38. In the Name of Heritage
So what do you do when people mispronounce your name? Do you correct them? If they butcher your identity, do you let it ride? Just to avoid having to educate them?
Foreign-born Americans are constantly pressured to Americanize their names nowadays — just to make it easier for the ears of those who refuse to accept foreign sounds. But if you go along, aren't you hiding your heritage?
When I started writing for my school newspaper more than 40 years ago, some of my teachers and classmates persuaded me to call myself Mike Perez, erroneously pronounced with a strong accent on the second "e."
And so, for a brief period of my life, I felt uncomfortable with my own identity. I felt as if I was purposely mispronouncing my own name, hiding my heritage, betraying my principles.
Obviously, it didn't take very long for me to go back to Miguel Pérez.
Sure, I still have to explain to many non-Latinos that the "u" in my first name is silent, and that my last name is pronounced PErez — not PerEz.
It takes a lot more work; but it's worth the effort. I see it as an opportunity to teach a quick lesson about my ethnicity. If I were to ignore the mispronunciation, I would be letting them hide my Hispanic heritage.
But it happens to me so often that I could easily turn it into a comedy routine — especially when I have to leave messages for government bureaucrats.
"Could you tell the commissioner that Miguel Pérez called?" I ask.
"What?" they usually growl. "Could you spell that?"
Yet even after I comply — "MIGUEL PEREZ" — sometimes they add a few more letters to the pronunciation.
"You mean Mee-GWUEL Puh-RREZ."
"No ma'am, I mean Miguel. The "u'' is silent. And I mean Pérez. The accent is on the first "e."
From this point on, responses depend on the bureaucrat's diversity-acceptance level. Most see it as a learning experience and show you they appreciate the gesture. But some actually defy your pronunciation of your own name.
"How come I know other Puh-RREZes who pronounce their name that way?'' a secretary asked me once.
At this point, although you may want to be terribly polite, sometimes you can't hold back a little sarcasm.
"Perhaps they let you mispronounce their name because they don't have all this time to waste with you, ma'am," I responded. "Or perhaps they know you're a lost cause."
Frankly, it comes down to demanding a little respect for our Hispanic surnames. We're not asking anyone to speak Spanish — just to get our names straight!
The worst mutilators of Hispanic names are radio and television reporters. You hear the flawlessly pronouncing tongue-twisters — U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon, Syrian dictator Bashar Assad, al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahri, French President Francois Hollande, former Italian president Silvio Berlusconi — but when they get to Hispanic names, they make odd and painful sounds!
In Spanish, there are accent marks even in our names, and they are there for a good reason: pronunciation! Yet many people simply don't see them.
Take the late great Puerto Rican actor Raúl Juliá. In the media, his name was mispronounced so often that it became registered in our minds that the accents went on the wrong syllables.
But perhaps the worst butchers of Hispanic names are sportscasters. They seem to have some kind of license to put accents wherever they please, and they do it so often that they end up changing the names. In the sports broadcast booth, "Jorge" easily becomes "Whore-gay," and "Andres" becomes "On-Dress" and even "Juan" becomes "Wang."
Yes, I know. When mispronounced, some names can have funny, sexual connotations. But some sportscasters don't seem to notice them. They think they are speaking Spanish, and yet, for their Latino audience, their mispronunciation of Hispanic names can become a comedy routine.
Perhaps that's the reason why so many Latinos shamefully drop their Hispanic surnames when they go into show business. Hollywood and the music industry are full of Hispanics who hide their heritage by adopting Anglo-Saxon stage names. And perhaps that was excusable in the old days, when show business discrimination was so flagrant that they had no other choice.
But when young Hispanic artists hide their heritage nowadays — instead of supporting them — I say we should expose them as sellouts. And we will in another column soon. Some people say that by hiding their roots, these artists are denying us of Hispanic role models. But given their rejection of their own ethnicity, what kind of role models would they make?
Granted, through generational acculturation, as with other ethnic groups, Latinos tend to Americanize their kids' first names. Robertos become Bobs. And yes, Miguels do become Mikes, and there's nothing wrong with that.
But surnames are different. Changing or Anglicizing your family name is denying your heritage. If you have any doubts, we can go back four decades and I can introduce you to Mike Puh-RREZ.
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