Many Latinx are aware of the fact that areas that are considered part of the United States today were originally part of Mexico. But in addition to the loss of these lands, many Mexican Americans experienced the loss of their culture through what’s known as the “Americanization” process.
This little-known aspect of history is the premise for the award-winning 15-minute short film “My Name is Maria De Jesus” written by Marcella Ochoa, which recently premiered on HBO Latino.
“I always knew I wanted to tell this story based on my parents growing up in San Antonio and the Americanization process they endured for being Mexican-American,” Ochoa told HipLatina.
Ochoa — who also directed, produced, and stars in the film as the adult Maria — explores her mother’s upbringing as the film begins with a white teacher forcing a young girl named Maria De Jesus to say her name is “Mary Jessie.” Though the young girl is originally defiant, she eventually submits to writing her name as the teacher instructs, out of fear of being punished.
Ochoa considers it a stand-out moment in the film saying “this scene is so powerful because it creates a ripple effect that is felt over generations.” The film jumps ahead to show that she’s assimilated by identifying as “Mary Jessie” and the disconnect between her Spanish-speaking father and her English-only daughter.
As the daughter navigates life in-between two cultures, she experiences a level of shame in never having learned Spanish because of Mary Jessie’s cultural erasure. From being mocked at school to rejecting a relationship with her grandpa because of the cultural and language disconnect, the film portrays how Americanization affects generations despite the fact that it’s not a formal practice any longer.
“There is this unspoken shame and guilt that so many of us carry for not feeling ‘Latino’ enough because we aren’t perfectly fluent,” Ochoa said. That sentiment of shame and guilt was shared between Ochoa and her sister and was part of the reason why they took Spanish classes as a form of reclaiming their culture.
The film concludes by explaining how Americanization of Mexicans occurred through the 1950s with Mexican-American children segregated in schools. According to Ochoa, Mexicans were not only punished for speaking Spanish in school. They also weren’t allowed to sit in public spaces where white people sat, including theaters and restaurants. They weren’t offered college courses at their high school or put in the academic track like white children. The teenage girls were put in sewing and home classes and the teenage boys were put in shop and mechanic classes.
“It was much more than just taking away a language. It was a way of life constantly being told you are less and not given the same opportunities to be successful in life,” she said. Though information is hard to come by online, the Library of Congress website mentions “Americanization through Homemaking” where Mexican immigrant girls were taught homemaking skills as a form of assimilation. The pamphlet reads, “If we assimilate the countless number of Mexicans that cross our Southern border…we must begin at the basic structure of their social order — the home.”
A chapter in the book, Major Problems in Mexican American History, details the acculturation of Mexican women and how corporal punishment by teachers was common when they were being taught English. “Admonishments such as ‘Don’t speak that ugly language, you are an American now,’ not only reflected a strong belief in Anglo conformity but denigrated the self-esteem of Mexican American children and dampened the enthusiasm for education,” Vicki L. Ruiz wrote.
When Ochoa screened the film in her hometown of San Antonio, family members shared stories they had never told her before. She learned that a nurse at a hospital in San Antonio had “Americanized” her aunt’s traditionally Latina name in her birth certificate. She also learned that her father’s sister-in-law was fired for marrying his brother because he was Mexican. But she said it has also encouraged her and her family to speak Spanish more frequently and pass that on to their own children.
The film, originally released in 2017, is reaching new audiences through HBO and Ochoa believes it’s a timely release, considering the immigration turmoil happening now. She also recalls presidential hopeful Julian Castro recently discussing how he didn’t grow up speaking Spanish and the backlash he received.
“I’m so proud of him that he has made this topic national news,” she said. The exploration of the significance of a person’s name is also relevant considering how children who don’t have “Americanized” names can still suffer shame and embarrassment when those names are mispronounced. “Mispronouncing a student’s name truly negates his or her identity, which, in turn, can hinder academic progress,” Yee Wan, president of the National Association for Bilingual Education (NABE) told Quartz. The article cites a 2012 study called “Teachers, Please Learn Our Names: Racial Microaggressions and the K-12 Classrooms.” Researchers found that this can affect the world view and well-being of students which is linked to learning.
Ochoa says that she’s received positive feedback and gratitude from viewers for putting a spotlight on this topic, but the most incredible reaction for her has been from educators who wish to screen the film.
“I wanted to give a voice to everyone who suffered this injustice and educate others so they could be supportive and more understanding towards Latinos who aren’t fluent,” she said. “We should all be proud to be American, but also try as best we can to retain the language and traditions from our individual cultures. We shouldn’t be made to feel embarrassed or ashamed of speaking another language in this country. It should be encouraged and viewed as an asset.” Ochoa started her own production company named 8A Entertainment, inspired by her last name Ocho-A “to pay homage to my roots.” She is working on expanding the short to a feature film to reach an even larger audience.
“This film follows one family’s story, but it is really a universal theme of accepting yourself and not being ashamed of who you are or where you come from. I’d love for people to know this is not just a film for Latinos,” she said.”I have friends who are Filipino, Japanese, Italian, German, and each one of them have shared when their grandparents or parents came to this country, they quickly tried to assimilate. They only spoke English and never taught their children their native tongue. Anyone who has ever felt like they don’t fit in perfectly to society’s ideals of what’s an ‘American’ can relate to this film.”