The latest foray into the culture wars comes from Education Week which on Thursday asked if students in Spanish classes should be assigned Spanish names.
It’s long been a practice that students who take Spanish get a Spanish name to use in class because “it’s a great way to immerse students in the language.” However, it’s 2020, and “there has been a growing pushback among some educators, who say it can be culturally insensitive and put some students in an uncomfortable position,” according to the article.
The piece claims the debate on this issue “resurfaced” after Democratic presidential candidate Amy Klobuchar told the “largest immigrant organization” in Nevada (the Culinary Union) that she was given the name “Elena” in her 4th grade Spanish class. Aside from the fact that this came off as cringe-worthy pandering (4th grade??), note Klobuchar said “given.”
The Ed Week piece uses similar terminology, that students are “assigned” Spanish names by their teacher.
[G]iving students new names can have unintended consequences. If the students in the class who already have a Spanish name are the only ones who don’t get new names, they might feel singled out or uncomfortable. For students who are Hispanic but may not have a traditional name, being assigned a “Spanish name” can feel jarring. And some students just don’t want to change their names, which are a key part of their identities.
“By eradicating the name of the student, you’re completely destroying their … life, vision, and story that their parents gave them through their name,” said José Medina, [an] educational advocate. …
Other teachers said giving students Spanish names can be performative and ignores the history of marginalized people’s names in the United States. “Don’t teach kids they can wear ethnicities at their convenience,” said one educator on Twitter. “Do you know how hard I’ve had to fight to defend my name against people shatter it like glass in their mouths???”
A Connecticut elementary school teacher offers what should be obvious to any good teacher (Medina’s ridiculous hyperbole notwithstanding): Allow students the option to use a Spanish name. Further, let students choose the Spanish names they want, don’t assign them. (Granted, in my early teaching days I didn’t make explicit the “option” part of choosing a name; however, if a student objected to a Spanish moniker, I certainly didn’t argue with him about it.)
Also consider these alternatives: Permit use of (Spanish) nicknames or other terms (I had students who wanted to use “El Diablo” — The Devil — for example), and if a student prefers to keep his/her given name, say it using the Spanish rules of pronunciation. For instance, “Smith” would be “Smeet,” and “Jones” would be “Ho-nays.” In addition, it was always fun to translate students’ first, and especially, last names … even partially: “Brown” would become “Café,” and “Gilmore” would be “Gil-más.”
Interestingly, the Connecticut teacher notes her change of heart came about when she had an Hispanic student with an Anglo first name: Why make him change it? “I felt like I was going against the direct wishes of his parents who gave him this name,” she says.
That’s reading a lot into the situation, but consider: Over two decades ago I had an Hispanic student (who had a Spanish first and last name, for what it’s worth) who I knew spoke Spanish fluently … but he was embarrassed to show that he could. I never put him on the spot about it, but one time I privately told him that his abilities gave him a huge advantage over his peers … and it was absolutely nothing to be embarrassed about.
Twenty years later on social media I got a message from this student. He thanked me for helping him to take pride in his language abilities and in his culture. To say that made my day (and week) would be an understatement.