The way we pronounce Uvalde says a lot about the power of language in mixed communities
When tragedy struck Uvalde, reporters flocked to the small Texas town to report on the aftermath of the Robb Elementary School shooting.
That included NPR’s own crew — and it didn’t take long for a discussion to break out among the staff about how to say the city’s name on air.
First, there was “you-VAL-dee”, the anglicized pronunciation commonly accepted by locals.
But some people also call it “ooh-VAHL-deh”, closer to the Spanish pronunciation, or “you-VAHL-day”, which seems like a happy medium between the two.
Because Uvalde is a city of mostly Latino or Hispanic residents, according to U.S. Census Bureau data, it’s hard to get “correct” pronunciation – the language of the people who live there exists on a sliding spectrum between Spanish and English, and often consists of a combination of the two.
But how we say Uvalde matters, because it represents a long line of how Latinos have been racialized in the United States and South Texas, in particular.
A look at history
Uvalde was originally called Encina, after the oak trees that grow there. It was later renamed in honor of Mexican Governor Juan de Ugalde and incorporated as the county seat in 1856.
Because the city’s name was misspelled compared to its namesake, how to pronounce it is inherently complicated, says Ricardo Ainslie, director of the Mexico Center at the Teresa Lozano Long Institute for Latin American Studies at the University of Texas at Austin.
But Uvalde is just one example of the number of words of Spanish origin that are anglicized in Texas and other parts of the country – names like Del Rio, San Marcos, Refugio or even Los Angeles and San Francisco.
“We know that English was forced on people of Mexican ancestry living in Texas, probably starting with the Texas Revolutionary War and thereafter,” Ainslie says. “Spanish was banned in schools and children were punished for speaking it.”
Spanish itself is an imposed colonial language, imposed on the indigenous peoples of the region. But there is a difference between how the language is understood in Latin America and the United States
In this country, language has become a signifier of race, says Kirsten Silva Gruesz. She is a professor of literature specializing in Latin and Chicano literature at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and author of the forthcoming book Cotton Mather’s Spanish Lessons: A History of Language, Race, and Belonging in the Early Americas.
“There is an extra layer in the United States, which is that [Spanish] It’s a language that was associated with a certain working-class identity,” she explains. “It was associated with racialized, discriminated people, who were prohibited from using certain fountains or entering certain schools.
A Mexican-American teacher at Robb Elementary still remembers parents complaining that white teachers spanked their children for using Spanish in the late 1960s.
During this period and into the 1970s, the Chicano movement took hold across the country with the goal of empowering Mexican Americans and other Latinos to demand equal rights and recognition. Part of the work of Chicanx activists and writers included reclaiming Spanish and indigenous languages and respecting their African roots.
All of these factors, says Gruesz, demonstrate how language became one of the first true markers of Latino identity in the United States — a category that is still difficult to understand today because it includes so many races, different backgrounds and experiences, all building communities together. through shared communication and cultural understanding.
It is also complicated for the people of these communities
Stella M. Chávez, an immigration and demographics reporter at NPR member station KERA, was born and raised in Waxahachie, Texas to Mexican parents. She says they spoke mostly Spanish at home, but she remembers the first time she heard her father anglicize a word in their predominantly white town – her own surname.
He introduced himself as Mr. “che-VEHZ” at a parent-teacher conference, much to his daughter’s surprise.
“He didn’t want to stand out,” Chávez said. “My first reaction as a kid was, ‘God, dad, why don’t you get it? Say it right, you know?’ But now I think I have more empathy, and then when I understand that reason, it also makes me sad and a little angry because he shouldn’t have felt he had to do that.”
She says she encountered other examples as she got older, like how people would say “Guada-LOOP” when referring to Guadalupe, UT’s main stream in Austin, while she was studying there. And hearing those words in English didn’t necessarily bother her – it’s part of the code-switching that bilinguals live with every day in the United States.
But as Chávez took classes in Latin American and Mexican studies, she began to want to say those words in the Spanish way, which felt more authentic to her. It’s not just about pronunciations either; this also applies to marking the accent on the “a” in his surname.
Not to, she says, feels uncomfortable — almost like erasing part of her culture.
It’s different for everyone, and that’s good too
Chávez traveled to Uvalde to cover the events that unfolded there last week and again felt the same conflict. She started instinctively using the Spanish pronunciation, but would say “you-VAL-dee” by the end of the trip.
She says the main thing for her is to try to respect the way people pronounce their own name or the name of their hometown.
“Just because it’s a predominantly Latino community doesn’t mean everyone is fluent in Spanish; two, they pronounce these things like you would pronounce them in Spanish,” she says. “Some people are totally okay with that – I mean if they’ve grown up there their whole life and they’re used to saying ‘you-VAL-dee’, that’s fine too.”
But Chávez wasn’t the only one to find herself reverting to Spanish “ooh-VAHL-deh.” Notably, she said, even people she spoke to in English switched to Spanish, just to say the name of the city.
There is also another tension, she explains, between the Spanglish mix of people who have lived in Texas for generations and the more traditional Spanish or native languages of those who have recently immigrated here from Latin America.
All of this indicates that there may not be one correct way to say the city’s name — and Gruesz says that’s okay. Perhaps the most honest and authentic way to represent a community’s past and present is to make room for clutter.
“Language is alive – it’s not fixed,” she explains. “Language academies and purists will try to fix it and fix it, but people live, language changes over time and it’s part of that change that keeps things vibrant and interesting.”
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