García, Julián, González, Calderón… Latino names are part of our identity. We proudly carry the surname of many generations and, with them, a little bit of our culture.

However, since 1986, Latinos in the state have not been able to write their names as their grandparents did. That year, Californians voted to make English the state’s official language

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But a new law in California, the state with the largest Latino population, could change that.

If passed, California Assembly Bill 77 would allow the use of diacritical marks on government-issued documents. This would include accents and the letter “ñ” in Spanish.

As reported by NBC News, residents could apply for new ones with the desired changes by paying a fee.

Furthermore, the possible change would affect not only the state’s large Latino population of more than 15 million. It would also affect others with non-English names, such as Californians of Vietnamese, French, or Arabic descent.

The importance of names in cultural identity and their political impact

Although the everyday use of names seems to erode their importance, they are a fundamental element of our identity.

“Bestowing or adopting a name is often dictated by a number of wishes and associations which may not all be conscious,” explains Mary Seeman in her 1983 book “The Unconscious Meaning of Personal Names.”

For Latinos, names are often an extension of our parents’ beliefs.

Dr. Star Vamguri of Nova Southeastern University found that names can carry significant ideological and social baggage.

“Because those who name are generally in positions of power, names reflect the ideologies of the dominant group,” she wrote.

This partly explains California’s determination not to include accents in people’s names on its official documents.

In 1986, California voters approved Proposition 63. NBC News explains that the law established English as the state’s official language. That same year, the government ended the use of diacritical marks due to the state’s interpretation of the law.

“But the law was clearly selective. The state allowed hyphens for names such as Smith-Jones and apostrophes in names like ‘O’Hare,'” NBC News reported. “But accents used in names in other languages such as Spanish were ‘unacceptable entries.'”

“That is an important contrast,” Professor Matt Barreto told NBC News. For the political science specialist, if lawmakers didn’t like the way some languages or some ethnicities didn’t conform to their version of English, “then that should have been applied equally.”

“We can very easily infer that this was a move against Spanish [and] Latinos — and that other marks were allowed to stay in if they were from European ancestry.”

Third time’s the charm?

The introduction of AB 77 legislation could set a historical precedent since this is not the first time lawmakers have introduced the proposal.

A previous legislative attempt failed in 2014 after the government considered hardware and software upgrades were too costly, topping $10 million. 

A few years later, in 2017, Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed a similar bill, claiming it would be a “difficult and extensive proposal,” after facing opposition from multiple state agencies, including the California Department of Public Health, which would have to allow the use of diacritical marks.

This time, it is Assemblywoman Blanca Pacheco, representing California’s 64th district, who is spearheading the effort to allow people the right to carry their identity.