Spanish Language: Unlikely Battleground for Gender Inclusion

By Juliana Martínez*

Spanish-speaking communities have become one of the most significant battlegrounds in the push for gender-inclusive language. Often associated with traditional gender norms and anti-LGBT sentiment, Spanish-speakers in general and in Latin America in particular are discussing gender in language, causing as much ire and excitement as use of they as a non-binary singular pronoun has in the United States and beyond. In the English-speaking world, the Merriam-Webster Dictionary’s recognition of they as “word of the year” in 2019 signaled this shift. Many young Spanish speakers are also increasingly unwilling to accept gender hierarchies in any social, political, or cultural realm as natural, innocuous, or unchangeable; and they find the gender binary limiting and exclusionary for themselves or for society more broadly.

  • In the last 15 years few regions have made larger strides in LGBT recognition than Latin America. During this period, some of the most advanced legislation and policies in the world – such as gender identity laws, same-sex marriage, adoption rights for same-sex partners, and non-discrimination statutes – have been passed in Latin America, the great majority in Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking countries.

There are two main issues at the heart of inclusive language efforts: to challenge androcentric conventions, and to expand the gender binary by incorporating gender-expansive options for speakers. In many languages, Spanish included, masculine forms constitute the linguistic and social norm. In society and grammar alike, masculinity, heterosexuality, and gender-conformance have been taken as the unmarked norm through which human experience is measured and communicated. However, just as the mere presence of a gender system in a language does not make it sexist or cis-normative, the push for inclusive language does not put the integrity of the language at risk and does not seek to dismantle its grammatical gender system.

  • As my colleague Salvador Vidal-Ortiz and I note in a recent article, substituting an e for a gender-specific o or a in a noun does not challenge the assigned gender of nouns that do not refer to specific populations. No one is suggesting that carro (the masculine noun in Spanish for “car”) should be “carre” instead. That is a caricature and, more importantly, would suggest denying speakers the right and means to name themselves by claiming that their lives are a grammatical – and also a biological, social, and legal – error or impossibility.
  • These efforts have been around for a while both in Latin America and the U.S as exemplified by the shifts in the term Latino. First came Latina/o, then the “@” in Latin@, then Latinx, and now Latine. All these forms have been (and continue to be) used as gender-neutral and expansive options to the masculine o or the feminine a. The e in particular has been getting traction and considerable (not always positive) attention. Argentina has been a trailblazer. Nowadays, it is practically impossible to attend a political rally or march in the country without hearing words like bienvenides (welcome) alongside or instead of the traditional bienvenidos or bienvenidas, or to see words like todes (instead of todas or todos) written on signs. Last year two events marked the widening spread of these shifts in the country. President Alberto Fernández made history when he used the word chiques (the gender-expansive alternative to the binary chicos or chicas) during a student rally – drawing a standing ovation; and last December Argentina made international headlines when a judge ruled in favor of including “non-binary” as the sex marker of a person’s national identification document

Despite this progress, opposition to gender-inclusive language has been fierce and is unlikely to fade quickly. La Real Academia de la Lengua (RAE), the governing body that presides over Spanish grammar, syntax, and morphology, has resisted it sternly – not surprising for an institution that has accepted only 11 women in 300 years of existence. History has shown, however, that calls for language purity and grammar correctness tend to be covers for social anxieties about upholding gender and sexual hierarchies. What upsets many speakers – particularly those used to being at the center of discourse and accustomed to holding cultural, social, economic, and political power – is not the language; it is the changing worldview that it names and advances. Inclusive language is neither a threat to the language nor a sign of its decline. Rather, it signals plasticity and health, as it illustrates its ability to adapt to shifting cultural and social norms.

February 25, 2020

* Juliana Martínez is Assistant Professor in the Department of World Languages and Cultures at American University. Parts of this post were previously published, with Salvador Vidal-Ortiz, in Latinx thoughts: Latinidad with an X in Latino Studies in October 2018.

