What Does It Mean When Your Teacher Changes Your Name?

“Ayyy, I already told you, your name is too long! We don’t go by two names here and we don’t go by two last names. Pick a name. Maria or Edith. And as far as last names, you are Espinosa. We don’t use your mother’s last name. So what’s it going to be?”

When we put out the call for articles for Rethinking Bilingual Education, we received several personal stories from teachers who themselves felt the effects of linguistic discrimination when they were students. Edith Treviño was one of those teachers and wrote a short narrative for the book that underscores a complex reality for many children in our schools.

Treviño wrote about how, when she was in 5th grade, her teacher told her that her name wasn’t “American” enough, insisted she could only go by one last name, and forced her to choose — in front of her classmates — whether she wanted to be called Maria or Edith.

The message was clear. Her identity, her Mexican heritage, her mother’s last name: None of these were welcome in a classroom in the United States.

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As teachers, it benefits us all to think about whether we treat our students’ names with respect and dignity, particularly the names of our immigrant students and students of color.

Do we ask how to pronounce an unfamiliar name, or do we Anglicize it? Do we insist on giving students nicknames that sound “American,” like Maria Edith’s teacher did when she called her “Edie”? Or do we defer to families and seek to learn about their naming practices?

As Treviño explains, these decisions can permanently shape how a child sees themselves and what they call themselves, long after they leave our classrooms.

— Grace Cornell Gonzales, Editor, Rethinking Schools

***

The Death of My Mexican Name
By Edith Treviño

My name was Maria Edith Espinosa Yepez. A beautiful name. Maria Edith is two names in one, and that is how I would write my name on all of my school papers as a young immigrant student in the United States. I would curve my M, and my Y took a very fancy shape as my handwriting improved throughout the years. I was always proud of the last name Yepez because no one had ever heard of it.

One day, my 5th-grade teacher Mrs. Sauceda called me over to her desk. As I approached, her voice turned preachy: “Ayyy, I already told you, your name is too long! We don’t go by two names here and we don’t go by two last names. Pick a name. Maria or Edith. And as far as last names, you are Espinosa. We don’t use your mother’s last name. So what’s it going to be?”

I was a shy student and extremely embarrassed that my teacher was confronting me about this issue again. Mrs. Sauceda always spoke in a hurried pace. I felt rushed to reply. All of my classmates were looking at me. I hated that moment and wished the tierra would swallow me whole. Looking at the floor, I finally whispered, “Edith.”

“OK, then in the United States, you are Edith Espinosa. Learn it. And no more Yepez!” Mrs. Sauceda concluded.

When my teacher changed my name, my life was altered in one instant. I remember walking back to my desk feeling ashamed of my beautiful name. There I was with my Mexican braids, my history being buried in the ground. My name was all I had left of my sense of home, mi identidad perdida.

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After that I never wrote Maria or Yepez again in any school setting. In fact, that same day, my teacher nicknamed me “Edie.” To make me feel better, I assume, she took a multicolored map pencil and wrote the name “Edie” on a piece of college-ruled paper and gave it to me. The name had different colors like a rainbow. There was my new identity, written on college-ruled paper, the Mexican girl now “Americanized.”

But I sure did not feel Americanized. After that day, I was ashamed of my real name in the United States. Yet when I crossed over to Mexico, I was Maria Edith again, and I felt like I was home.

Even today, I don’t like to be called Edith. And I don’t like to be called Maria. I want my complete name back. I want to be Maria Edith again, no matter where I am.

Edith Treviño is a former bilingual teacher and now works as a digital learning specialist for Los Fresnos Consolidated Independent School District in South Texas.

The cover art for Rethinking Bilingual Education is by Ricardo Levins Morales and the Viva La Mujer piece was done by Melanie Cervantes.

This article appears in Rethinking Bilingual Education, a new book from Rethinking Schools. Use the code RBEPS17B for 25% off!

You can purchase the book here: https://www.rethinkingschools.org/books/title/rethinking-bilingual-education

To join the conversation around language, linguistic discrimination, and bilingual education, follow Rethinking Bilingual Education on Facebook.

23 thoughts on “What Does It Mean When Your Teacher Changes Your Name?

  1. My mom’s name was changed to Ida from Italia by her kindergarten teacher and all her life she was known as Ida. My dad’s name was changed to Patsy from Pasquale by his teacher also. My grandfather had his name changed by his boss when he came to America to Tom instead of Camilo. My brother and nephew are Tom named after him but should have been Camilo.

