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How we pronounce Uvalde says a lot about the power of language in mixed communities

President Joe Biden and first lady Jill Biden drive past a memorial site in the town square of Uvalde set up for those killed in the school mass shooting, on their way to Robb Elementary School on Sunday in Uvalde, Texas.
Wong Maye-E
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AP
President Joe Biden and first lady Jill Biden drive past a memorial site in the town square of Uvalde set up for those killed in the school mass shooting, on their way to Robb Elementary School on Sunday in Uvalde, Texas.

You-VAL-dee.

You-VAHL-day.

Oo-VAHL-deh.

When tragedy struck Uvalde, journalists flooded into the small Texas town to report on the aftermath of the shooting at Robb Elementary School.

That included NPR's own team — and it didn't take long for discussion to break out amongst staff about how to say the name of the town on air.

First, there was "you-VAL-dee," the anglicized pronunciation that's commonly accepted by locals.

But some people there also call it "ooh-VAHL-deh," closer to the Spanish pronunciation, or "you-VAHL-day," which sounds like a middle ground between the two.

Because Uvalde is a town made up of mostly Latino or Hispanic residents, according to the U.S. Census Bureau data, landing on a "correct" pronunciation is tricky — 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 lineage of how Latinos have been racialized in the U.S. and in South Texas, specifically.

A look at the history

Uvalde was originally named Encina, after the oak trees that grow there. It was later renamed in honor of Mexican governor Juan de Ugalde and incorporated as a county seat in 1856.

Because the town's name was misspelled from its namesake, the way to pronounce it is inherently complicated, says Ricardo Ainslie, director of the Mexico Center at the Teresa Lozano Long Institute of Latin American Studies at The University of Texas at Austin.

But Uvalde is just one example of how many Spanish-origin words 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 upon Mexican-ancestry people living in Texas, probably beginning with the Texas War of Independence and thereafter," says Ainslie. "Spanish was forbidden in schools and children were punished for speaking it."

Spanish itself is an imposed colonial language, forced upon the native Indigenous people of the region. But there's a difference between the way language is understood in Latin America and in the U.S.

In this country, language became a signifier of race, says Kirsten Silva Gruesz. She's a professor of literature specializing in Latino and Chicano literature at the University of California Santa Cruz, and author of the forthcoming book Cotton Mather's Spanish Lessons: A Story of Language, Race, and Belonging in the Early Americas.

"There's an additional layer within the U.S., which is that [Spanish] is a language that was associated with a certain kind of working-class identity," she explains. "It was associated with people who were racialized, who were discriminated against, who were prohibited from using certain drinking fountains or coming into certain schools."

A Mexican American teacher at Robb Elementary still remembers parents complaining about white teachers spanking their kids for using Spanish in the late '60s.

During that time and into the '70s, the Chicano movement took hold across the country in an attempt to empower 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 honoring their African roots.

All of these factors, Gruesz says, demonstrate how language became one of the first true markers of Latino identity in the U.S. — a category that is still difficult to understand today because it comprises so many different races, backgrounds and experiences, all building communities together through shared communication and cultural understanding.

It's complicated for people from these communities, too

Pastor Humberto Jnr, center, wearing a t-shirt that says "In Uvalde As In Heaven," leads a prayer circle at a memorial site for victims killed in the Robb Elementary school shooting, on Saturday in Uvalde, Texas.
Wong Maye-E / AP
/
AP
Pastor Humberto Jnr, center, wearing a t-shirt that says "In Uvalde As In Heaven," leads a prayer circle at a memorial site for victims killed in the Robb Elementary school shooting, on Saturday in Uvalde, Texas.

Stella M. Chávez, immigration and demographics reporter at NPR member station KERA, was born and raised in Waxahachie, Texas by Mexican parents. She says they mainly spoke Spanish at home, but she remembers the first time she heard her dad anglicize a word in their predominantly white town — his own last name.

He referred to himself as Mr. "che-VEHZ" in a parent teacher conference, to his daughter's surprise.

"He didn't want to stand out," Chávez says. "My initial reaction when I was a kid was, 'God, dad why don't you just 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 kind of angry because he shouldn't have felt like he had to do that."

She says she encountered other examples as she got older, like the way people would say "Guada-LOOP" when referring to Guadalupe, the main stretch at UT 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 bilingual folks live with every day in the U.S.

But as Chávez took more classes on Latin American and Mexican-American studies, she began to feel like saying those words the Spanish way just felt more authentic to her. It's not just about pronouncers, either; it also applies to marking the accent over the 'a' in her last name.

Not doing so, she says, feels uncomfortable — almost like erasing a part of her culture.

It's different for everyone, and that's okay too

The sun begins to set in the town of Uvalde, Texas on Sunday. Uvalde was the latest community in the United States that was recently shattered by a mass shooting that left 19 schoolchildren and two teachers dead.
Dario Lopez-Mills / AP
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AP
The sun begins to set in the town of Uvalde, Texas on Sunday. Uvalde was the latest community in the United States that was recently shattered by a mass shooting that left 19 schoolchildren and two teachers dead.

Chávez traveled to Uvalde to cover the events there last week, and felt that same conflict all over again. She began instinctually using the Spanish pronunciation, but was saying "you-VAL-dee" by the end of the trip.

She says the bottom line for her is to try to respect how people say their own names, or the name of their hometown.

"Just because it's a predominantly Latino community does not mean that one, everyone speaks Spanish fluently; two, they pronounce those things the way you would pronounce them in Spanish," she says. "Some people are totally fine with it — I mean if they've grown up there their whole lives and they're used to saying 'you-VAL-dee,' that's okay, too."

But Chávez wasn't the only one who would find herself reverting to the Spanish "ooh-VAHL-deh." Notably, she says, even people she spoke to in English would switch to Spanish, just to say the name of the town.

There's another tension, too, she explains — between the Spanglish mix of people who've been in Texas for generations and the more traditional Spanish or Indigenous languages of those who've recently immigrated here from Latin America.

All of which points to the fact that maybe there isn't one correct way to say the name of the town — and Gruesz says that's okay. Maybe the most honest and authentic way to represent a community's past and present is to make room for the messiness.

"Language is alive — it's not fixed," she explains. "Academies of language and purists will try to fix it and correct it, but people are living, language changes over time and it's part of that change that keeps things vibrant and interesting."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Isabella Gomez Sarmiento is a production assistant with Weekend Edition.