When tragedy struck Uvalde, journalists flocked to the small Texas town to cover the aftermath of the Robb Elementary School shooting.
That included NPR’s own team — and it wasn’t long before a discussion arose among staff about how to pronounce the city’s name in the air.
First, there was “you-VAL-dee,” the Anglicized pronunciation widely accepted by the locals.
But some people 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 city made up mostly of Latino or Hispanic residents, it’s hard to come up with “correct” pronunciation, according to US Census Bureau data — the language of the people who live there exists on a sliding spectrum. between Spanish and English, and often consists of a combination of both.
But how we say Uvalde matters, because it represents a long line of how Latinos are racialized in the US and South Texas in particular.
A look into history
Uvalde was originally called Encina, after the oaks that grow there. It was later renamed in honor of Mexican Governor Juan de Ugalde and incorporated as the provincial capital in 1856.
Because the city’s name is misspelled due to its namesake, how 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 words of Spanish origin are being 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 on people of Mexican descent living in Texas, probably starting with the Texan War of Independence and beyond,” Ainslie says. “Spanish was banned in schools and children were punished for speaking it.”
Spanish itself is an imposed colonial language, imposed on the native indigenous people of the region. But there is a difference between the way language is understood in Latin America and in the US
In this country, language became a signifier of race, says Kirsten Silva Gruesz. She is a literature professor 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 Early America.
“There is an extra layer within the US, which is that [Spanish] is a language that was associated with a certain kind of worker identity,” she explains. “It was associated with people who were racialized, who were discriminated against, who were not allowed to use certain drinking fountains or enter certain schools.”
A Mexican-American teacher at Robb Elementary recalls parents complaining in the late 1960s about white teachers beating their children for using Spanish.
During that time and into the 1970s, the Chicano movement swept across the country in an effort to empower Mexican Americans and other Latinos to demand equal rights and recognition. Some of the work of Chicanx activists and writers has involved reclaiming Spanish and Indigenous languages and honoring their African roots.
All of these factors, Gruesz says, show 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 encompasses so many different races, backgrounds, and experiences, which all together form communities through shared communication and cultural understanding.
It is also complicated for people from these communities
Stella M. Chávez, immigration and demographic reporter at NPR member station KERA, was born and raised in Waxahachie, Texas by Mexican parents. She says they spoke mostly Spanish at home, but she remembers the first time she heard her father anglicize a word in their mostly white town — his own last name.
To his daughter’s surprise, he called himself Mr. “che-VEHZ” in a parent conference for teachers.
“He didn’t want to stand out,” Chávez says. “My first 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 understanding that reason also makes me sad and a little angry because he shouldn’t have felt that he had to.”
She says she encountered other examples as she got older, such as the way people said “Guada-LOOP” when referring to Guadalupe, the most important piece at the 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 people live with every day in the US.
But as Chávez took more classes on Latin American and Mexican American studies, she grew more and more eager to say those words the Spanish way. It’s not just about procrastinators either; it also applies to highlighting the accent on the ‘a’ in her last name.
If she doesn’t, she says, it feels awkward — almost as if she’s erasing part of her culture.
It’s different for everyone, and that’s okay too
Dario Lopez-Mills / AP
Chavez traveled to Uvalde to cover the events there last week, and felt that same conflict again. She instinctively started using the Spanish pronunciation, but by the end of the trip she said “you-VAL-dee”.
She says her goal is to try and respect how people say their own name, or the name of their hometown.
“Just because it’s a predominantly Latino community doesn’t mean everyone is fluent in Spanish; two, they pronounce those things the way you would in Spanish,” she says. “Some people think it’s totally fine — I mean, if they’ve grown up there all their lives and are used to saying ‘you-VAL-dee,’ that’s fine too.”
But Chávez was not the only one who would fall back on the Spanish ‘ooh-VAHL-deh’. She says even people she spoke to in English switched to Spanish just to mention the name of the city.
There’s another area of tension, too, she explains: between the Spanglish mix of people who have lived in Texas for generations and the more traditional Spanish or indigenous languages of those who recently immigrated here from Latin America.
All of this suggests there may not be one right way to say the city’s name—and Gruesz says that’s okay. Perhaps the most honest and authentic way to represent a community’s past and present is to make room for the clutter.
“Language is alive – it’s not fixed,” she explains. “Language academies and purists will try to fix it and correct it, but people live, language changes over time and it’s part of that change that keeps things alive and interesting.”