I have just returned from a two-day work trip to the Yucatan, for which I traveled with wonderful colleagues, met generous people, and researched opportunities for students. I teach Spanish and interact frequently with Spanish-speaking people from all over Spain and Latin America. This trip, nevertheless, reminded me how easy it is to get into protective silos of like-minded individuals and to become accustomed to mostly egalitarian language use.
On this trip, I traveled with a female and a male colleague. In many settings, I noticed that our male colleague was addressed first by most men. They would initiate the conversation by calling my colleague “Jefe,” making a few jocular remarks, always kindly intended, and then asking questions of him. If my colleague didn’t hear this or they anticipated that it would be better to continue in English, they would reframe and call him “Boss.” The first time I heard “Jefe,” I almost answered, simply because I speak Spanish and am the oldest of the group. I cracked up each time as I had to remind myself that they were not addressing me, that they hadn’t said “Jefa,” and that, besides, silly, women aren’t bosses! The “jefe”-way to exist in the world is never having to assume you’re not being directly addressed by the vast majority of people on the planet. Think about it: If you’re in a group and you are the one always addressed first, and the address defers to your power in a hierarchy, you might start to make some significant assumptions about your importance and about your role in conversational movement and negotiation. The others in your group might also make assumptions about their secondary role in the group. And each time this happens, the use of “boss” might reinforce for the women that they are to be silent, to speak only when spoken to, to assume a less important role. In other words, we are conditioned by language use and re-use, in part due to power dynamics and in part due to conduct codes, often based in niceness or politeness (jocularity among the men and the women graciously accepting abnegation). In this case, niceness translates into deference, deference to the linguistic codes of men speaking with men. Not one person in any of these situations was purposefully making the women secondary, not one. But the effect, especially over the long haul, is just that.
Signs welcomed individuals with “Bienvenido” (masculine singular) or “Bienvenidos” (masculine plural), never making the nod to women or to non-binary categories. I was critical of this in the Yucatan, but then noticed the very same code used upon my return to the U.S. as male travelers (“Bienvenido”) were welcomed one by one to Dulles International Airport.
Brilliant linguist and theorist and Mexican-American Chicana lesbian activist Gloria Anzaldúa writes in Borderlands/La Frontera that Chicana women from her community always used the masculine-identified pronouns when they spoke in the plural (nosotros, ellos), even when they were referring to a group of all women. It wasn’t until Anzaldúa met groups of women from the Caribbean, whom she observed using the feminine endings (nosotras, ellas) in empowering ways, that it occurred to her that she herself could conceive of a specific gender in language and use it as she chose. She found this discovery to foment more creative ways to think about identity through language, one of the major themes threaded throughout Borderlands/La Frontera. Anzaldúa writes, “We are robbed of our female being by the masculine plural. Language is a male discourse” (54). Similarly, linguistic codes of inclusion and exclusion continue to reinforce traditional gender roles.
In the English language, people can choose the pronoun that best describes their gender identities. Our pronoun system has never been highly flexible, thus making the use of “he or she” or “his/her,” and now “they” and “their,” rather clunky. In fact, I always wonder why “his” still always goes before “her,” even though an alphabetic ordering would have it go the other way. The same goes for official forms that ask for gender/sex identification. “Male” always comes before “female,” which seems to indicate a primacy of male, rather than an alphabetic ordering. This may seem incredibly particular or picky, but, if we’re going to move from a universal he/him to a more inclusive set of pronouns and possessive adjectives, then I am curious about the subsequent linguistic choices we make. The they/their option works well to allow people not to have to choose between two options and not to have to reinforce a gender binary that certainly has been busted open—quite appropriately—in many ways. At the same time, the use of they/their for a single person can still cause great confusion simply because language still seems to want or need to distinguish between singular and plural. Language is both wonderfully fluid and tremendously based on precedent.
My old and mostly male professors in graduate school used only the masculine forms to refer to us graduate students, even with a majority of women in the program. I don’t think any of us took much notice, and we women just were defined by the –os endings. In Spanish it used to be that you could have one thousand women and one man in a room and you would use the masculine ending to refer to the group. We were taught this (in Spanish and French and Italian and Portuguese) from the get-go, and we kept it going because it was a language rule. I remember a professor who, instead of referring to herself as “profe” (short for “profesora”) used “profa,” and other professors mocked her for this. I also remember using “pilota” for referring to a woman pilot and being corrected, told to use “mujer piloto,” thus emphasizing that men universally are pilots and that women pilots are the exception. Somehow, though, I don’t recall saying “hombre enfermera” for a male nurse, but rather “enfermero.” The universal/exception rule only went so far, which is to say it continued to reinforce masculine domination in language and, by extension, in assumptions about the workplace.
About ten or so years ago, I followed others’ lead in using the “arroba,” or “at” sign, to designate both female and male endings in Spanish. I especially liked seeing Latin@, with neither the “a” nor the “o” ending coming first, but I wasn’t exactly sure how to say this (“Latina/o,” “Latina/Latino,” “Latino/Latina”?) out loud, but at least any of these possibilities was actually say-able. At this point, I’m used to interacting with many Spanish speakers who consistently use the –as and the –os endings for each word that includes both genders, and I try to do some of this, both in spoken and written Spanish. The practice is less unwieldy than I thought it would be, but for me still requires focus and patience. The newer use of “x” instead of the gender-marked “a” or “o” endings, somewhat parallel to a plural use of they/their in English to refer to a single person, really makes the point that we don’t have to label everyone and everything along gender lines, and I thoroughly appreciate this. At the same time, the “x” symbol seems to negate, rather than create, and it is way more difficult to interpret its natural pronunciation in Spanish than the “at” sign was/is. I also see as just too short the transition period in which women were consistently acknowledged in the increased use of the –a and –as endings for mixed groups.
The generations after mine have labored effectively to rupture binaries and to respect how individuals choose to self-identify. In this dark political world, I take comfort in observing this change, this understanding that we can call people what they want to be called, or not put them in a category or box at all. When I measure these efforts against the still pervasive “jefe/boss” paradigm, I see a huge gap in cultural practices and in rates of cultural change. Until we are even more deliberate in our conversational practices, we will continue to have only one gender “bienvenido” in our private and public spaces.