  2. I teach immigrants and I have heard many cases like this over the years. For example, students have told me that their name was misspelled or misunderstood when they enrolled, so they have gone by the wrong name for years. In my school district they hyphenate the two last names when in fact they are two last names! They do not use the ñ or accent marks, which changes the pronunciation of names in Spanish. A name is part of one’s identity and it’s very important to respect that.

  3. When I was an after-school program coordinator in NYC about 20 years ago, I confronted a white teacher about the pronunciation of her student’s name. I was in my early twenties and nervous but knew I had to. She was annoyed with me but she asked how should she learn the pronouncation. ” Should I ask the principal?” “Yes,” I told her, ” go over your student’s names with someone who knows how to pronounce them.” I only hope she did.

  4. My father’s name was changed from Miroslav to Milton by his school. When he joined the Military, they took his school name as his official name and is on all of his paperwork throughout his 20 year career. Only later did he officially have his name changed legally to John (his baptismal name) and the one he was called on his marriage certificate to ensure my mother could prove she was actually married to man the army (and its retirement benefits) knew as Milton.

  5. I noticed that the final paragraph of this post states “Even today, I don’t like to be called Edith. And I don’t like to be called Maria. I want my complete name back. I want to be Maria Edith again, no matter where I am.” But in the very next sentence, the bio refers to the author as “Edith,” only half of her name. Maybe this should be edited to honor the author’s wishes.

  6. There are great children’s books to teach this from day one. Here are a few favorites. Chrysanthemum by Kevin Henkes
    The Name Jar by Yangsook Choi
    Thunder Boy Jr. by Sherman Alexie
    Reading and discussing as a class helps students and teachers get on board.

    1. @FirstBook in addition to the children’s books mentioned, we like My Name is María Isabel by Alma Flor Ada, paired with a free downloadable resource guide for the educator and a letter for parents and family about the importance of one’s name and heritage. I also like René Has Two Last Names/René tiene dos apellidos by author and school teacher René Colato Laínez. Timely article as teachers and students prepare to get ready to go back to school!

  7. There have been many immigrants who had their names changed. In WWII, many men of Polish descent had their names anglicized by the army or navy recruiter who signed them up. So this is not new. Talk to Jewish friends who had their Eastern European names changed at Ellis Island.

    I am not defending this, BTW, I think it is horrible and hasn’t gotten less horrible as time goes on. I raise the issue for the purpose of pointing out this is a good way to disenfranchise immigrants, even those who are legal residents and citizens, and those who are born in this country. If you look at the details of the many many “VOTER ID” laws being passed by the right wing nativists who seem to be in control of so many state election boards, the discrepancies between your birth name, your green card name, your birth certificate name, your baptismal certificate name, your school records, and so on, can be used to deny you the right to vote.

    In Texas, just being divorced and going back to your ‘maiden’ name can gum up the works. And god help you if any clerk of courts along the way fumble fingered the data entry. Or couldn’t read the handwriting of the Parish Priest on the baptismal record, or … You get my drift. This is a feature, not a bug, because the nativists don’t want ‘those people’ voting.

    This is insidious and horrifying and is part of the effort to steal the vote. Fight back. Don’t accept it. Insist on your proper name.

  8. I have been asked this question many times in different ways. “Why do people call you Edith now? Why doesn’t your narrative show Maria Edith as the author?” Why do you sign your name as Edith?” These are definitely legitimate questions.
    There is a part 2 of this narrative, which is my own lived experience as an adult. My fifth grade experience altered my identity forever. I was given the name Edith from 5th grade, and carried that name all the way through high school. The only people who called me Maria Edith were my family, my friends from Mexico, and childhood friends. Right out of high school I joined the U.S. Army Reserves. While in the Army I was known as Maria Espinoza-Yepez. I didn’t like to be called Maria by itself it was “too Mexican”, and try asking a drill sergeant to call you otherwise. After the U.S. Army training I became a U.S.. Citizen. I remember receiving paperwork with the option to change my name. So I did. I legally became Edith Espinoza, the name my teacher recommended. I was trying to not be the cookie cutter Mexican girl, because I felt I needed to be Americanized. I was only 19, and I wish that I would of handled it differently, but I didn’t. As an adult I began to realize how I wanted my name back. How I missed my name. At work my colleagues call me ET. I chose ET because it reminds me of the movie, ET “Phone Home.” It is my way of finding humor in my experience. It was not until I started graduate school that I began to read research on identity, and found myself in all of the different literature. I could identify with my experience, I realized I was not alone. Now, I am about to complete a Doctorate in Education, and have realized that Maria Edith HAS to go on my certificate, even though it is no longer my legal name. This cookie cutter Mexican girl I was trying to hide can no longer try to deny who she is. I am Maria Edith. There is a process to follow in order to change my name again, a long road ahead.
    In Mexico, my paperwork and legal documents have me as Maria Edith, in the U.S. I am Edith. Since this book was shared, so many of my colleagues started calling me Maria Edith. I can’t explain how my heart rejoices when I hear my name. It is almost like I am home again. This is my story, this is my experience. Thank you all for your comments and questions.

