Updated: May 8, 2020
Being asked to say your name in English is a bit jarring. Equally astounding was a law librarian (my supervisor at a part-time job during my first year in law school) asking me how I would say the name Granville Cleveland in Spanish. Mr. Cleveland was one of the other librarians. I wondered why someone’s name would need translating. “It’s his name,” I explained, “and If I were speaking Spanish and introducing him, I’d simply say, te presento mi amigo, Granville Cleveland.” The exchange was much more interesting than that . . . but I’ll leave that for a future Stairwell Teatro Episode.
If someone were to ask Jaime Cuervo to say his name in English would he say, Jim Crow? Take my name Irma. My quick and dirty research says it derives from the Germanic irmin, war goddess. The Herrera surname originates in Spain’s regions with mines rich in iron ore, where blacksmithing was common, so I suppose Herrera could translate as Smith. When asked to say my name in English do introduce myself as War Goddess Smith?
The history of conquest and oppression has stripped people of their language, their culture, their very names. In Roots, Kunta Kinte is beaten within an inch of his life for refusing to call himself Toby, the name he is given by the slave masters.
Less extreme forms of coercion existed throughout the Southwest where Anglo teachers and administrators imposed English names on Mexican-American students. Juanita became Jane, Graciela was now Grace, Rodolfo was Rudy. We were also punished for speaking Spanish. There’s a wonderful short movie you can stream on HBO on this very theme: My Name is Maria De Jesus, by Marcella Ochoa.
The movie is described as follows: “In 1950's Texas, Mexican American children were forced to abandon their Spanish language and culture. Thirty years later, one mother realizes the impact Americanization has on her child who is struggling to connect with her Latin heritage. Marcella Ochoa wrote, directed, and stars in this short film.” Click here to link to this movie.
The right to our names, our languages, and our cultures is very much a social justice issue. A request to say one’s name in English is the subject of Episode 4.
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Here's Episode 4 - Say Your Name in English.