I’ve been called many names in my life.
As the son of Rumanian immigrants growing up in Mexico City, it was “Güerito” (blondie), because despite having dark hair, I was whiter than most of my friends.
When I came to America, I was called “Hispanic.” I started receiving comments like “You don’t look Mexican,” and “Where is your accent from?” I created defense mechanisms, cracking jokes such as “Excuse my English, it’s my third language,” and constantly quoting from the movie A Walk in the Clouds: “Just because I speak with an accent, doesn’t mean that I think with an accent.”
This new name of mine, “Hispanic,” was adopted by the U.S. Government in the 1970s to track the social and economic progress of this “group.” It was adopted by the corporate world, including the marketing and advertising industry.
But “Hispanic” didn’t do justice to Portuguese-speaking Brazilians, and it also included Spaniards. So, in 2000, the word “Latino” appeared on the census, and has since achieved widespread use. A new name to add to my list.
Cut to 2016, and the term “Latinx” entered the social lexicon, providing a gender-neutral way to describe people of Latin American heritage. We started hearing the term more after the mass shooting at Pulse nightclub in Orlando, of which 90% of the victims were Latinx.
Unlike “Hispanic,” Latinx was born from young Latinos with a different view on the world. It’s a consciously modern expression of Hispanic identity and values. It’s gained steam, especially among LGBTQ+ activists and student groups, and is used often in the advertising industry.
But many clients keep asking: Should we be using Latinx when we refer to Hispanics? The answer is complicated. After all, Hispanic identity is complex, fluid and continuously evolving.
As marketers, we need terms to help segment our consumers. But these terms aren’t how we should speak to consumers. We shouldn’t tell them who they are. We should show them as they are by authentically representing their stories. Specificity drives authenticity.
Though some suggest the term ‘Latinx’ has been imposed on the Hispanic population, that’s not necessarily the case. It's not widely used by all Hispanics, but it is the preferred name for some groups. And while Hispanic, Latino and Latinx can be used interchangeably, any customer-centric organization can use these terms to show empathy for how an audience defines itself.
As marketers, segmenting and labeling is useful when we do the work that consumers never see. It helps us get to the specificity that drives authenticity. But when we speak to our customers, we need communications that resonate. Our customers should feel seen — not singled out.
Names convey identity. So, call me “blondie,” call me Mexican, call me Latino, Hispanic or even Latinx. I will appreciate you taking my heritage, culture and unique upbringing into context.
Luis Miguel Messianu is founder, creative chairman and CEO at Alma Miami