THE IMPORTANCE OF NAMES FOR IMMIGRANT CHILDREN
Large-scale immigration is one of the most important social developments of our time. It is a transformational process affecting families and their children. The children of immigrants make up 20 percent of all youth in the United States. When immigrant children come to the United States, they experience a variety of emotional and cognitive adjustments in the new country. They have left behind a language, a culture and a community. From one moment to another, their familiar world changes into an unknown world of uncertainties. There is only one thing that they can hold on to, their names. No matter where they go, their name will always be the same. Unfortunately, many immigrant children are forced to change their names. They go through mixed emotions of identity and in one way or another they have to cope or fight this change.
There are a number of pictures books and young adult novels that deal with this topic. In order to write about identity in immigrant children, authors need to write an acculturation story, a story where the protagonist becomes part of the mainstream culture without discarding past meaningful traditions, values, and language. Authors have to validate the children’s names, language, roots and culture. They have to make immigrant children and any other reader feel proud and happy of whom they really are.
My Name is Jorge On Both Sides of the River is a collection of 27 poems about Jorge’s immigrant experience. Jorge loves his name. He doesn’t want to be called George. Jane Medina writes,
“My name is Jorge.
I know that my name is Jorge.
But everyone calls me
What an ugly sound!
Like a sneeze!”
In this poem Jane Medina is validating Jorge’s name. Jorge is not a sneeze; he is a child. Even though George is the literal translation for Jorge, for the child it is another different word not related at all to his name.
In the poems Jorge goes through mixed emotions. He does not understand the new language; he is not as smart as he was in Mexico any more; he becomes the invisible child.
In one of the last poems, Jane presents a proud Jorge that even gives his teacher a lesson.
George, please call me “Mrs. Roberts.”
George, please don’t call me “teacher!”
Yes, T- I mean, Mrs. Roberts.
You see, George, it’s a sign of respect to call me by my last name.
Besides, when you say it, it sounds like “t-shirt.”
I don’t want to be turn into a t-shirt!
Please, call me Jorge.“
At the end of the book Jane Medina has an acculturation story. Jorge will not lose his roots. He lives and studies in the United States, but he will always be Jorge on both sides of the river.
The chapter book novel My Name is María Isabel by Alma Flor Ada, tells the story of María Isabel Salazar López. In her new classroom, there are two other María’s. The teacher decides to call her Mary López. Maria Isabel, like Jorge, finds it hard to respond to a name that does not seem like hers.
Since she does not readily recognize this new name, María Isabel is continually scolded for being inattentive; worse, her pride in being named after her grandmothers is dishonored. María Isabel is very confused. She is getting in trouble and missing out on things because she does not know who Mary López is. She does not get a part in a winter play because she does not recognize her name when the teacher is assigning roles.
How can she find a way to make her teacher see that if she loses her name, she loses the most important part of herself? Alma Flor answers this question at the end of the story. The teacher asks the student to write an essay about their greatest wish.
“When I started to write I thought my greatest wish was to make a snowman. Then I thought my greatest wish was to have a part in the Winter Pageant. But I think my greatest wish is to be called María Isabel Salazar López. When that was my name, I felt proud of being named María like papá’s mother, and Isabel like my grandmother Chabela. If I was called María Isabel Salazar López, I could listen better in class because it is easier to hear than Mary López.”
Alma Flor Ada writes a powerful story of self-identity. She is affirming María Isabel’s heritage. This is another acculturation story. María Isabel will gain another culture but she will not lose her name and native culture.
I also had mixed emotions when I came here to the United States. I also was an immigrant child. I feel very related to Jorge, and María Isabel. I was not only confused with the new language but also with my name. In Latin American countries René is a name for boys. But not here, when I came to my new classroom there was a girl named Renee. I could not understand how a girl could be named Renee. René was me, a boy. Thanks to these experiences, I wrote the picture book I am René, the Boy.
When a writer writes a story of self-identity about immigrant children or about any other child, she or he needs to take into consideration the child’s background. For immigrant children their names, culture and language are very important. These are things that they can hold on to while learning a new language and a new culture. If they lose these things, they become invisible. That is why it is very important for the writer to write an acculturation story. El que habla dos lenguas vale por dos.
Ada, Alma Flor. My Name is María Isabel. Illustrated by K. Dyble Thompson. New York: Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 1993.
Medina, Jane. My Name Is Jorge On Both Sides of the River. Illustrated by Fabricio Vanden Broeck. Honesdale: Boyds Mills Press, Inc., 1999.
Guest Columnist Bio
Known by his students as "the teacher full of stories,” René Colato Laínez is the Salvadoran author of several bilingual picture books including I Am René, the Boy/ Soy René, el niño (Piñata Books), Waiting for Papá/Esperando a papá (Piñata Books), and Playing Lotería/ El juego de la lotería (Luna Rising). His picture book I Am René, the Boy recently received the Latino Book Award for Best Bilingual Children’s Book of 2006 and a Special Recognition in the 2006 Paterson Prize for Books for Young People. Playing Lotería was named a Best Children’s Book of 2005 by Criticas Magazine and won an International Book Award for Best Cover Illustrations. His latest book, My Shoes and I is forthcoming from Boyd Mills Press. He also writes poems and short stories for the Spanish-language children’s magazine, Revista Iguana.
René Colato Laínez is a graduate of the Vermont College MFA program in Writing for Children & Young Adults. He is a teacher at Fernangeles Elementary School in Sun Valley, California. www.renecolatolainez.com
Blogmeister's Note: What a great week it's been. Thursday, we introduced guest columnist Lisa Alvarado. Lisa joins us again next Thursday, January 25. Saturday we greet René Colato, and look forward to his next column the following Saturday. Next Tuesday, in Michael Sedano's regular spot, look for guest columnist Desirée Zamorano. Several other writers have been in touch with promises of upcoming guest columns! Welcome, all our guests and may we have many happy returns. If you, too, would like to become a La Bloga guest, it's an easy process. Come up with something to say and send it here with a click!