When Latinx People Use ‘the Word That Starts With N’


On October 15, actress Gina Rodríguez was heavily criticized on social media after posting a short video in which she appeared using “the word that begins with N” (nigger) while singing a verse from a Lauryn Hill rap. The "Jane the Virgin" star quickly deleted the video and uploaded another clip in which she apologized to those who had been offended. In addition, he posted a note on Instagram in which he again excused himself and made vague promises to make a self-reflection in the near future.

It is possible that this situation has had a greater impact on Rodriguez's history with the black community, since on multiple occasions during the last years he has been criticized for expressing opinions against black people and confronting Latinx women and women black with each other.


But even if Rodriguez's background is ignored, the incident shows an unpleasant truth: the disturbing comfort with which many Latinx people say the "N-word" and the right they claim to have to use it. It also reveals a complicated dynamic between two marginalized groups, and what it means for them to experience solidarity and division.

In urban neighborhoods across the country, from Corona, Queens, where I grew up, to Compton, California, African-American and Latinx communities live in close coexistence, often segregated from whites through institutionalized or historically racist practices. That is why, naturally, for decades there has been a cultural exchange that exists through local business cooperation, community organization, gastronomy and, in particular, the lexicon. Vernacular African-American English and colloquial Spanish come together outside neighborhood stores (called "wineries" in the United States) or in the parks.

In these multiracial neighborhoods it is inevitable that both groups share concerns and anxieties about discrimination and racism, especially with regard to police and policymaking. As they are often attacked by the same forces as African Americans, Latinx people may feel equally aggrieved to the point of identifying the nature of their abuse as racism.

But there are aspects in which the division becomes more visible, or at least more complicated. In some cases, Afro-Latin people make up a large part of the community; At the beginning of her career, rapper Cardi B, who identifies herself as black and Latino, began defending her blackness and her right to use "the word that begins with N" after being criticized.

And there are large sectors of the Latinx population that do not identify as black (and perhaps even identify as white people). While it is possible that those who present themselves and identify themselves as Afro-Latin people use the “N-word” without facing criticism (attacks on Cardi B, for example, have calmed down as their fame has increased), those that are defined as White and Hispanic in a census form belong to a completely different category.

This situation is further complicated by the ubiquity of American hip-hop as the predominant youth culture. What was once the sound of urban artists addressing their peers and neighbors has become the favorite genre of young Americans of all races, so it dominates the broadcasting platforms in continuous and, to a large extent, the Billboard lists. The appearance of that word in the songs works as a claim of the term by black artists and not with the intention of being used maliciously, so many young people, regardless of their skin color – including Latinx people -, do not see it as a problem to repeat that word in rap lyrics.

The song “Otro Trago”, by Panamanian reggaeton singer Sech, was one of the biggest hits of the summer in the United States and has the participation of Puerto Rican rapper Darell, who says the word twice during the song. About nineteen weeks after its release on the Billboard Hot 100 list, it is clear that the fact that a non-black Latinx artist uses that word in the song of an Afro-Latin artist has not affected his popularity.

These factors have generated the emergence of a mentality that approves that Latinx people use that word. However, when they defend themselves from criticism, they rarely address the dire story that the word entails. In a recent interview with Buzzfeed, SoundCloud rapper Lil Pump pretended that the controversy did not exist and used the word freely throughout the conversation.

And during a recent appearance on Hot 97, the New York hip-hop radio station, Puerto Rican and Cuban-American rapper Fat Joe equated African-Americans with Latinx people, adding that the latter "can even identify more with the culture African and black than black people. ” The comment sparked an online debate, in part because its long history of casual use of "the word that begins with N" basically overlooks how that insult is used against blacks in a way that cannot be used against Latino people who They are not black, as is the case with Fat Joe.

The same can be said of Rodríguez and Jennifer López, another Latinx performer, who faced a similar reaction almost 20 years ago to use the word on the remix of “I’m Real,” a song of his from 2001.

Lopez, a Puerto Rican raised in the Bronx, had assumed that her cultural origins would protect her from criticism. Being a Puerto Rican raised in Chicago, Rodriguez supposed that singing, without censorship, one of her favorite hip-hop songs was a harmless act that millions of Americans do every week at their homes, in meetings with friends or in mass when they come to The rap concerts.

Perhaps in their intimate circles, and among their black friends, they can use the word without problems: rapper Ja Rule, who had a special participation in “I’m Real,” defended her. (López also said, in the middle of the protests and the opposition of the main personalities of the radio by the simple one, that it was he who wrote the lyrics for her). But being public figures whose linguistic choices affect a greater number of people with different experiences and perspectives, this projects a bad image. And all these stars failed to understand the seriousness of the word or its relationship with the pain of the black community, so they responded with false and defensive apologies.

There is no justification for a Latinx person who defines himself as white to continue using the “N-word” knowing how harmful it is to his fellow Afro-Latin and African-Americans, who have a broader and controversial debate about its use as a colloquial claim.

Only the eradication of the "N-word" of Latinx vocabulary can really rectify things in the future. Latinx people suffer our share of prejudice and demonization, and we must adopt an empathic stance in our own circles to stop participating in the amplification of the suffering of our neighbors.

(Gary Suarez is a writer and music critic born and raised in Queens, New York, where he currently lives).

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