How many of us have had our names anglicized for the convenience of whites? José had his name changed to “Joe,” Maria had her name changed to “Mary,” Roberto was renamed “Robert,” and Elena was renamed “Ellen.”
Who are we? A simple question. Yet, it is not so rare that persons and groups of color experience a change in their identification at the will of whites. Throughout the history of the United States, white individuals and institutions have given themselves the right to rename others according to their predilection. The tendency to change the most intimate possession of another person—the name that their own parents gave them—or the identity of a racial or ethnic group reflects the white supremacy that continues to exist in our country and the dominance of whites over people of color.
This is what occurred in Texas recently. In mid-April, the State Board of Education voted in favor of changing the name of an elective course for high schools from “Mexican American Studies” to “Ethnic Studies: An Overview of Americans of Mexican Descent.”
David Bradley, a white man on the Texas State Board of Education, led the opposition to the name “Mexican American,” arguing that this is a divisive term. Never mind that Bradley is not a person of Mexican origin. Bradley, along with eight other white persons on the State Board of Education, renamed our community as “Americans of Mexican Descent,” the only manner in which they would support the elective course. A Latina member of the board also voted in favor of the name change, but later changed her vote. Marisa Pérez-Díaz, a member of the board who opposed the name change, aptly described the significance of the board’s decision for Mexican Americans: “a slap on the face.”
Ironically, the names of other ethnic studies courses–including African Americans, Indigenous Americans, and Asian Americans including Pacific Islanders–were accepted without change.
The fight, put simply, is against Mexican Americans. It is Mexican Americans, the locomotive of the state’s demography, which the Republican Party considers a threat and seeks to keep in their place.
Even though research findings clearly document the value of Mexican American Studies courses for Latino students, the last thing that Republicans want is critical thinkers who are civically engaged, exactly what is needed for conditions of Latinos and African Americans to improve in our state.
However, what the State Board of Education did is not new. The lack of respect toward our language, culture, names, and identity is part of the social practice of many segments of white Texans. How many of us have the painful memory of being scolded publically with the demand that we speak English? How many of us were punished in school for speaking Spanish? And what about the experience of many of us who have had our names changed for the convenience of whites? With me, personally, the white doctor who assisted my mother give birth to me, asserted “don’t name him Rogelio, but Roy, like Roy Rogers!” In my hometown of Mercedes, where I grew up in the Rio Grande Valley, the three others boys named Rogelio also had their names changed to “Roy.” I personally had to exert force and fight to reclaim the name that my own parents had given me.
The message was clear: our language, culture, and names—-our identity—-did not have any value.
Unfortunately, the action of the Texas State Board of Education, composed largely of Republican white individuals, reminds us that we continue to be oppressed and demonstrates that we continue to lack respect concerning our being and identity.
The solution? We need to fight proudly and vigorously for our identity. We need to ensure that our children continue with their studies and that they question the system that continues to treat us as second-class citizens. And, if you are U.S. citizens, register to vote and vote.
Dr. Rogelio Sáenz is dean of the College of Public Policy and holds the Mark G. Yudof Endowed Chair at the University of Texas at San Antonio. He is co-author of the book titled Latinos in the United States: Diversity and Change. A Spanish-version of this essay was published recently in ¡Ahora Sí!