Sep 13, 2022 - World

Latinos are reclaiming the accent mark

Illustration of a letter n with a missing virgulilla (tilde) mark indicated by a dotted line.
Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Latinos are taking stock of their cultural heritage and adopting accent marks in their surnames as a show of pride.

Why it matters: Pressure to assimilate and technological shortcomings have forced many Latinos in the U.S. to ditch accent marks that would normally be in Hispanic surnames and change pronunciation in dramatic ways.

The backstory: Many Mexicans who immigrated to the U.S. during the Mexican Revolution of the 1910s came from poor, rural areas and had limited Spanish or English literacy.

  • U.S. schools punished students and intimidated parents for speaking Spanish, says Cynthia Duarte, director of the Sarah W. Heath Center for Equality and Justice at California Lutheran University.
  • Latinos also faced segregation, discrimination, and high dropout rates so the idea of learning where to place accents on names was "not necessarily way up high on the list," Duarte tells Axios.
  • That resulted in language loss and the use of accent marks becoming a "sign of shame," she adds.

Technological barriers have also kept many people from using accent marks and symbols.

Our thought bubble via Axios' Scott Rosenberg: The early programmers who failed to build accents into their systems weren't thinking about it as a cultural choice — they were working on machines with incredibly limited memory (they couldn't do lower-case letters, either.).

  • But their initial choice meant that for many decades, it was either impossible or a ton of extra work to include accents in digital communications. By the time the systems caught up, many users had fallen into the habit of ignoring them.

The big picture: Today, some Latinos are adopting accents as a symbol of cultural pride.

  • Valerie Muñoz, an assistant principal in Kent, Washington, says she started using the ñ in her last name in her email signature only in the last year or so.
  • "It feels like I am reclaiming something by using it now," Muñoz tells Axios Latino. Her coworkers have been supportive, asking her how to type the ñ so they can spell her name correctly.
  • Chris Echeverría, assistant director of government affairs at New York University, says that "working from home since the pandemic and being around family and friends more has reconnected me with my Hispanic roots, so I've used the accent on my last name in social media to signify that personal transformation."
  • "My grandfather changed his last name late in life to something less Latin-sounding because in the 70s he felt discriminated against," Echeverría says. "Adding the accent represents to me all the progress us Hispanic people have made in America and it makes me proud."

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