Seeking Rights from the Left

By Elisabeth Jay Friedman and Constanza Tabbush*

Image of colorful mural with diverse images of women. Text in the mural says: "It is time to act, no more sexual violence. No more impunity"

#TimeToAct Mural in La Paz, Bolivia, by artist Knorke Leaf/ ph: Shawnna Mullenax

The “Pink Tide” of left-leaning governments that came to power in Latin America at the beginning of the 21st century made a significant difference in the lives of women and LGBT people in the region, but its reliance on traditional gendered relations of power and strategic trade-offs among gender and sexual rights reduced its impact.  In a collaborative study we conducted with 12 other scholars from South and North America, we examined the issues of social welfare, political representation, violence against women, women’s bodily autonomy, and LGBT relationship and identity recognition across eight case studies – Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Ecuador, Nicaragua, Uruguay, and Venezuela.

  • We found significant progress under the Pink Tide. Most governments improved the basic economic conditions of poor women and their families, often through providing cash transfers.  In many cases, women’s representation in national legislatures advanced to some of the highest global ranks.  Some countries legalized same-sex relationships and enabled their citizens to claim their own gender identity.  They also opened up opportunities for feminist and queer movements to engage state actors and press forward their demands.

At the same time, many of these governments relied on heteropatriarchal relations of power – ones that privilege heterosexual men – thus ignoring, rejecting, or sidelining the more transformative elements of feminist, women’s, and LGBT advocates’ demands.  They also made strategic trade-offs among gender and sexual rights, such as promoting the rights of LGBT people or women’s political representation while denying reproductive health rights for women.  Moreover, the left’s more general political and economic projects have been profoundly, if at times unintentionally, informed by traditional understandings of gender and sexuality.  As a central example across most cases, not only did poor women’s unpaid care work fuel the much-celebrated social programs that reduced extreme poverty, but their unpaid community work undergirded the left political project as a whole.

  • The possibilities for gender and sexual justice seem to depend on institutional contexts as well as the organization and actions of collective actors seeking rights from the left. The degree of state institutionalization, particularly the effectiveness of checks on executive power, is critical in determining the ultimate impact of the left in power.  Moreover, the largely under-analyzed alliances that progressive political forces struck up with conservative religious ones in order to gain or hold onto power play a central role in determining the fate of policy issues – such as abortion – that touch traditional or cultural norms in Latin America.

As the pendulum swings back towards the right, the relationships among political and religious authorities which undergirded some of the challenges to gender and sexual justice under left governance appear likely to continue strengthening.  Indeed, insofar as right-wing nationalists and populists seek to redefine a national project as a counter to the ideals of the Pink Tide, they are deliberately targeting the ideas and people who seek to transform fundamental inequalities, such as those based on gender, sexuality, class, race, and ethnicity.  However, experiences under both the Pink Tide and the rise of the Right have led to alliances among those who continue to seek more just and equitable societies.  For example, consider the broad-based coalitions that undergirded massive mobilizations for legal abortion in Argentina and against Bolsonaro’s election in Brazil. 

February 4, 2019

*  Elisabeth Jay Friedman is professor of politics and Latin American studies at the University of San Francisco (on leave) and visiting scholar at the Interdisciplinary Center for the Study of Global Change, University of Minnesota.  Constanza Tabbush is research associate at Consejo Nacional de Investigaciones Científicas y Técnicas and the Interdisciplinary Institute of Gender Studies, University of Buenos Aires (on leave) and research specialist at UN Women.  Dr. Friedman edited and co-wrote the introduction of Seeking Rights from the Left: Gender, Sexuality, and the Latin American Pink Tide, published by Duke University Press and available here.  Dr. Tabbush co-wrote the introduction and the chapter on Argentina.

