself not very old; OED2’s cites start in 1946. Chicano, for ‘a person of Mexican birth or descent resident in the U.S. …; a Mexican-American’ (OED2), is of about the same age; OED2’s cites start in 1947.

These English nouns were not at first marked as to sex. For instance, Lady Bird Johnson referred in her White House diary in 1966 to “six young girls, all Latinos”. Eventually, sex-marked nouns appeared: there’s an OED draft entry of March 2006 for Latina with cites from 1972 on, and a draft entry from December 2007 for Chicana with cites from 1969 on.

At that point, Latino and Chicano will tend to be seen as referring only to men, and people began to start casting around for sex-neutral variants. Some continue to use the -o words as sex-neutral, as in Maria Hinojosa’s NPR program “Latino USA”. Then there’s the slash option, in Chicano/a or Chicana/o (both attested) and similar spellings for the Latin- words. And then there’s the @ option. Both the slash options and the @ option are visual devices, and are awkward to pronounce (though you can hear things like “Latinos slash Latinas”).

It turns out that Latin America and Latin American are not all that old, either. Wallerstein’s essay looks at the history of Latin as a geographical or ethnic designation (going back to the 19th century) and examines the cluster of social categories and labels in this domain (including Hispanic as well as the terms I’ve already mentioned). It’s pretty much a rat’s nest of variation (in several dimensions) and changing usage.

4 Responses to “Gender troubles 1: Latin@s”

  1. Chris Says:

    Interesting. As a polite human being, I’m all for calling people by the respectful term they prefer. As an editor, I wish to goodness they would settle on *one* word, for the sake of graceful prose. I hate slashes (and/or, he/she) and I suspect that many people “trip” when they encounter a word they don’t know how to mentally pronounce.

  2. mollymooly Says:

    Useful. Sonia Sotomayor is the first Latin@ Supreme Court Justice.

  3. vocalised Says:

    I first came across Latin@ and Chican@ through politically progressive circles in Southern Arizona around 2001; it always struck me as flagrant performance of gender inclusivity, one I tempered/avoided for mainstream or conservative audiences. Perhaps that’s changing, which would be great!

  4. chicano | Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] On sex-marking in Chicano and Latino, see this posting.) […]

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