Language Matters

by Rev. Carla E. Roland Guzmán, PhDCoordinator, Faith, Family, Equality / The CLGS Latinx Roundtable

Rev. Carla E. Roland Guzmán, PhD

Recently, in a Bible study, I was described as “literal.”  I was taken aback by this description since I don’t consider myself a literal reader of scripture.  In the continued conversation, what was in fact being meant, was that, although I look for the overall meaning of passages, I am very curious about how the actual language of the biblical text – or more often the lectionary selection – approximates the intended meaning or use, since it can be internally contradicting.  In fact, at times it diminishes its own meaning.  I often see in these contradictions the way that scripture has been used to harm.  This way of hearing and reading words is something that is of interest to me.

Language is a very curious thing.  Language can convey so much, yet it will always fall short of encompassing the whole of an idea or experience.  Language is also quite dangerous.  Whenever descriptive language becomes essentialized, it homogenizes the description.  And by homogenizing, it commodifies that which is described.  Something that happens all the time in the process of minoritizing communities as other.  We must be mindful of this hegemonic process and not perpetuate it.  A good example of this is what many have recognized as happening during Pride month – the commercialization of pride – everything is “LGBTQ+ this or that.”  Clothing and shoe lines are all pride-themed in June.  But what is, in fact, being done is making “LGBTQ+” into a noun – a word itself and not an acronym – rather than a short-hand description of a series of communities that have some areas of commonality or affinities with one another but which certainly are not the same.

This is problematic because, first, issues of sexuality and gender/gender expression/identity are made to be one and they are not.  There is harm in homogenizing gender and sexuality.  And I imagine, as it is for me, that not all the letters fit every person being homogenized.  I am not G or B, I do not love the word represented by L even if I use it at times, and I identify as Q; not as T or I or A or +.  Second, it is often presented in the singular, as the LGBTQ+ community, when in fact, at the very least it should be the LGBTQ+ communities.  For more specific communities, as before, I think it would be challenging to be L and G and B at once.

As a person who has never felt comfortable in the “letters,” the word “queer” has always been better.  And, because language is a living thing, I also know that my use of “queer” since the early 1990s, is different from the use of the term now or before then; this means that even within all of these communities we may use the same words but may, in fact, not imply the same meaning at all for them.  In essence, this means that the use of the alphabet soup should be limited, perhaps, to political and community organizing or to those aspects that can unify, rather than being reified as something that no one will eventually fit into, but everyone will be identified as.

In a similar vein, the use of Latinx/Hispanic as homogenizing and racializing terminology is also problematic.  At best we should always refer to Latinx/Hispanic communities or people and add specificity whenever possible.  It is statistically known that most Latinx people prefer to identify by country of origin or heritage.  “Latinx/Hispanic” should preferably not be used by itself it should always be added to the persons being referred to—Latinx person/communities.

As Coordinator of the Faith, Family, Equality: Latinx Roundtable at CLGS, I am often aware of the many opinions surrounding the use of the term “Latinx.”  I am also often asked my opinion on the matter.  I believe that focusing on whether “Latinx” is the appropriate term can distract from the fact that it is persons and communities that are being referred to and not all are the same.  Thus, we cannot confuse descriptions of persons for identity, and terms should certainly not substitute for the people or communities themselves.  Whenever we are discussing adjectives as nouns, we are missing the greater process of homogenization that this represents.  We should be more nuanced and wide-eyed about the way we use descriptive language and look for more expansive ways to describe.

The quibble should not be about Hispanic, Latinx, Latino, Latin@, or Latine, etc., as pan-adjectives, but their use as indelibly essentialized nouns.  These terms should not be used to imply the community.  This distracts from the dangers of the use of terminology by those intent on homogenizing, othering, and minoritizing communities for their own ends.  Descriptive language will always be inadequate and will not be able to capture the whole of what is being described, and, as such, it should be used with care.  So perhaps what we should do is use the descriptive pan-adjective terms, first, with their respective nouns, and second, for more narrow purposes that bring persons together from across the spectrum of Latinx communities for a common purpose.  Then, as in anything else, we should avoid these terms and use, instead, those preferred by the community or persons or person being referred to, and look to write in ways that do not essentialize and thus commodify – something that, in fact, most people reading a reflection in this CLGS e-newsletter or on our website would not want to do.