Latin America: Evangelical Churches Gaining Influence

By Carlos Malamud*

Five people stand up in front of a screen with their arms raised

The evangelical political party Partido Encuentro Social (PES) held a rally earlier this month in Mexico City. / Twitter: @PESoficialPPN / Creative Commons

The line between religion and politics is getting increasingly blurred in Latin America as evangelical churches grow in strength and candidates try to curry the support of – or at least avoid confrontation with – the faithful.  Tensions over mixing religion and politics have historic roots in Europe and Latin America and persisted throughout the 20th century, but we are witnessing a new phenomenon in Latin America now.  In much of the region, evangelical churches are showing an increased political presence and institutional representation in partisan politics.

  • In Mexico, the secular Movimiento de Regeneración Nacional (MORENA) and the Partido del Trabajo (PT) have struck an alliance with the evangelical Partido Encuentro Social (PES) to back presidential candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador. Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales is an evangelical, and Costa Rica – if current polls prove correct – could soon have Fabricio Alvarado, an evangelical pastor, as President.  In Brazil, presidential aspirant Jair Bolsonaro has been building popular support by, among other things, appealing to the an evangelical base, even though most Brazilian evangelical churches aren’t reaching for executive power but rather support parties concentrated on building local, provincial, and congressional influence.
  • The evangelical churches’ membership has grown steadily but unevenly in recent decades. About 20 percent of all Latin Americans are evangelicals.  In Mexico, they account for more than 10 percent of the population.  In Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, Venezuela, Argentina, and Panama, observers estimate more than 15 percent.  In Brazil and Costa Rica, the number reaches 20 percent, while in Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua it surpasses 40 percent.

The evangelical churches’ political agenda is centered on defense of family values – basically opposition to abortion, same-sex marriage, divorce, euthanasia, and what they erroneously call “gender ideology.”  On these topics on certain occasions, there’s a striking convergence with the Catholic hierarchy, Social-Christians, and conservative parties.  The evangelicals do not usually take positions, however, on other issues in which the government has a strong role, such as the economy or international relations.

The evangelical phenomenon reflects a double dynamic:  the unstoppable surge in non-Catholic faithful poses an enormous challenge for the region’s deeply rooted bishops conferences, and the growing distrust for political leaders and parties has facilitated the emergence of new options, including evangelicals, with barely articulated platforms.  The faithful who profess the tenets of evangelicalism are disciplined, and pastors’ positions have a lot of influence over them.  Even if not linked directly to candidates through the parties, voters’ evangelical affiliation and their churches’ recommendations have a strong influence over them.  The evangelical vote, moreover, is highly desired by all candidates and at least indirectly influences campaigns.  Candidates in Colombia, Brazil, or Mexico, as in other Latin American countries, are making that increasingly obvious as elections approach.

March 20, 2018

*Carlos Malamud is Senior Analyst for Latin America at the Elcano Royal Institute, and Professor of Latin American History at the Universidad Nacional de Educación a Distancia (UNED), Madrid.  A version of this article was originally published in El Heraldo de México.

Gender Violence in Argentina and the Education of Mauricio Macri

By Brenda Werth*

Macri Ni Una Menos

Photo Credit: Mauricio Macri Facebook page. Public Domain.

Argentina’s new President, Mauricio Macri, has an historic opportunity to address the country’s longstanding crisis of gender violence.  In a radio interview in 2014, he notoriously stated that “All women like to be catcalled,” and asserted, “I don’t believe the ones who say they don’t.”  Little did he know at the time that the most intense period of his presidential campaign in 2015 would coincide with a revolution in public awareness of gender violence in Argentina.  #NiUnaMenos – a movement launched in response to a rash of femicides and their graphic coverage by the news media – organized  marches in cities across Argentina, Uruguay, and Chile, drawing an estimated 300,000 protesters in Buenos Aires alone last June.  Journalists, artists, and activists, in collective denunciation of machismo and violence against women, demanded that the government develop a plan of action to implement the Comprehensive Law on the Prevention, Punishment and Elimination of Violence against Women (Law 26.485), approved in 2009.  The law was a significant milestone in addressing violence against women at the national level, yet without government support, its effectiveness has been limited.  Current data indicate that a femicide takes place every 30 hours in Argentina, and statistics suggest that the total number of femicides occurring in 2015 will meet or surpass numbers in 2014.  The NiUnaMenos movement has captured the public’s attention.

