Why the Media and Political Conventions Misspell Latino Names

Both parties are thirsty for the Hispanic vote.

September 11, 2012, 7:13 PM

Sept. 7, 2012&#151 -- When Lucé Vela Fortuño, the first lady of Puerto Rico, took the stage at the Republican National Convention to introduce Ann Romney last week, her name — or something like it — appeared above her in three-foot block letters.

"MRS. LUCE FORTUNO, FIRST LADY OF PUERTO RICO," the sign read. For some viewers, there were two glaring errors: Luce (without an accent) would be pronounced "loose" in English, while her name in Spanish is spelled Lucé (with an accent) and pronounced "loo-SAY." And Fortuno (without an ñ), as the RNC announcer pronounced it, would be "for-TOO-no" phonetically, but should have been spelled Fortuño and pronounced "four-TOO-nyo."

When the video was posted on YouTube, the name appeared with both accent marks, and when Lucé's husband Luis Fortuño took the stage, his name appeared correctly. The RNC did not respond to requests for comment regarding their inconsistent spelling and pronunciation choices.

But, it's not just the RNC. With a growing number of Latino politicians in the limelight this election season and both parties clambering for the Hispanic vote, journalists and political strategists have been forced to choose how to spell Spanish words and Latino names, like those of San Antonio mayor Julián Castro and Gov. Luis Fortuño. And the only thing that has been consistent is their inconsistency.

On the DNC website, for example, one can find Julián Castro's name spelled Julian (without the accent mark) in several places, even though he prefers to spell it with the accent. Media outlets including CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, The Huffington Post, CSPAN and PBS flip between spellings that include accent marks and don't — sometimes even in the same article.

In comparison to other issues facing the Latino community in the U.S., a few dropped accent marks here and there aren't a huge deal. But the question represents one of many factors which English-language media outlets and political strategists have had to consider while catering to an ever-expanding Hispanic population during this election season.

There may actually be some institutionalized factors that keep writers from spelling Latino names correctly, with accent marks. The Associated Press Stylebook, a standards guide widely used by many news outlets including our own, tells writers not use accent marks on Hispanic names.English-language AP stories "do not use accents for Hispanic names or other Spanish words," David Minthron, the deputy standards editor and co-editor of the AP style guide, told me in an email. "The main reason for that is technological. Accents don't transmit through all computer systems of members in the AP cooperative or other English-language subscribers," he noted.

When I asked Minthron if he could list the specific web publishing platforms that don't support accent marks, he didn't respond, but he did note that Spanish-language AP stories do use accent marks. Minthron also added in a later email that the use of accents would make extra work for English-language reporters:

"The use of accents would require that every time AP writes about someone in the United States with a Spanish-sounding surname, reporters and editors would have to determine if the individual prefers the accent or not. (Some Americans definitely would; some definitely wouldn't). The same would apply to people whose names suggested their origins are in France, Germany, Scandinavia, Italy, etc. — do they want accents, the umlaut, etc? Not to say that's impossible, but it would be difficult to limit such a policy only to politicians," he wrote in an email.

Additional barriers to accent mark-usage exist. Some systems require complex coding sequences to insert an accent on English-language program. Moreover, when searching online, English-speaking news consumers tend to enter names without accent marks. In a market where traffic numbers matter, many media companies prefer dropping the symbols for search engine optimization purposes. Even here at Univision News, we've had inconsistencies on our English language site because our stories perform better in Google searches if we leave the accents off, according to our social media editor Conz Preti. Despite these challenges, a handful of companies that generally fall in line with the AP style guide, including The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, have bucked the rules in order to consistently spell Hispanic names the way the subject prefers that the name be spelled.Some American Latinos decide to leave off the accent marks in Spanish names, because they say the battle to clarify the spelling is not really worth it or it's just not that important to them. However, Sara Inés Calderón, a Latina blogger and journalist, chose to keep the accent marks in her name, despite the pain it sometimes causes. While she understands the technological restrictions to using accent marks in specific online platforms (she wrote a TechCrunch column about them), she's doesn't buy it that most blogs and websites can't use them.

"I mean, even my horrible old Blackberry can manage accent marks. If print newspapers can handle them, I don't understand why websites can't," she said.

Julián Castro's spokesperson Jaime Castillo told Univision that the San Antonio mayor doesn't really mind when his name appears without an accent. "The lack of an accent mark in print does not bother him," Castillo noted. "He uses it mostly to help folks with the proper pronunciation. An effort so folks say "who-li-AHN" rather than "jeew-li-un," Castillo wrote in an email.

However, Calderón says that she finds it odd when news outlets drop the accent, because it anglicizes the pronunciation.

"To me it's a little bit disrespectful, I would never meet someone called John, and just start calling them Juan," Calderón said.

Accents are important not just because of cultural sensitivity, she says. Sometimes leaving off accent marks changes the meaning of a word. According to Calderón, the San Antonio Express-News started using accent marks when Calderón's friend, deceased columnist Carlos Guerra, explained to the paper's editors that their headline that meant to wish readers a "feliz año nuevo" [translation: happy new year] instead wished them a "feliz ano nuevo" [translation: happy new anus].

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