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Accent marks are making a comeback in Latino last names

Illustration by Wells Dunbar
/
Texas Standard

What’s in a name? For many it’s a connection to our ancestors. Over the decades, many in the Latino community have altered their names to assimilate or to avoid technology headaches. But now some are reclaiming the accent marks they’d left behind.

Astrid Galván, the editor of Axios Latino, said she started using the accent in her last name a decade ago as a way to represent in the newsroom. Now many people – even those of other backgrounds like German and Irish – have reached out to say they have or plan to do the same.

This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:

Texas Standard: I noticed that you have an accent mark above the second “a” in your last name. You’ve shared that you didn’t always use this, but restarted about 10 years or so ago. Can you tell me about that? 

Astrid Galván: I mean, growing up in the States, you know, you just don’t use them; nobody does. When I started working at The Associated Press, there were a combination of reasons: I kind of really was just proud of where I was in my career; I was proud of my heritage, of being a daughter of Mexican immigrants. And I was also bothered by – and this was industrywide – the lack of using really important symbols on people’s names in stories. So, you know, at the time [Enrique] Peña Nieto was the president in Mexico. And if he was written about in the United States, which he often was, it was Pena Nieto. And I was like, that’s not his name. It drove me crazy. So it was kind of a combination of those factors – and in addition, people always mispronounce my name. They would say “Galvin,” which drove me crazy. So I was like, well, maybe if I put an accent, maybe people will kind of think about it and know that it’s Galván.

Did that make a difference?

No, it did not.

Well I’m sorry for that. Let’s take a step back and understand why so many folks lost those accent marks – permanently or for a period of time. You get into this in your reporting.

This goes way back to the Mexican Revolution when Mexican immigrants started making their way to the U.S. Many of them came from really poor rural areas, and they were illiterate in both Spanish and English, so got lost when they got here. Later on, as generations started to grow here, you know, there was a point in history where many Latinos were taught to shun Spanish; they were punished in school if they spoke Spanish. And so, you know, an accent became kind of an embarrassing thing, like people just didn’t use them because it was looked down upon.

And then as even more time went on, technology arrived, and the way that computer systems and keyboards were designed was with the English language in mind – so not conducive to any symbols that aren’t English.

This strikes me as similar to a lot of the conversation we’ve been hearing about representation in popular media as well – it’s similar in a way, because it’s mainstreaming or normalizing these characters. Am I hitting the mark here?

Yeah, you are. And I think what’s really interesting is that things have shifted, right? So, you know, as the Latino population has grown so much and also we’re kind of – especially, you know, Gen Z and younger generations are – really kind of taking stock of like, hey, this is my heritage. Like, I should be proud of it. I should not hide it.

When Axios Latino asked readers, “hey, do you use the accent; tell us why or why not?” We did get a lot of responses, and some of those responses are people who are like, “you know, I didn’t in the past, and I just started using it in my email signature last year.” And like, I think for me, it’s a symbol of pride in my culture. And so I think you’re starting to see some of that kind of shift. But of course, you know, there are still computer programs that don’t recognize it. Like, my email signature has the accent, and some of the readers were like, “Hey, look, this is how your signature looks when you emailed me,” and it was like a question mark. It’s still problematic.

Have you heard anything else from readers that surprised you or that made you think, or anything else on this topic that folks have reached out to you about? 

Yeah, the response has just been staggering on Twitter, like so many people from Irish and German backgrounds have been commenting about how this has been an issue for them and their ancestors. So it really struck a chord with people – not just Latinos – from non-English-language places. And one of the, I think for me, the most gratifying things was that a lot of people have been like, “you know what, I’m going to think about adding it because like, why not?”

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Kristen Cabrera