The presidential candidates (Macri included) took note of the impact of NiUnaMenos and pledged support to prevent violence against women as outlined in the five major points it published.  Macri posted a picture of himself holding a handmade #NiUnaMenos sign on Facebook and Twitter.  Yet activists remain concerned about Macri’s sincerity, not just because of his 2014 remarks.  As mayor of Buenos Aires (2007-15), he undermined initiatives to prevent violence against women and provide assistance to victims.  Specifically, in 2014 he closed an outreach center for victims of sexual violence that had operated under the Subsecretary of Human Rights in Buenos Aires, and he reduced the budget of the National Agency for Women from 0.1 percent in 2007 to 0.06 percent in 2015.

Macri has his work cut out for him if he wants to be perceived as a leader confronting Argentina’s gender violence.  Although his promises to slash government spending suggest social programs will suffer, there are some promising signs.  Macri’s Minister of Social Development, Carolina Stanley, has offered the post of President of the National Council for Women to Fabiana Tuñez, the founder of the Casa del Encuentro, a leading NGO on gender rights and eliminating sexual violence – and key in the #NiUnaMenos movement.  In a broader human rights framework, Macri’s agenda still remains relatively undefined.  Although his vision will depart significantly from former President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner’s, he has reiterated his commitment to continuing trials against former military accused of human rights abuses during dictatorship, rejecting claims that such efforts reflect “politics of revenge.”  In interviews, moreover, he has emphasized a forward-looking conception of human rights, rooted in the 21st century, focusing on issues related to pubic health, education, and freedom of expression.  While some observers view this as a regression to a “culture of amnesia” associated with the Menemist era, Macri has an opportunity to move the country forward by heeding activists’ demands for leadership addressing gender violence in Argentina. 

January 7, 2016

* Brenda Werth is Associate Professor of World Languages and Cultures at American Unviersity.

Social Science that Matters: Pérez Sáinz on Latin America’s Inequalities

By Eric Hershberg

Image courtesy of FLACSO-Costa Rica

Latin America has made important advances dealing with income inequality over the past decade, but sustaining this modest progress requires a deeper grasp of its underlying causes.  Since Princeton sociologists Miguel Centeno and Kelly Hoffman in 2003 published their provocative article “The Lopsided Continent” probing Latin America’s infelicitous distinction as the region with the most unequal income distribution, the GINI coefficients – indicators of the gap between rich and poor – have declined in a number of Latin American countries.  Most of the advances, which admittedly appear tenuous and were slowed by the Great Recession of 2008-2009, can be traced to the expansion of secondary education and, particularly in countries governed by the left, unprecedented investments in social programs that have benefited the most disadvantaged sectors of the population.  Even now, however, income distribution in the region remains as unequal as anywhere on the planet – sapping productivity by depriving populations of opportunities to upgrade skills that could be deployed in knowledge-intensive economic activities.  Inequality also provokes social dislocations that undermine the welfare of the poor and non-poor alike, place burdens on over-extended state institutions and generate pathologies, such as crime, that undermine economic performance.  Moreover, the task of sustaining democratic political regimes is rendered much more difficult.

A new book by Juan Pablo Pérez Sáinz, a sociologist at the Latin American Faculty of Social Sciences (FLACSO) in Costa Rica, takes a fresh look at the dynamics of unequal power that influence how the fruits of economic activity become concentrated in some individuals and social groups – and remain beyond the reach of large swathes of a country’s inhabitants.  MERCADOS Y BÁRBAROS: La persistencia de las desigualdades de excedente en América Latina is in my view a landmark contribution to the sociological literature, and it identifies four intertwined processes that account for the disempowerment of important segments of the population, often characterized by subordinate status associated with gender, race, ethnicity or region.