    1. Dear Dr. Maria Edith Espinoza Yepez,
      Congratulations on your doctorate! Your piece here touched a spot in my heart! I am in the process of changing my name here in the United States. While it is a bit time consuming and complicated, I know it will be worth it!

  9. I loved your story. I actually teach a lesson on identity, particular in “What’s in a name ” I use the book My name is Mrs Isabel ” by Alma Flor Ada. We go into detail why our name defines us culturally, traditionally and why we must teach others to embrace it. We research why we were named by that particular name, is it a family name, cultural, tradition, meaningful or just because they loved it. Thank you for sharing your story, it’s powerful ✊

  10. I had four students in a class of twelve with the name “Maria.” All four girls recognized this was problematic and I asked them how they would like to resolve it. One girl suggested her full name was “Maria de la Luz,” and said sometimes people call her “Luz.” Another stated she was “Maria del Carmen,” and preferred her name to be shortened to “Carmen.” The other two girls preferred Maria and chose to stick with that. I tried my best to make direct eye contact when acknowledging them in class. It wasn’t a problem. Most of my Latinx students had nicknames they preferred, anyway. Unless a nickname was gang-related or obscene, I honored all of my students’ wishes regarding how they wanted to be addressed. My mentor teacher would only call them by the official name they were registered by. Most of them didn’t realize she was addressing them and would get in trouble when they didn’t respond. However, when I lived in Mexico, most of my friends had a very difficult time saying my name and assigned me a similar name that was easier for them.

    The most challenging thing I encountered was the inconsistency of how my Latinx students would use their last names. They would use one variation on their registration paperwork, but wouldn’t always write both names on other important documents. It was very difficult to keep records. Sometimes they would use their mother’s surname first, sometimes their father’s. Sometimes one or the other.

  11. My name is Ivanna (eeevahnna). I had a 7th grade English teacher tell me that she refuses to say my name the way it would read phonetically in Italian but the English way. So she would say I(long) va(short) nna. I was so embarrassed and she did that all year. I struggled with my name for years.

  12. It also works the other way where students do not want to pronounce the teacher’s name correctly and want a short cut. My last name is Kuceyeski. Students want to call me Mr. K. I teach them how to pronounce it correctly. Kindergarten students were able to say it correctly. I am retired now but substitute teach. One teacher introduced me to the class and asked my name. I told her and she asked it the students should call me Mr. K. It told her, No, and I will teach them how to say my name. She was so taken back by my response.

  13. I teach college freshman and the majority are either immigrants or first generation. As an immigrant myself who arrived in the late s1960s, I remain adamant that I pronounce each and every student’s name accurately and appropriately. Here’s why…when I came to h US, the Civil Rights movement was underway. I am a European born Spanish speaker of black Caribbean heritage. That wealth of ethnicity was abruptly cleaved, and my name currupted to a black-American friendly “Sherri” and my last names completely obliterated by the school district (that’s a longer sorry story). The person I was born as and knew well was remade without input from me nor my family. Before graduating from UCLA, I corrected and retrieved my name so I wouldn’t have some teacher’s arrogance on my diploma. My students are old enough to approach and thank me for saying their names the way their parents call them, and this happens every…single…semester, so gentle reader, this does matter.

  14. I went to school in the late sixties, early seventies with many Mary Anns, Elizabeth Anns, etc. In the South there were likely Betty Sues and Billy Bobs.

    In the late 90s or early aughts, the US Navy decided that all of the Latinos/Hispanics should use their double last names….. whether they wished to or not.

    In the last 20 years I have heard of teachers who insisted that all children use the full name on their birth certificate, even if they had always used a logical nickname….. so Kitty, Katie and Kate all became Katherine… which wasn’t confusing at ALL!

    Why can’t we let students determine their own identity?

  15. Thanks for this story. My Hungarian grandmother had a first grade teacher change her name from Gisela to Gertrude. She was Gertrude all her life. I thought Gisela was much prettier.

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