LatinXperimental Archeology: What Does It Mean to be Latinx?

Sabeen Al-Khasib, Staff Writer

Used to define a person of Latin-American origin or descent, the term “Latinx” has undergone many transitions on its journey into the modern vernacular, with debates between those adoptive of the label and those against it persisting into the present.  

Albert Gonzalez, a professor of Anthropology at California State University East Bay, has sought to bring consensus to a frenzied discussion for the past 10 years by representing the Latinx community by educating students through lectures and facilitating discussions on the topic. Gonzalez has tried to bring attention to what many archeologists and anthropologists – as well as those who simply take an interest in culture – have been ignoring: What does it mean to be Latinx?

This question has been the source of Gonzalez’s interest since childhood. “I’ve always been obsessed with inequality. The circumstances I grew up in showed me what that is from a young age. It made me question why a certain demographic has to go through that [inequality], and why others don’t,” the professor stated. Now in a position to seek those answers, Gonzalez has dedicated his research to satiate his curiosity.

Gonzalez has excavated sites and worked with tribes across South America, committed to sharing his knowledge of the Latinx culture with those that have yet to understand the complexities and beauty of it all.

“Personally, I would say ‘mission accomplished’ because I’ve reached hundreds of Latinx students and dozens of non-[Latinx] who’ve read my materials, and seen my talks, and been inspired by something that I said and that’s all I ever wanted – to get people asking questions [about] why Latinx folks are more likely to be in a state of poverty in the U.S… or an even simpler question: Why do I look the way I do? Why do I speak Spanish? Why did my family migrate to the United States instead of the opposite?”

These ambiguous, yet ambitious questions can vary in answer depending on who is being asked and who is asking. For some within the Latinx community, the use of the term is not compatible with their identity — a discussion with many barriers that Gonzalez views as important to talk through. 

“I think that this research, on a larger scale, can get people asking the questions that I don’t want just students asking themselves, but to start thinking about Latinidad – to be Latinx as something with the history of the United States,” Gonzalez stated, noting the increasing visibility of Latinx history and heritage in academic circles: “it’s another matter altogether that scholars and the broader public are starting to get a feel for thousands, of what we call Latinx cultural sites, that we wouldn’t have recognized before my arrival in this field.”

According to Gonzalez, Black, Indigenous, and European cultural components come together to give meaning to both Latinx and Latinidad. In the U.S., one identity cannot exist without the other, overlapping with each other to create cultural exchange and a shared sense of community. Gonzalez opined that Latinx has origins as a cultural designation, rather than a sole indicator of race or ethnicity: “… We typically say Black or African-American for someone of African descent in the United States. In most minds, it’s safe to say that’s an established quantity. When it comes to being Latinx, it’s a little more complicated. Someone who is considered Black or East Asian, can also be Latinx. The fact that Latinx is primarily a cultural label and secondarily a racial label, makes it a bit complicated.”

To be Latinx isn’t to be White, Black, or Latino. Confident of the term’s longevity, Gonzalez hopes to capture more mainstream traction with his definition of the title by appealing to its potential merits in the near future. “A lot of these people [those who reject the term Latinx] aren’t thinking in terms of their kids…. At the end of the day, your kid may not identify like you. Latinx is going to be a reality for them.”

Throughout his many lectures and talks, Gonzalez’s interpretation of the Latinx identity has contributed to the renewed discourse surrounding the term. To the archeology professor and culture scholar, the push for recognition has been a long time coming, the effects of which are currently in manifest. “When we’re confused about something, we’d rather not address it…. Most archaeologists and anthropologists don’t really want to deal with that [definition of Latinx], and rather deal with some clear-cut definitions that have existed for decades. That’s why I see myself as someone who defined Latinx, rather than the person who studies Latinx archeology.”

Dismantling barriers and having awkward conversations within the Latin American community have been one of the harder challenges to endure in his quest to combine ethnicity and cultural kinship under a united signifier, though Gonzalez maintains hope that his scholarship will instill gradual change.   

Gonzalez’s advocacy for the adoption of Latinx as a term has invited particular resistance from those of Latin origin, with some — such as Gonzalez’s Mexican-American colleagues — claiming that the term subverts regional identity in favor of a blanket label and arguing that national affinity should be at the forefront of the Latin American identity.

Another source of dialogue is the novel use of the letter “X,” as many believe it “draws on the power of whiteness, [and] Afro and Indigenous Latinx folk are washed away under this definition,” Gonzalez explained. As a result, the professor feels that the inclusion of the letter has slowed his attempts at trying to achieve an answer that all can agree on. “I don’t think it’s a bad thing, because these are conversations that we have to have,” Gonzalez commented. 

Satisfied with the work he’s put out and the impact he has made, Gonzalez hopes to continue making a difference.  “I’ve achieved my goal by reaching hundreds of Latinx students and if I can do that for the rest of my career and be able to reach out to a thousand more, I can die happy. There are two goals: one that I achieve by working every day and one that’s loftier. If I get there, I get there…. And if I don’t, somebody else will,” he concluded. 

Former students of Gonzalez carry on his teachings, offering more nuance, knowledge, and depth to conversations on diaspora. A dissertation has also been written on Gonzalez that further expands on parts of his research.

Currently, Gonzalez and a group of students here at CSUEB, are working and co-authoring an article titled “ChicanXperimental Archeology” on adobe ovens. The article is primarily geared toward a Latinx audience, encouraging them to connect with their past and think about what it means to be Latinx.