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A Lively Debate on the Value of the Term “Latinx”

Reflecting on the use of the term Latinx is an opportunity to talk about art history, its canon, and the needs of artists.

A shot of the Pérez Art Museum Miami (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

MIAMI — Inside the Pérez Art Museum Miami auditorium, Joshua Takano-Chambers Letson, an associate professor of performance studies at Northwestern University’s School of Communication, opens his presentation during the Latinx Art Sessions conference with a single image. Felix Gonzalez-Torres’s 1988 work, “Untitled (Madrid 1971)” flashes onto the screen, revealing a fading, sepia-toned portrait of the late artist as a child, juxtaposed with an unnamed statue honoring a colonial hero in Madrid. These images, depicted as a jigsaw puzzle, appear against a white background, with the words “Madrid 1971” emblazoned in red above the puzzles.

“I view this work as lending a narrative of transport and movement, and even a process of becoming brown,” says Takano-Chambers Letson. “Felix’s work has been widely remarked upon, but most have suggested the avowed openness of the work precludes it from being read as about the artists identity as a minority subject. It has been cynically deployed to close down overt presence of Cubanidad and Latinidad of Felix’s work, cutting off our senses of brown within it.”

For the purpose of this discussion, Gonzalez-Torres’s work is being considered and re-contextualized through a Latinx lens. Latinx, a term that arose in 2016 and gained widespread popularity across social media, has increasingly been adopted by major educational and cultural institutions and the mainstream media as a gender-inclusive term for US-based persons with Latin American heritage.

On its face, Takano Chambers-Letson’s contention that Gonzalez-Torres’s work should be considered as influenced by his Latinx identity makes sense: Gonzalez-Torres was born in Cuba, grew up in Puerto Rico, and came to New York at the age of 22. He was queer, and his work reflects, with ingenious subtlety, that experience. But, as Takano-Chambers Letson notes, countless curators and colleagues objected furiously to the idea that Gonzalez-Torres would identify with Latinx, or purport that his work somehow spoke to this identity.

The rapid rise in the use of the term ‘Latinx’ as a framework for describing US artists of Latin descent has been met with its fair share of controversy. The proverbial question at PAMM’s Latinx Art Sessions, held in late January and organized in partnership with ArtCenter South Florida by Miami-based curators Maria-Elena Ortiz, Naiomy Guerrero, and Natalia Zuluaga, was whether it’s essential to implement the term so that US-based artists of Latin descent can gain more exposure and mobility within the art market.

Devised as a strategy to legitimize the unique cultural experience of US-based Latin artists, the term draws a line between art made in Latin American  — a market sector that’s increasingly entering the mainstream — and Latino or Latina art, which describes artists working in the US. “That conflation erases rich differences across populations. Few scholars or curators would put African-American artists and African artists in the same category, given their different historical and cultural experiences,” writes Guerrero in a 2017 editorial for Artsy.

PAMM has made it a point to collect works by Latinx artists. Pictured here: Adrian C. Esparza, “Wake and Wonder” (2013), (image courtesy Pérez Art Museum Miami)

Notably, US institutions have been slow to recognize Latino or Latina art — Latino and Latina studies only began to emerge in the 1960s, while the first anthology of Latino artists in the US was published in 2012. Recently, mainstream institutions like the Getty Foundation, the Ford Foundation (which supported the program at PAMM), the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Perez Art Museum Miami itself, and the Hammer Museum, have offered financial support and space for Latino, Latina, and Latinx exhibitions. While most of these efforts were not inherently labeled as Latinx exhibitions, many contend that the arrival of the term ‘Latinx,’ in a cultural moment where identity politics are gaining widespread traction on social media, might have something to do with the shift. Others, however, vigorously object to the idea that a single word can evoke the institutional visibility that Latin artists so desperately crave.

