Posted by: bklunk | May 3, 2007

What If Her Name Were ASCII?

The author here asks a question, “What is more difficult and destructive? Changing a computer program or changing a culture?”  I suspect that the culture/computer conflict is more common that we might imagine.

A Human Rights Issue « International Studies

There has been a struggle going on between the parents of a two year old daughter and the Mexican authorities. The parents, who are part of an indigenous groups known as Otomi, speak the indigenous lanugage, Hñahñu, and their daughters name in that language is Doni_Zänä which means “flower of the world”. After trying to register the girl’s name with the authorities in Mexico City, they were informed that the computers do not recognize the characters in her name which includes the underscore that represents a specific sound in the language. The parents see it as a human rights violation because they say the authorities are discriminating against their indigenous group, commonly known as Otomi. The parents claim they are trying to connect to their past and honor their ancestors through the use of indigenous names. “This has become a struggle to preserve our traditions, our culture and our language…. I don’t know why it’s so hard for them to understand and respect our customs.” Many other families in the community have been pressured to change the names of their children to something more Spanish. The authorities claim it is the fault of the new computer program that was installed in 1999 before the millenium supposed crash and that the program was not set up to accept characters outside the Spanish language. This means that children from this community cannot be registered for a Unique Population Registry Code, similar to a social security number. The Human Rights Commision of Hidalgo has decided to take the case and is trying to make the state change its computer system. The authorities response has been to just leave off the dots and underscores, but in the case of the girl mentioned above, her name would mean “stone of death” instead of “flower of the world”. Somehow that does not seem right. Her parents have insisted that if there is not change, they will look for support from higher up among the international organizations. As we have learned in class, human rights are entitlements that a person possesses just because he or she is human. As talked about in Kegley and Raymond, many indigenous people feel persecuted because their way of life, their land, or their work is being threatened by forces within the state in which they live. This is an excellent example of a violation of human rights in terms of a culture that is being threatened. By not being able to use their ancestors’ names, the names of their own culture, they are denied the basic freedom of participating in their culture. As stated by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted by the United Nations, “social and economic rights are indespensible, including the right to education, the right to work, and the right to participate in the cultural life of the community” (Kegley and Raymond 319). Additional, the rights can be classified into five categories, one of which is the “rights of communities” which says that minority groups have the right to self-determination and protection. Although the countries that have ratified the declaration are legally bound to its laws, many have not done so. Even if a country has not ratified the document, minority groups can appeal to higher authority to have their voices heard. In many cases, indigenous people are using the support of NGO’s and IGO’s to appeal to the states to change their current attitudes toward the indigenous group. Human rights are protected most effectively if home governments protect them. Often though, they must compete with security and economics and thus are not held as a top priority. If the government can protect human rights through other values, goals, and beliefs held in the society that run parallel to human rights, then people’s rights can more effectively be protected. Mexico has many indigenous groups of people and I am sure this is not the first time that a group has felt discriminated against. A country with so many different minority groups must somehow come up with a way in which to respect each group and honor their particular culture. The authorities blame the computer program. But it was obviously created in narrow terms if it does not take into account characters of other languages in Mexico besides Spanish. What is more difficult and destructive? Changing a computer program or changing a culture?

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  1. I agree with the original poster that something needs to be done and that the computer program should definitely be fixed to incorporate the different languages especially because Mexico has such a diverse group of peoples.

    On the other hand, when people immigrate to the United States and apply for citizenship, there’s no way that the computers accomodate other languages outside the US –even if the US is a “melting pot.” Many people go through the process of romanizing their name such that if their name is originally expressed in characters they just romanize it phoenetically. Couldn’t this girl do the same?

    Maybe it’s not the same thing since they’re not immigrants.

