“Let’s face it, not all of us can pronounce everyone’s names, we’re going to make mistakes, we’re not perfect,” Ochoa said. “In my opinion, from personal experience, it’s not the mistake that matters, it’s what we do after we make the mistake that’s really important; it either makes us feel like we belong or like we’re the ‘other.’”
A colleague placed a shiny, new picture book in my hands and said, “Read this, it’s so you.”
The book, Alma and How She Got Her Name by author and illustrator Juana Martinez-Neal, was awarded the 2019 Caldecott Honor. The storyline is fairly straightforward: A little girl complains that her name is so long that it “never fits,” then the girl’s father shares the stories of all the people she’s been named after and by the final page of the book—the little girl, of course, loves her name. With confidence, she exclaims, “Alma Sofia Esperanza José Pura Candela! That’s my name, and it fits me just right! I am Alma and I have a story to tell.”
The picture book left me misty-eyed and my colleague was correct— it was definitely so me. Initially, what drew me in was the fact that the author is from Peru and I am Peruvian-American, but like most tear-jerkers, it also impacted me because it made me feel a deep connection.
My mother, born Maria Cecilia Garcia, has almost always gone by the nickname “Cecy,” a shorter version of Cecilia. She decided not to go by her first name, Maria, because several family members on her mom’s side share the name, including: Maria Del Rosario, Maria Eugenia, Maria Del Mar and José Maria.
As a multi-racial third-culture kid who grew up primarily in Central America, Southeast Asia and West Africa, I don’t recall my mom’s name, or anyone’s name for that matter, ever being an issue-- until we moved to the United States. Here, we became instant outsiders, and my mom’s name suddenly unpronounceable. Even with the generous anglicized pronunciation she offers the most stubborn of acquaintances, some insist on permanently changing her name to “Sissy” or “CeeCee.”
My mom hates it when people change her name and that hurts me, profoundly. It hurts most when the people who have known my mom for years continue to make zero effort to attempt to pronounce her name correctly. And pronunciation does matter-- particularly when it comes to children.
Research has found that children’s socioemotional well-being and worldview can be negatively impacted by teachers’ failure to pronounce their names properly, and can even lead children to shy away from their own cultures and families, according to an article by former educator and writer Punita Chhabra Rice called, Pronouncing Students’ Names Correctly Should Be a Big Deal.
“Even the National Education Association reports that minimizing the significance of getting a name right is a kind of microaggression—an everyday act of discrimination,” Rice said.
Gerardo Ochoa, who said his name was forcibly changed to “Jerry” by a fifth-grade teacher and, subsequently, his entire school and community, gave an inspiring Tedx Talks in 2019 titled Getting it Right: Why Pronouncing Names Correctly Matters.
“Let’s face it, not all of us can pronounce everyone’s names; we’re going to make mistakes, we’re not perfect,” Ochoa said. “In my opinion, from personal experience, it’s not the mistake that matters, it’s what we do after we make the mistake that’s really important; it either makes us feel like we belong or like we’re the ‘other.’”
Ochoa offers three easy tips for people who are faced with a name that they can’t immediately pronounce.
Humble yourself. The first step to pronouncing someone’s name is to acknowledge that you can’t pronounce it. “It’s okay that the other person sees you struggling. It’s okay that you ask for help. More often than not, they are willing to help you,” Ochoa said.
Get in my business. When you hear a person mispronouncing someone’s name, be an active bystander, be proactive, take initiative to correct them, teach them. “This has only happened one time in my entire life and I will never forget it…It took the burden off of me and I really appreciated them for it. Deep down, it made my heart smile,” he said.
Do something… but don’t be arrogant. Whatever you do, do not try to change someone else’s name. That is a personal decision that should be left up to each individual.
Martinez-Neal likely penned Alma’s story because she understands, better than most, the impact a child’s name can have on self-esteem and the importance of reinforcing identity and self-love at an early age.
“I got stuck with what I thought was the most old-fashioned, harsh, ugly, and way too Spanish name in all of Lima, Peru, where I grew up! Little did I know that later on, after I moved to the United States, it would feel unique and remind me every day of where I came from,” Martinez-Neal said.
#OwnVoices at Richland Library is a way for African American, Hispanic, and Latino/a/e staff to provide thoughtful and well written book reviews, book lists and blog posts to promote authors of marginalized groups and their work about the life experiences of these under-represented groups through their own perspective. The series invites our customers to learn one more way we are continuing the conversation in our community and speaking our voice. Find more resources on race, equity and inclusion, here.