Opinion: What's in a name pronunciation? For Latinos, plenty

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How should MSBNC’s Jose Diaz-Balart pronounce the name “Maria Ramirez?” Should he use a Brooklyn accent with its mixture of Yiddish, Italian and other influences? Maybe with a Louisiana Southern drawl? Or it might not be the region, but the time period that matters: An Elizabethan accent could work, or maybe the prevalent accent in England right before William the Conqueror?

This is about “you don’t look like me, you don’t sound like me; you’re not from around here.” Words do matter.

— Jose Parra

As far as Laura Ingraham and the monolingual temple of thought known as the Center for Immigration Studies are concerned, any of those accents would probably do. Diaz-Balart should just not use the original Spanish pronunciation. Further, he should say “Mary” and switch that last name to something like “Ramz” or “Rames.”

Before I get too far from the lede – no, it isn’t misspelled and it isn’t Spanish for ‘first sentence’– I’ll recap the linguistic sal pa’ fuera (Caribbean Spanish for ‘brouhaha,’ itself French, of possible Hebrew origin) that transpired over the last few days: Ingraham ridiculed Diaz-Balart for pronouncing on air a Spanish name the way it’s usually pronounced and the Center of Immigration Studies unveiled a brilliant paper finally proving that one in five people in the United States speak a language other than English at home.

For the Ingraham crowd this is of course the preamble to the end of the Union. Thought Fort Sumter was a big deal? Hah, wait until you find out what the Gonzalez’s are saying at the kitchen table.

Sarcasm aside, I am one of those people who switch languages when they cross into the privacy of their home. I also pronounce my name the way my parents do, the way my grandparents did. Imagine the right wing’s reaction if Diaz-Balart had rolled on air that RR in ‘Parra.’ But really, what makes this unsettling is that the Ingraham and CIS flaps are part of a consistent pattern where conservatives belittle Hispanic culture, or outright equate us with a danger to the nation.

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Just recently Republican Senate candidate Scott Brown, who ironically just crossed the border into New Hampshire, warned how the Islamic State could be using Mexico to launch terrorist attacks on America. Damn the evidence and forget that other border to the north. And then there’s Rick Perry warning about Ebola oozing from Mexico and Dan Sullivan in Alaska rabidly stumping about ‘amnesty.’

¿Cómo se dice fear mongering? I’m sure all these upstanding leaders of our pluralistic society do not see the harm in stoking people’s fears and equating rolled R’s with threats to the national fabric. And if they can scare a few votes in their direction while they’re at it, why not?

But the effect of this rhetoric outlasts election cycles. It has real effects on community relations and yes, Hispanic voters do and will remember for a long time. I am a political reaction to Pete Wilson’s Prop 187, even though I grew up in Florida, not California. But I’m sure Republicans think they will fix all that with a Marco Rubio speech.

This is the essence of the RNC’s post 2012 Autopsy. This worsening vitriol is why over the last decade immigration reform among Hispanics, even for those who have roots in North America older than the Pilgrims themselves, has morphed from a legal or economic question into an identity issue charged with emotion. This is about “you don’t look like me, you don’t sound like me; you’re not from around here.” Words do matter.

Whether it’s the CIS, Scott Brown or Laura Ingraham, their insistence in equating all that sound or look Latino in their mind with ‘the other’ is the real threat to the American fabric. It ignores the nation’s historical process, where German once dominated the Pennsylvania countryside, French enriched the Louisiana Bayous and Yiddish helped shape the Big Apple.

This mindset ignores and belittles the contributions people made to our national culture in all those places named San Antonio, Florida, Nevada and –gasp- New Mexico. In the Ingraham school of thought, quintessentially American words like rodeo and lazo, that inspired the melodies of a Jewish composer named Aaron Copland, would be declared outside of the scope of the First Amendment. To them I am shredding the Constitution when I give my daughter the tools to help her literally understand the world.

Yes, I can read, write and speak the languages of Shakespeare and Twain, of Cervantes and Garcia Marquez. I am bi-lingual, bi-cultural and that makes me as American as New York’s St. Patrick’s Day parade. No, Ms. Ingraham doesn’t get to define me. I do.