Billboard erected by Citizens for Sanity (photo courtesy of @Vorloe via Twitter)

COMMERCE, Calif. — In October, a freeway billboard in Commerce, a few miles southeast of downtown Los Angeles, proclaimed: “Only oppressive cisgender bigots say ‘Latino.’ It’s LATINX now. Pass it on.” A billboard with the same message was also erected in Arizona.

The message was the work of Citizens for Sanity, a conservative group whose stated mission is to “defeat ‘wokeism’ and anti-critical thinking ideologies that have permeated every sector of our country.” The group has erected several billboards across the country with a similarly sarcastic tone, targeting a long list of progressive causes and candidates — from immigration and trans rights to Raphael Warnock, John Fetterman, and Bernie Sanders. Earlier this year, they put up a particularly egregious billboard in Austin that read: “Este noviembre, hay que defender a los hombres latinx embarazados.” (“This November, we must defend pregnant Latinx men.”)

To some, these campaigns are a dangerous sign that debates within Latino communities are being co-opted and weaponized by the right.

“They’ve figured out that it’s a passionate conversation within the community, and they mobilize that often,” César García-Alvarez, executive and artistic director of The Mistake Room, a nonprofit art space located five miles west of the billboard, told Hyperallergic. “They’re quite thoughtfully thinking about making divisions in the community.”

Citizens for Sanity did not return email or phone requests for comment. Hyperallergic was unable to locate the billboard, suggesting it may be a digital display or that it has been taken down, but confirmed its existence with several sources who had seen it in person.

Citizens for Sanity was also behind an anti-immigration TV spot that aired during a recent playoff game between the Los Angeles Dodgers and the San Diego Padres that the Los Angeles Times referred to as “openly racist … [depicting] a torrent of obviously Latino immigrants pouring over the border.” According to the Times, the group was founded by Gene Hamilton, Ian Prior, and John Zadrozny, former members of the Trump administration with links to Stephen Miller, the architect of Trump’s family separation policy at the border and Muslim ban.

Reactions to the billboard on social media were mixed, with several Twitter users taking umbrage at what they incorrectly assumed was a sincere message posted by a progressive group. Others recognized it as a provocative co-optation of “woke” language by a right-wing group.

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen a clearer example of a psy-op in my life,” opined the American model and commentator Theodora Quinlivan on TikTok, referring to a “psychological operation,” a military propaganda campaign aimed at influencing people’s thoughts and emotions. Another Twitter user explained that the billboard was “bait,” posted by “a right-wing group who runs many tv ads against transgender rights … it’s meant for people to freak out and disagree.”

Erected in the predominantly Latino city of Commerce, this certainly seemed to be the group’s intention. Debates within different Latino/a/x communities about how to refer to themselves are nothing new, with Hispanic, Chicano/a, Latino/a, and terms specifying countries of origin (such as Mexican American) all being used over the past several decades. The recent arrival of the term “Latinx” has renewed the debate, with some applauding it as a step towards linguistic gender neutrality and others decrying it as an unnecessary and confusing moniker imposed from without by mostly White radicals and academics.

“Like many of its awkward predecessors, ‘Latinx’ does not work. Its experimental ‘x’ opens too many linguistic floodgates,” wrote Daniel Hernandez in the Los Angeles Times in 2017. Instead, he suggested dropping the suffix altogether. “In Spanish I’m still a ‘Latino’ when need be, because I read to people as male. In English, at the risk of being accused of historic-linguistic colonialism, I’ve been calling myself ‘Latin.’ And it feels great,” he writes.

Other commentators have noted that the intense focus on this linguistic debate is a distraction from larger issues of equality and empowerment. “Stop being so pedantic with language if it isn’t affecting you physically, materially, spiritually,” said writer César Vargas in a 2020 blog post.

But in its empty mockery and reductiveness, Citizens for Sanity’s billboard campaign steamrolls over all the nuances of these debates, offering instead a simplistic vision that flattens the diverse viewpoints of the Latino/a/x communities.

“We’re already quite balkanized,” García-Alvarez told Hyperallergic. “This is part of a larger strategy to add wood to that fire.”

Matt Stromberg is a freelance visual arts writer based in Los Angeles. In addition to Hyperallergic, he has contributed to the Los Angeles Times, CARLA, Apollo, ARTNews, and other publications.