The news broke and quickly spread: The next leader of Philadelphia’s Roman Catholic Archdiocese would be Latino. The historic announcement had journalists like me running around the city, following after the man who had just become one of only three Hispanic archbishops in the country.
Some parishioners called him Father Nelson, others Monseñor Pérez.
So, for those of us newly documenting his history and future, we needed to know the most accurate way to represent him: Were we to use an accent mark on his name, as Spanish grammar dictates? Or, were all those official announcements from the Church correct in that there was none?
It would depend solely on the newly appointed Cuban American archbishop: How did he want his name to appear?
That’s a simple question, but the story behind the answer rarely is. Because even once those determinations are made — how to punctuate a name, what pronunciation to use — it often means, in this country, undertaking a continuous battle of enforcement. How and when to do that, too — and how others judge those decisions — can be fraught when it comes to cultural identity.
Language is central to almost every cultural identity, and Spanish is what people from a complex array of Latin American countries use to connect with and understand each other.
Among Latinos in the United States, research shows a decline in the use of the language in the major metro areas: 73% of Latinos spoke Spanish at home in 2015, down from 78% in 2006, according to a Pew Research Center survey. Even though the United States has the second-largest Spanish-speaking population in the world, English tends to dominate among younger Latinos living here.
Those differences in Spanish proficiency can often manifest itself in names — and consequently, how Latino or American a person ends up being perceived by others.
For instance, if I introduce myself as yeh-SEN-ee-ah, I get Dominican cred. But when someone notices my name spelled with a “J,” then, even though I’m more proficient in Spanish than English, I’m agringada, more American. (Full disclosure: I was born in New York, raised since age 7 in Dominican Republic.)
The possibilities to be shamed are endless: if you’re able to speak but not write Spanish, or able to sing songs or understand TV but not speak the language conversationally. Many Latinos have limited themselves to knowing only English due to social pressures. At the same time, a person could be discriminated against for choosing to speak Spanish fluently in public, and maintaining all the accent marks on their name.
How Latino are you, really, if you can’t speak Spanish? Are you less of an American if your name has an accent mark?
For Miguel Martínez, 22, a senior journalism student at Rowan University who moved to Camden from Santiago de los Caballeros in 2010, keeping the accent on his last name was important because he wanted people to know how to pronounce it: mar-TEE-nez. For him, the accent mark also connects him with his culture in his native Dominican Republic.
But it turned out, in the U.S., it was too much work to enforce.
Every time someone filled out paperwork, every time he traveled, for each new professor he met, Martínez had to correct someone. It took less than a year in the U.S. before he was worn down.
“Imagine if I’d spent time correcting each officer I spoke with at the airport or every professor, class after class … It was not worth the struggle for what I would gain.”
Compared to other Spanish names — take away Señora Peña’s accent and you (literally) feel sorry for her — Martínez knows it could be worse. But he still regrets that, in the long run, his last name may lose the correct spelling and pronunciation.
Salomé Cosmique is constantly asking others that her first name include the accent mark — so that it be pronounced sah-loh-MAY. For her, that’s the way to respect her roots in Bogotá, Colombia. On the other hand, her Puerto Rican husband, Ramón Meléndez, who also uses accents on his name, has become resigned to being called Raymond ma-LANE-days.
“It’s like he has adopted an entirely new personality," she said.
Cosmique, a teaching artist with the Barnes Foundation and an interpreter at the Eliza B. Kirkbride Elementary School in South Philly, noted there’s an impact when you don’t acknowledge a child’s cultural heritage, which is often accessed through Spanish.
She said it requires “empathy and attention to detail” to work with bilingual and perhaps bicultural children, especially those who are now being released from border custody and coming to Philadelphia.
“Most of the time, people omit the accent marks because they don’t know where to write them or how to put them on the computer’s keyboard, and that doesn’t help when one needs to pronounce a child’s name,” the 38-year-old said.
Cosmique remembered the case of a bilingual 10-year-old who corrected her during a theater class, saying she went by Katie at school and Lupita at home.
In the end, the soon-to-be-archbishop Pérez, upon being asked, said he uses an accent. Although he didn’t have time to discuss with me why the accent didn’t appear on any diocesan press releases, I wonder whether he’s fought — and lost — the same battles as Martínez or Cosmique.
Either way, I’d like to think we can be fully Latino in America regardless of which languages we speak, regardless of how many accents we keep in our name.
If you understood when your Mami said in Spanish that she’d hit you with a chancla, even if you protested in English, you can relate to other Latinos — in Cuba, in Brazil, in Honduras.
If you appreciate the bilingualism throughout the Bad Boys for Life movie — Will Smith speaking Spanish in his Philly accent and Nicky Jam speaking Spanglish in Puerto Rican accent — you can relate to other Latinos.
If you understood the origins of the dances performed by Shakira, Bad Bunny, J.Lo, and J Balvin on the stage Sunday night at the Super Bowl’s halftime show, you can relate to other Latinos.
These experiences transcend language, with or without accents.