Daniel Joseph Martinez, a Los Angeles-based, Chicano social practice artist, vehemently opposes that adopting Latinx as an identifier might lead to more institutional support for Latin artists. “It feels like we are ahistorizing everything that has preceded Latinx, and we act like we all agree on Latinx,” he says. “The assumption that we will use the term to become marketable as artists working in the US is absolutely absurd.” Martinez went on to suggest that the term is akin to the US Census Bureau’s incorporation of the term ‘hispanic’ to denote Latin-born US residents, a term that Martinez himself has opposed openly throughout his practice. Arguing that Latinx flattens out the richly complex diversity of Latin populations in the United States, he advocates that a widespread deployment of Latinx might even be dangerous.

While I categorically support anyone who wishes to identify with the term ‘Latinx,’ what I object to is when that goes from the personal to the general classification of a term that we have not talked about and we have not agreed upon. My argument is that Latinx is a marketing ploy that will cause a civil war among Latinos,” says Martinez. “In one family of Latinos, what will you do with one who wants to be Latinx and another who doesn’t? What will you do with the binary? If Latinx is meant to remove the binary, how does that trickle down?

Panelists from left to right: Joshua Takano-Chambers Letson, Maria Elena Ortiz, and C. Ondine Chavoya; Teresita Fernandez on the screen (courtesy Pérez Art Museum Miami)

It presents somewhat of a challenge to follow that logic when we consider that, across institutions in the United States, Latino and Latina are broadly applied as identifiers of U.S. artists of Latin descent. Latinx purportedly breaks with the gendered binary in our language to adopt a more inclusive, gender-fluid population of artists. Notably, the conference at PAMM didn’t address the term’s gender-inclusiveness head-on in any public-facing discussions, but Hector Machado, a gender fluid artist in Miami, says that the term offers a nuanced vocabulary with which to interact.

“When you say your Latinx, no one know your gender, and that’s why I like the term. I don’t think it constitutes erasure of my Afro-Dominican roots, but rather it’s the start of a conversation,” says Machado. Likewise, he notes that the term can effectively erase other struggles. “I have a friend and she likes the term, but she thinks the ‘X’ is masculine and takes away her power.”

Cecilia Fajardo-Hill, an independent curator who most recently curated the highly-publicized exhibition “Radical Women: Latin American Art, 1960-1985,” agrees that the term rejects the specific experience of women artists. “I was actually requested to use this word when organizing “Radical Women.” We were asked to be politically correct and retroactively apply this term. That’s absolutely contrary to spirit of the project which was about reaffirming the ‘she’ and getting the perspective of a woman artist,” she notes, adding that “it’s disingenuous to think that Latinx represents real institutional change for Latino and Latina artists.”

Visual artist Teresita Fernandez, on the other hand, opts to consider Latinx as a sign of hope for the future of visibility among U.S. Latin artists.  “That ‘x’ means it doesn’t have to look like anything that came before it. I’m interested in it as a physical place where we can have conversations we don’t normally have across race, genders, and nationalities, built around this idea that we have to take care of this and we have to define this.”

But will creating this space truly offer a platform from which Latinx artists can legitimize their contributions to the art historical canon? Is it appropriate for institutions to adopt this term and further legitimize its usage? Is the adoption of a term enough to persuade institutional and market gatekeepers to increase visibility for artists of Latin descent? Guerrero opened the question up to the audience.

“What do artists really need?” said one artist. “Support.” “More financial support of public programming that supports diverse viewpoints,” said another. “Perhaps a town hall where artists can meet and voice their concerns regarding diversity of exhibitions within museums,” said another. “More curatorial texts that legitimize Latinx art,” exclaimed another audience member. “More people of Latin descent in leadership roles,” another said.

While it’s clear that the term Latinx will continue to be utilized as a conversation starter for inclusion, it seems that true change will only come once institutions realize that marginalizing these voices is a failure to tap into the pulse of a dynamic, evolving art movement across the country.

The Latinx Art Sessions was a two-day program, held January 24-25, 2019, co-presented by ArtCenter/South Florida and Pérez Art Museum Miami (PAMM).

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