  • The prevalence of precarious employment in labor markets, as a result of which people are condemned to toil endlessly but never enjoy the benefits of having a stable job.
  • The impossibility for most small-landholders or petty entrepreneurs to accumulate capital that might enable them to invest in the future of themselves, their families and their communities.
  • The weakness or absence of state institutions that might contribute to forging social citizenship encompassing all of a country’s inhabitants, the result of which is that vulnerable individuals and communities are left to fend entirely for themselves.
  • The overwhelming weight in Latin America of social categorizations – motivated by pervasive sexism, racism, ethnocentrism and xenophobia – that define excluded populations as less deserving of rights and opportunities than others.

If societies are to be expected to invest in social science, then it is reasonable to expect that social scientists strive to illuminate the underlying roots of their greatest challenges, such as the yawning inequalities in Latin America, and the sources of their persistence over time.  Through his historically informed and empirically rich analysis, drawing on theoretical insights from Marxian traditions and from the work of sociologists such as the late Charles Tilly, Pérez Sáinz has made an invaluable contribution to intellectual debates about inequality which should inform efforts to consolidate the modest gains we have seen in Latin America and thus help the region outgrow its enduring legacy of debilitating inequality.

December 4, 2014

Equal Pay Day in Latin America

By Yazmín A. García Trejo*
Embed from Getty Images
For Latin American women, “Equal Pay Day” – observed on April 8 in the United States – would be in mid-May.  The day symbolically marks the time of year that women’s earnings finally catch up to men’s earnings during the previous year.  In the United States women make, on average, 77 cents for every dollar that men do.  Women have made great advances in Latin America, but they still earn 36 percent less than men, according to the International Labor Organization (ILO).  In many countries of the region, the gender gap in education has closed; now women and men have similar levels of education, and the World Bank’s Gender at Work report indicates that women increased labor force participation by 35 percent between 1990 and 2012.  Nonetheless, women have to work an additional four and a half months to catch up with men’s earnings.  According to an AmericasBarometer survey in 2012, this inequality also occurs within families; 54 percent of working women earn less than their partners.

The debate around the pay gap points to individual and institutional factors as the main causes.  For various personal and social reasons, according to “New Century, Old Disparities,” a 2012 co-publication of the Inter-American Development Bank and the World Bank, women tend to gravitate toward occupations with lower pay ascribed to traditional gender roles such as education (teachers) and healthcare (nurses).  Women are also more likely to settle for lower salaries when hired, and work more in part-time jobs due to their dual responsibilities as providers and caretakers of children or elderly parents.  Institutionally, women still experience pay discrimination and have less access to managerial occupations.  Public policies on women in the workplace reinforce the dual role of working women in Latin America.  According to the 2013 Global Gender Gap Report, Latin American and Caribbean women get an average of 14 weeks of maternity leave, but men get paternity leave in only 9 of the 15 countries – and then only for an average of about one week.

The social and political implications of the wage gap are far-reaching.  Women with lower earnings not only are unable to create wealth as men in similar positions can; they cannot secure a retirement plan that provides them and their families security.  Lower wealth, moreover, translates into lower political participation. According to the 2012 AmericasBarometer survey, wealthier people are more likely to vote, are generally more knowledgeable about how government works, feel they understand national politics, tend to participate more on leadership roles at the community level, and are more actively involved in electoral campaigns.  A disadvantage on wealth and longer work hours undermine women’s ability to invest in learning about or participating in politics.  “Equal Pay Day” in Latin America in the next two weeks would mark not just women’s reduced financial clout but an obstacle to their broader contributions to society as well.  With pay inequality, we all lose.

*Yazmín A. García Trejo is a PhD candidate at the University of Connecticut’s Department of Political Science and a Research Fellow at CLALS.