Should Teachers Give Students ‘Spanish Names’ in Spanish Class?

By Madeline Will — February 20, 2020 3 min read
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In Spanish class, Mary might be called Maria, and John might be known as Juan.

Renaming students is a common practice in foreign-language classes, but there has been a growing pushback among some educators, who say it can be culturally insensitive and put some students in an uncomfortable position. The debate has resurfaced after comments made this week by Sen. Amy Klobuchar, who’s running to be the Democratic nominee for president.

“My name is Amy, but when I was in 4th grade Spanish, they gave me the name Elena,” Klobuchar said at the Culinary Union forum in Nevada. The union is the largest immigrant organization in the state, and more than half of its members are Latinx.

Klobuchar was mocked by some for her attempt to relate to Hispanic voters. But the comments also ignited the debate on Twitter: Should students be given new names in Spanish class?

Teachers who do this say that it’s a great way to immerse students in the language, and it exposes students to names they might not be familiar with. Some teachers say it’s a way to celebrate the Hispanic culture, and many teachers say their students enjoy using new names, especially when they get to choose them themselves.

“We want [students] to learn about other cultures, and naming rituals are a big part of that,” wrote one teacher in a comment on a blog post discussing the practice. “In a world where they are very boxed in, it gives them a sense of freedom to be someone else.”

But others say that giving students new names can have unintended consequences. If the students in the class who already have a Spanish name are the only ones who don’t get new names, they might feel singled out or uncomfortable. For students who are Hispanic but may not have a traditional name, being assigned a “Spanish name” can feel jarring. And some students just don’t want to change their names, which are a key part of their identities.

“By eradicating the name of the student, you’re completely destroying their ... life, vision, and story that their parents gave them through their name,” said José Medina, the chief educational advocate at his educational solutions company.

Too often, students who don’t have anglicized names are asked to change their names at school for the convenience of others, he said. When he went to school in Texas, his teacher called him Joe. It was hurtful and damaging, Medina said.

See also: Mispronouncing Students’ Names: A Slight That Can Cut Deep

Dorie Conlon Perugini, an elementary Spanish teacher in Connecticut, said she always felt uncomfortable with assigning Spanish names, which was common in her district, but she didn’t want to push back. But one year, she had a student named Matthew (a pseudonym). Matthew was born and raised in a Spanish-speaking country, but his parents chose not to name him Mateo.

By changing Matthew to Mateo in her class, “I felt like I was going against the direct wishes of his parents who gave him this name,” Conlon Perugini said. “That was the straw that broke the camel’s back.”

She decided to give students a choice about whether they wanted to be called a Spanish name. That proved to be too confusing, so she ended up abandoning the practice altogether. (This past fall, she tweeted about her experiences.)

Other teachers said giving students Spanish names can be performative and ignores the history of marginalized people’s names in the United States. “Don’t teach kids they can wear ethnicities at their convenience,” said one educator on Twitter. “Do you know how hard I’ve had to fight to defend my name against people shatter it like glass in their mouths???”

And one educator who blogs at the site wrote that giving students new names is unnecessary: “I feel this perpetuates the notion that only some people are allowed to speak the language,” he wrote. “‘Tom’ can’t speak Spanish, but ‘Juan’ can. I want my students to know that ANYONE with any name can speak the language.”

Conlon Perugini said she does understand the argument that students might want the chance to create a new identity. When she was in 7th grade, she eagerly chose the Spanish name Juanita, after her grandmother—it was a way to connect with her Puerto Rican heritage. Even so, she added, it’s important that students should get a choice in the matter.

“I think there’s a lot of identity building that comes along with language,” Perugini said. “We just need to be cautious of the impact.”

Image via Getty

A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.