Names, pronounciations matter

By Helena Rodriguez: CNJ Columnist

I don’t just miss a familiar face, but a familiar name on the nightly news in New Mexico.
Up until November, I looked forward to the nightly KOB-TV news with Tom Joles and Carla Aragón. Please note the accent over the “o.”

Every evening, it created a sense of Hispanic pride to hear the news announcer pronounce Aragon’s name with a roll of the “r” and a strong emphasis on the vowels. And all over New Mexico, people knew and loyally watched this famous face whose name became the most recognizable name in newscasting up until Aragon left her post in November. When she left, Gov. Bill Richardson declared a Carla Aragon Day.

In hearing Aragon’s correctly pronounced name, it made me think about the confusion and uncertainly I still experience when it comes to how I and others pronounce my name. Names are important. The way your name is pronounced can have an impact on your personal sense of identity.

I remember back in the 1990s when Trina Valdez, now the director of Federal Programs for Portales Municipal Schools, was the principal of W.E. Lindsey Middle School in Portales and encouraged all of the students to say their names with pride. When a student with a name like Chacon would say something like Chah-cone, she would correct them into saying something that sounded like Chah-kon. Please forgive my phonetic spellings if they are not completely accurate, but you get the picture.

Here inthe Southwest, we take for granted that people know how to pronounce common Hispanic surnames such as Lopez, Martinez and Chavez and so I was a bit offended a few months ago when I heard a CNN reporter mispronouncing the name of terror suspect Jose Padilla.

Even the basic English translation I hear around here is better. This CNN reporter was saying something like Ho-say Pa-dill-ah. His last name sounded like a dill pickle. I kept saying to the TV, “It’s Pa-di-yah!” I was appalled that not even cameramen corrected her.

With that said, though, I have a confession. I’ve been working with Chinese exchange students at Eastern New Mexico University, helping them with their English speaking and journalism writing skills, and with the exception of about two names, I still haven’t been able to remember how to properly pronounce the other students’ names.

Each class session I ask them to pronounce their name again and I repeat it, hoping to get the name engrained in my head. I know we cannot always expect everyone to be able to properly pronounce our names, especially if they are not from this area and vice-versa, but I firmly believe we should at least try. We owe each person that little bit of effort.

With that said though, my name is a little more complicated. Maybe I make it that way, or maybe it’s because of my unique, or maybe-not-so-unique situation.

Most of us prefer the nicknames our family gave us. We identify with them. In my case, I was called Nena, properly pronounced with Hispanic pride, by family up until I started elementary school, at which time teachers started calling me Helen. Soon my parents and sisters also called me Helen, so I became comfortable with that name, except when we’d go to Lubbock to visit my Spanish speaking grandparents and then I became Nena again or Elena (note the “H” became silent).

Then when I started studying and taking pride in my Hispanic culture, I wanted to be called Elena, but I didn’t feel comfortable and I still don’t when people pronounce the “H” or say something le El-lay-nah. So I sometimes drop the a and go by Helen, but then that doesn’t feel right either.

But another problem that does arise, is when I do properly pronounce my name and then people assume I am fluent in Spanish, which I am not, although I do understand some Spanish.

I don’t expect everyone to pronounce my name correctly, but sometimes people don’t even try.

My former Spanish instructor, Dr. Vitelio Contreras, who still teaches at ENMU, tells students, “I don’t want to hear just the consonants in my name. I want to hear vowels!”

I guess vowels are the key to proper Spanish pronunciations. That is what distinguishes Aragón from Aragon. I still watch KOB TV for my nightly news. I like Tom Joles, too. He’s a great newsman, plus I worked with his brother, David, at the Hobbs News-Sun in 1990. I was a reporter and David a photographer. I was also very pregnant and when the staff gave me a surprise baby shower, I always remember David Joles as the photographer who bought my daughter her first bath tub.

I must say though, I still miss the rolling of the “r” and the strong “o” in Aragón on the nightly news.

Helena Rodriguez is a columnist for Freedom New Mexico. She can be reached at:
helena_rodriguez@link.freedom.com