Commentary: The 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing is approaching, and yet our digital information systems still can’t deal with the apostrophe in my name.
Ordinary business still requires me to explain my name to customer service reps, who respond that while they understand my Italian surname includes an apostrophe, there is little they can do because, they whisper, “the computers don’t understand,” and then trail off as if fearful the machines are listening.
In childhood I observed my parents spelling the name slowly in a practiced cadence I would later pick up. My father occasionally spelled it without the apostrophe, probably to save time while talking to some cabbage on the phone, and I would feel an adolescent flush of outrage on behalf of a country I had not yet even visited.
Government data systems are hostile to accents in people’s names; thus, my name is spelled incorrectly on my so-called “Real I.D.”
Banks and credit unions want my name to match exactly what appears on my New Mexico driver’s license, and since the state refuses to recognize diacritical marks in personal names, the financial institutions follow suit.
For transactions requiring my name to be looked up in a database, I’ve learned to memorize account numbers where possible, or suggest searching by my first name. Online purchases often require me to leave out the apostrophe if I want to proceed.
Yet some have it worse.
“Otherwise, I’m a colon,” he said with a wan smile.
We spoke again recently about our shared experiences defending the proper spelling of our names in a business world that frequently asks us to anglicize — and misspell — our names to accommodate the system, despite the fact that the English language famously absorbs words from other languages.
Although Latino surnames are familiar in New Mexico, Colón said his was still unusual while he was attending schools in Valencia County. His ancestral name is from Puerto Rico, and when his parents brought him from the Bronx to New Mexico in his infancy, they were the first Colóns in the Albuquerque phone directory.
Even in New Mexico, Colón grew up hearing jokes about his name and politely correcting teachers’ pronunciation. He also acquired the habit of taking a pen to documents, adding the accent himself. Typing papers on a manual typewriter, he would shift the paper slightly and type an apostrophe over the second O.
“For me, it was part of my name and if you didn’t put my accent mark, you didn’t spell my name correctly,” he recalled.
Protocols for exchanging data among networks have long had an English-language bias, but newer systems are friendlier to diacritical marks and symbols. Major tech companies are moving forward with software and database architectures that allow data to better represent language and culture.
They still interact with older systems, however, which is one reason why the Associated Press style guide held off on endorsing the use of accents in names until this year.
For his part, Colón feels that newspapers and periodicals are using diacritics more regularly now than earlier in his political career.
“I suspect that in some ways the next generation is even more confident and comfortable in pushing back when that heritage in our names is not recognized properly,” Colón said.
We agreed that, thanks to combined demographic and technological change, there is hope this particular bureaucratic silliness, and its underlying bias, may abate soon.
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