Intro: Lauren Taylor, Dao X. Tran, and Cliff Mayotte’s talk about Say It Forward: Art and Social Justice posed the question: How can we preserve and share humanity’s stories in order to build connections between people and create a more just and compassionate world?
At the workshop, our remarkable guest speakers – Lauren Taylor, Dao X. Tran, and Cliff Mayotte – talked about the balance of ethics and aesthetics, related to social change. Their project was grounded in the oral history methodology developed by Voice of Witness. Their project’s main mission is to advance human rights by amplifying the voices of people who were impacted by injustice, and they showed three powerful and creative animated stories to get us thinking about the possibilities and challenges of combining literary art and social justice.
One of the example shown was the StoryCorps animation of Ramón "Chunky" Sánchez’s story, called “Facundo the Great.”
Born to Mexican immigrant parents, Sánchez has become a cultural icon and leader of the Chicano community in the United States. He describes how teachers at his local elementary school Americanized the Mexican American students’ names, as was common practice in Southern California in the 1950s. For example, by the time Ramón was in a second grade, everybody had begun calling him Raymond; Maria became Mary and Juanita became Jane, et cetera. But when a new classmate named Facundo González came, he proved to be the exception to the rule (because otherwise his name would be “Fac”, which sounds like a dirty word) and never got his name changed. This animation satirically reflected the reality many first-generation immigrants who come to the U.S. experience as they try to get adapted to the American society and culture.
As an immigrant, I identified with this story. I know from personal experience that when immigrants come to an English-speaking country like the U.S., they often choose an English name for themselves because many foreign names are too hard for native English speakers to pronounce. For example, people from South Korea may choose something that is similar-sounding to their Korean name or use the initials from their Korean name. For example, Lee Joo Eun to June Lee or Jeon Kwon Ho to JKwon); or they may just pick any name they randomly like. (I chose Michael for my English name, for instance, because it was one of my nicknames in middle school.) I understand the desire to pick a new name when going to a new country, as an attempt to assimilate with a different culture.
But more importantly, there is another prominent reason why immigrants would change their name: because they could be an easier target for discrimination with their foreign traditional names. Daily life for immigrant families is often difficult due to fear and uncertainty, and those fears affect the decisions they make. They are in many cases exposed to the pressure of making “choices” that they would rather not make, such as changing their given names. However, protecting your own traditional name is important because every name has its own special cultural meaning and value behind it and a name influences a person's character. I strongly believe Ramón "Chunky" Sánchez would agree! Through the animated story of Ramón "Chunky" Sánchez, we are not only entertained by its humor, but we learn how our society needs to change by re-centering marginalized voices.
During the talk, we had a chance to form a small group and share the stories behind our names. It was truly an amazing experience -- I was able to share my own unique story with someone else who has a completely different cultural background. This exercise reminded me of how we can open an oral history interview by asking about a person's name. It is partially similar to a typical “tell me about yourself” question, but I have seen many people struggle with the latter, often unsure where to begin with their response. I think asking about the narrator’s name is a good alternative question to ask in the beginning of the interview as it would help the narrators to be more interested and focused in the interview.
At the end of the exercise, my small group members were surprised by the fact that each letter of a Korean name has its own meaning, and they were very curious about if they are also able to make their own Korean names. Those of you who have the same question in mind while reading this post, check out this YouTube video below called “Choose Your Korean Name!” by Professor Oh. You can learn about the structure of Korean names and how to choose a Korean name for yourself.
Michael Kimm was born and raised in Seoul, South Korea, before coming to New York City to study Oral History at Columbia University. His current project focuses on Korean immigrants in the United States, and he is interested in collecting, sharing, and preserving people’s unique stories for future generations. Check out Michael’s work at the 2018 OHMA cohort’s pop-up exhibit, INTER\VIEWS: an inter\active oral history exhibition.