  2. […] What If Her Name Were ASCII? — […]

  3. What is not clear in this article is whether or not the girl’s name would have worked in the previous system (the one that was in place before 1999). If it would have worked then something should be done to fix this problem; if not, i would also recommend sounding out the name so it has the same meaning. The girl can write or sign her name any way she wants, so what it says on a government document should not be of importance to her (or rather, I guess it’s her parents who are upset). As for what is more important, changing a computer program or a culture, I would argue that since this group is trying to go back to their roots (implying they had strayed from them), and this regression is what is not working with the name problem, then it really would not be changing the culture by changing the name. Additionally, although names are of importance and are often symbolic of something significant for a group, they are really not the centerpiece on what a culture is. For this reason I think the parents should suck it up, change the spelling of her official name, and then teach her the traditional way for everyday usage.

  4. When I was growing up, Alicia was not a common name. In fact, I didn’t meet anyone with the same name until I was twelve years old. As a child, everyone in school had those little mini license plates or keychains or necklaces with their names on them. And yet when I went to the store to buy one, there were always tons of extra “Katie”s or “Emily”s, but the name “Alicia” was never an option. Even to this day, people get my name wrong. They call me Alice or Alison; almost all of my professors and even my godparents do not pronounce my name correctly. Although this seems trivial and unimportant to someone whose name might be Katie or Emily, it is actually very frustrating. I grew up with the sense that I somehow did not fit in; I felt as though I was different from everyone else, and having a unique name was an emotional burden. Therefore, I can empathize with the Mexican family who chose to give their daughter a beautiful, sentimental, traditional, but unique name. It is absolutely disgusting to me that the proposal would be made that the parents should change their daughter’s name; this family consists of people who are NATIVE to Mexico, but their indigenous language is not even represented in the country’s computer system! Yes, it is true that this is not the typically spoken language, but does that justify ingoring the presence of this people and their language? This is a lingering sign of the extreme imperialism of ages past, when European people oppressed the indigenous populations of Mexico. As far as we have come today with regards to social and human rights, I find it appalling that the culture, language, and symbolism of these native peoples are so blatantly disregarded by the system- a system which favors the Spanish language, which was imposed upon the people of Mexico thousands of years ago, people who deserve to be represented. A person’s name is one of the most defining parts of who they are; people who do not have difficulty with their name do not appreicate this fact, but I truly do. Therefore, I believe that Mexico needs to finally respect their population (although small) of indigenous peoples by making changes to their system and ensuring that this little girl can live proudly with her beautiful name.

  5. When the question rather fixing a computer or ‘fixing’ a culture is raised, one would probably at glance say ‘fixing’ a culture simply because one’s first thought is that takes so much to fix a computer. It is believed, and without a doubt, true, that much skill is needed to fix a computer, lets face it, not anyone can just fix a computer. But at the same time, not only does it take skill and patience, but I think we’re really underestimating the family situation. Although the name dilemma may sound like a minor issue, this is obviously a big deal. Not only is it a big deal on the family level, but on an entirely different level, a level of cultural appreciation. Many cultures have different values, and even though they may seem petty and simple to others, to a person and to a certain culture, they are everything and they are something you don’t go against. The fact that a proposal was even made to change her name is absolutely absurd. A person’s name is a very big deal, it’s part of their identity, and sometimes, in cases like this culture, a name is part of one’s legacy and stays with one forever. The indigenous people hold sacred to their name, and though one might think its painful to fix a computer, consider the pain that these people feel when the thought of changing one’s name is brought up.

  6. I think that it is ridiculous that the Mexican government is resisting a computer change. The idea of changing one’s name for the government brings back memories of learning about Ellis Island at the turn of the century and the US government trying to change people’s last names. It’s something we are ashamed of and definitely something that should not be done. A name is obviously a very distinguishing part of a person, and in this case it is almost even more significant because it represents a dying culture. If changing the spelling for the computer did not affect the name, I can see Mexico’s argument, but because the meaning is so drastically different it is the government’s responsibility to change. Also, if this family is willing to go to an international organization for help, it seems to be in Mexico’s best interest to change their system.

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