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In his 1997 novel Todos os nomes (All the Names), the Nobel Prize–winning Portuguese author José Saramago writes, “You know the name you were given, you do not know the name that you have.” Communities, like individuals, come into being with a name—yet few are afforded the opportunity to name themselves. Naming is thus the first step of a relationship mediated by power, pride, and psychology. 

In the United States—where we are influenced by a weighty confluence of identity politics, an idealized sense of pluralism and, at least in academic circles, a good dose of post-structuralism—naming selves, others, and groups has become noticeably fraught in recent years. 

One particular group in contemporary U.S. society—comprised of individuals from vastly diverse racial makeups, hailing from immensely different places, and holding exceptionally dissimilar cultural and political values—finds itself especially whiplashed by this nomenclatural funambulism. I’m referring to the group I’ll call “Latinos.” 

As academic Arlene Dávila presciently argued over 20 years ago, “Latino populations have become increasingly concerned with their own representation and involvement in all types of media,” even as a “common identity term to encompass these diverse populations” remains elusive. One remarkably pertinent yet ignored factor influencing the United States’ infatuation with name games may be our rambunctious advertising.

Contemporary advertising is especially inflected by naming, as companies inherently focus on their customers. However, detailing both why and how present-day Latino culture and consumerism interface demands a longer view of these language games.

For better or for worse, many histories of a Latino United States start, strangely enough, with Christopher Columbus—Mesoamerica’s O.G. conquistador. Besides the Italian navigator’s lamentable tendency to enslave indigenous peoples, and ignoring his confusion regarding the land masses came across, Columbus took a keen interest in naming—or renaming—the peoples and places he encountered. He bestowed new names upon the Caribbean islands he encountered in the late 1400s—christening them with an eye to Spain’s royal family; as Margaret Zamora explains, he made naming “both an act of personal piety and an interpretation of the significance of the Atlantic crossing.” (Years later, Columbus would even rename himself, ultimately requesting that his heirs refer to him via a type of crypto-Christian calligram in need of its own exegesis.)

Consider now the United States in the twentieth century. 

Different sources locate the origins of the pejorative label “spic” in the early 1900s, when U.S. manual laborers found themselves working side-by-side with Spanish-speakers who did not “spik” English.” By the 1930s, the United States’ brand of onomastic gymnastics was on a roll. That was the year when “Mexican” was included in the U.S. Census for the first (and only) time. “Hispanic” was later included on the census’s long-form questionnaire in 1970 and on all forms by 1980

It was around this time when words, language, and names took on a new, more politicized salience. In 1981, recently elected President Ronald Reagan assumed a hard line on what he thought should be the future of the United States’ linguistic trajectory. Speaking to the possibility of bilingual education in the American educational system, the president stated it was “absolutely wrong and against American concepts to have a bilingual education program.” 

Intriguingly, that same year, renowned salseros Celia Cruz and Willie Colón recorded the song “Latinos en Estados Unidos.” The song’s jubilant lyrics place the shared linguistic heritage of U.S. Latinos front and center: “No dejes que te convenzan / Que no se pierda el idioma español / Oye, mira / El inglés es muy bonito, el francés también / Pero el idioma de nosotros es un tiro, mi hermano” (“Don’t let them convince you / Don’t lose your Spanish language / Hey now, look / English is beautiful, as is French / But our language is really excellent, my brother”). 

To this day, Latinos continue to be the focus of lexical feuds and nomenclatural pressures. By now, debates surrounding the most appropriate, the most progressive, most the inclusive language possible—whether some 60 million-plus people should be referred to as “Hispanics,” “Chicanos,” “Chicanx,” “Latinos,” “Latin@s,” “Latino/as,” “Latino/as/x,” “Latines,” etcetera—has created a veritable cottage industry for academics, journalists, and pundits of all sorts. 

At one time or another, each of these terms has appeared as a password necessary to participate in the public sphere. Do recent attempts to perfect our speech constitute vacuous examples of virtue signaling or are they vital means to correct long-standing social ills by way of decolonizing our speech? No matter what one believes, Geoffrey Galt Harpham’s claim in a recent book seems incontrovertible: language has become a “critical fetish of modernity,” while “the very act of naming constitute[s] a human-rights crisis.” 

In an attempt to sidestep contemporary doxa, not a few “Latinos” identify themselves as “Other” on official forms, government documents, and censuses. Yet, as our experience as social beings—and identity itself—becomes more inflected by consumerism, it becomes increasingly difficult to leave behind this prison house of language. 

During the last decade, the United States has seen a notable uptick in marketing campaigns targeted to Latinos, with a 2012 advertisement from the detergent vendor Tide being a bit of a bellwether. The clever spot for Tide’s “VIVID White + Bright and Boost” is ingeniously bilingual, bicultural, and bigenerational. Here, a Spanish-speaking grandmother is convinced by her English-speaking granddaughter to relinquish her previous, distinctly old-school methods of washing clothes in favor of Tide products. 

In 2018, fast-food behemoth McDonald’s debuted an ad titled “Tío Roberto,” which saw a Spanish-speaking uncle and a predominantly English-speaking nephew overcome a series of communication mishaps and eventually bond over a shared love of McDonald’s fare. 

Finally, in 2023, telecommunications company AT&T first ran “Connect With Your Roots,” a commercial showing a grandson’s preparations for the imminent visit from his predominantly Spanish-speaking grandmother. 

Ironically, each of the ads situates the Spanish language as a central characteristic of being “Latino,” even while suggesting that this same element may well be lost by a younger generation that solely speaks in English.

Perhaps it really matters whether some 60 million-plus people should be referred to as “Latino/as/x,” or “Latines.” But the evidence of recent ad campaigns suggests that left-wing academics are engaged in a sterile game of linguistic one-upmanship, while most Spanish-speaking people in the United States think of themselves simply as “Latinos.”

Unfortunately, history and our present moment suggest that the names of groups that stick have a greater chance of dovetailing all too well with prescribed identities, proscribed behaviors, and even publicity, rather than with any reasonably rigorous political vision. What tomorrow’s sense of “Latino” will be remains unknown. 

Our job, as Michel Foucault once put it, is to continue to “disturb and threaten with collapse our age-old distinction between the Same and the Other.” Perhaps only then will each and every one of us truly name ourselves.

Kevin Anzzolin is Lecturer of Spanish in the Department of Modern & Classical Languages & Literatures at Christopher Newport University.