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LA Times columnist Jean Guerrero takes back her name

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

What's in a name? It's often the first thing you find out about a person. It can be a link to the person's heritage and identity, and it can also be that constant reminder of otherness. That's Jean Guerrero story. You might know her name because of her reporting over the years from the U.S.-Mexico border. She's written a couple of books, and she's currently an opinion columnist for the Los Angeles Times. And she recently wrote a column titled, "For Years, I Anglicized My Mexican Last Name. MAGA Trolls Inspired Me To Reclaim It." And Jean Guerrero is with us now to tell us more. Welcome. Thank you for joining us.

JEAN GUERRERO: Thanks so much for having me. It's great to be here.

MARTIN: So tell us a little bit about why you chose to anglicized the pronunciation of your last name to begin with.

GUERRERO: Well, so it started, you know, when I was a kid. I grew up in San Diego, on the border with Tijuana, with a Mexican dad and a Puerto Rican mom. Spanish was my first language. But I went to a private Episcopalian elementary school, where it was against the rules to speak Spanish. You know, the teachers referred to me as Jean Guerrero. And if we were caught speaking Spanish, we had to stay in detention and we had to write, I will not speak Spanish, I will not speak Spanish a hundred times. This was during a period of intense anti-Mexican and anti-immigrant hate in California. And, you know, I wanted to please the teachers. I knew how much my mom was sacrificing for me to go to that school. She - at that point, my parents had split up. And she was a single mom. There was a struggle for her. And I just - I wanted to do well in school. And so I internalized, you know, the teacher's disdain for Spanish. I internalized this idea of my language, my parents' language as being delinquent. And I mostly renounced Spanish. And I adopted that identity as Jean Guerrero.

MARTIN: I have to tell you that, when I read your piece, I was - I have to say I was shocked by that. I mean, I'd heard of, you know, in, say, the '40s in the '50s, say, you know, Spanish being discouraged, many languages other than English discouraged. But to find out that people were punishing you for speaking Spanish, I just found that incredible. I mean, I feel like being multilingual is an asset. Did your parents - did your mother know that they had such a negative view of her first language?

GUERRERO: She did. And the thing is that she came from Puerto Rico, where they also have, you know, this English language supremacy, like, decades of U.S. colonial policies that cast English as a superior language. You know, this was a school where a majority of the kids were Mexican American or children of immigrants. And they, you know, the mostly white teachers, they wanted us to learn English as quickly as possible. So the parents at the time thought that this was a good thing, that it would result in us, you know, being bilingual and knowing English faster. But what happened is, like, this ended up in many cases supplanting our native language.

This internalized English language supremacy, like, what it did was like it created, like, a real - I don't know - like, this almost, like, self-hatred, where I didn't understand what had happened until many years later, when I was reading the Mexican author Reyna Granda, who writes about subtractive bilingualism and how, you know, this practice of forcing children to stop speaking their native language and to see it as something bad also causes children to internalize this disdain, you know, the dominant white culture's disdain for their own culture and their own selves.

And for me, what that did is it created a lot of self-destructive behavior where I was, you know, cutting my wrists as a teenager. I was, you know, binge drinking, drug abuse, a lot of self-destructive behavior. And then also, my mother, when she would make mistakes in English, you know, I would correct her. And I would say really, you know, monstrous things like learn English. And this is something that, you know, I look back on with, like, an immense amount of pain. And it wasn't something that I was able to fully confront until I saw Reyna Grande talking about this - internalizing this disdain for her mother.

MARTIN: So how far along were you in your career when you realized that having - that being bilingual or having multiple language skills was an asset and not a liability?

GUERRERO: Yeah. A major turning point for me was in high school, when I came across Luis Alberto Urrea's book "The Devil's Highway" about a group of Mexican men who die trying to cross the militarized border. That book has a lot of Spanglish in it. And it was the first time that I realized that the voices of people like my mother and people like my father could be made into art. And that book inspired me to pursue a career as a journalist in Mexico, which is the first time that I began to refer to myself as Jean Guerrero for the first time since I was a kid.

But when I came back to the U.S., you know, I started my career as a - in public radio. And I remember asking myself when I was signing off of stories, like, do I want to refer to myself as Jean Guerrero or as Jean Guerrero? And ultimately, I chose the Anglicized version because I - there was some feeling in me that I was going to be judged by my mostly white managers as trying to be provocative or something if I claimed Jean Guerrero. So I again, I reverted to this Anglicized pronunciation and didn't think much about how I was pronouncing my name for many years as I was, you know, covering the impact of the Trump administration's immigration policies, you know, covering white nationalism, the rise of white nationalism. I wrote a book about Stephen Miller, Trump's senior adviser.

But then I began to receive a lot of hate mail that was directed at me based on my family, based on my background, you know, people sending me racial slurs about my Mexican-ness, people telling me that I should be deported, really ugly stuff that was rooted in my identity as a Mexican and Puerto Rican woman. And that, for me, was a huge turning point where I decided, you know, I want to say my name correctly now. I want these people snarling at me to, you know, shrivel at the sound of my name, Jean Guerrero. Like, that is who I am. And I want to show that I am proud of it.

MARTIN: As you just referenced, you wrote a book about Stephen Miller, a former Trump aide, a top Trump aide, who has been described as the architect of some of the former president's immigration policies, which many consider racist. And was it the book that - the appearance of the book that started the trolling?

GUERRERO: Yeah. I mean, I had received some hatred before, but it was nothing compared to what came after my book was - my book about Stephen Miller was published, where people were sending me racial slurs, telling me that I should be deported to Mexico, you know, very much attacking my family and, like, who - where I come from. And so that is what made me all of a sudden want to say my name correctly here in the United States.

MARTIN: It's interesting because I think some people might have gone the other way. They might have thought, well, you know what? I don't need the hassle. But you decided - you went the other way. I mean, what do you - can you talk a little bit more about what that feels like to reclaim your name?

GUERRERO: It's such a good question because there is like a very strong feeling that's attached to saying my name the way that it's meant to be said. You know, like, I feel embodied. I feel, like, deeply rooted in my ancestors and my mother's sacrifices for me, my abuelita. My grandmother, you know I feel them inside of me. Like, I feel different when I say my name.

MARTIN: Can I ask you this, though? And I realize some people aren't going to like this question, but I'm going to ask it anyway, that everyone has not had the opportunity to study more than one language. They might not have been exposed at a certain age. And also, people speak lots of languages in the United States or haven't had exposure to multiple languages. Do you have any sympathy for them?

GUERRERO: One hundred percent. I mean, in my column, I write about how, you know, reclaiming one's names and, you know, this isn't for everybody. Like, there's so much intergenerational trauma around potentially having lost access to your family's language, your family's customs. There's many valid and powerful ways to show pride in our cultures and where we come from. And I, you know, I understand that not everybody can roll their R's. And not everyone is going to be able to say my name or everybody's name correctly. You know, like, putting in the effort, I think, is what matters the most. And I think that what needs to change is just this idea that we have of someone, you know, when somebody teaches us how to say their name, we shouldn't see it as a burden. And I think we often do see it as a burden, but we should see it as a gift. I think it's a beautiful gift to learn how to say somebody's name.

MARTIN: That was Jean Guerrero, journalist, author and LA Times opinion columnist. Jean Guerrero, thank you so much for speaking with us.

GUERRERO: Thank you so much, Michel.

MARTIN: To hear more of Jean Guerrero's story and how other people handle the mispronunciation of their names, you can listen to today's episode of NPR's Consider This podcast. Find it wherever you get your podcasts. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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