At a time when the pure narrative power of Major League Baseball is at its apex, the postseason heroics of Enrique Hernández and Luis Robert have seized much of the spotlight. The inherent conservatism of baseball has gone into its waning phase, giving way to the dramatics of October baseball. It’s ironic that the sport reflexively celebrates these two talents, their names perched on the collective tongue of MLB’s punditry and public alike, because it’s their names that people can’t seem to get them right.
This isn’t a new phenomenon. The way we have collectively chosen to address Hernández and Robert mirrors the way we have historically addressed players of color. Look no further than the following baseball card:
Hank. Bob. Richie.
Henry Aaron preferred his given name. Roberto Clemente rejected “Bob” and “Bobby” and made explicit and repeated requests for the media to call him by his given name. Dick Allen made it clear he’d like to be called Dick. It’s not like this is a rookie card. This is several years into each player’s respective career, and yet you’ll find their baseball cards adorned with their non-preferred names. The media didn’t honor their preferred names either.
Now, Hernández and Robert have their own preferences for how their names are presented and pronounced, and just like their predecessors, they’re different than what people use. We’ll start with Robert, because it’s more straightforward and should have been settled four years ago. Here’s a quote from 2017, via Parkins and Spiegel, where Robert himself clarifies the pronunciation of his last name:
“In Cuba, people call me more like ‘Roh-bér,’ ” Robert said. “Outside people [pronounce the last letter]. But in Cuba, it’s ‘Roh-bér.’”
If you listen to the audio, it’s pretty clear. In Cuba, they roll the R and the first syllable makes a “Roh” sound, while the second half makes a “burr” sound, while “eating” the T. Outside of Cuba, the first half is similar, with the second half making a “burt” sound. Either way, neither is consistent with the pronunciation that the team has instructed people to use:
“RAH-bert.” The pronunciation that the White Sox suggest is the most heavily anglicized version, and not at all like how you would hear it pronounced in Cuba. Not only do they not get it right, but completely wrong. Both syllables are incorrect. Adding insult to injury is that fans have bestowed a hyper-anglicized nickname onto him: LuBob, an adaptation of Luis and Robert. Just as we did with Aaron, Allen, and Clemente, we have done with Robert.
Much of these issues stem from either a willful lack of consideration or abundant unawareness of other languages and cultures, but with Hernández, the confusion is more reasonable. From MLB, the official pronunciation guide for the Red Sox:
You need not have a degree in linguistics to discern the incongruence between the spelling of Hernández’s name and the suggested pronunciation. That’s because, without the acute accent, Hernández’s nickname can be mistaken for an anti-Semitic slur, and so we have, as a collective, decided to take the liberty of adding an accent over the E in his nickname.
It’s understandable why people want to avoid spelling Hernández’s nickname as it’s customarily presented. Devoid of context, it can be shocking to see. While that’s a legitimate reason to not want to spell it in the traditional way, adding an acute accent over the E in Hernández’s name only solves the issue in the sense that it creates a different one: it changes its pronunciation. His nickname is pronounced “KEE-kay”. With the added accent, it changes the pronunciation to “kee-KAY”, a la footballer Gerard Piqué.
These are extenuating circumstances, one that not everyone can win. Hernández should be able to present his nickname as is, because it’s not a slur in his language. But also, people are going to read it as such. This is something that we need to get right, or, at the very least, not wrong. Right now? We have it wrong.
It seems that Robert has softened his stance over time and accepted his non-preferred “RAH-bert”, given that it’s easier for Americans to handle, and Hernández has said he’s amenable to the accented E to avoid controversy. But then again, that’s sort of the problem. What seems benign is in fact quite hostile. We’re not only imposing a change of identity onto players to prioritize our own comfort, but we’re also implicitly signaling to them that our way is desirable, and theirs is not. Call it what you want: Anglocentric, Americentric—it’s a problem, and the players feel it. This was the norm back then, and while it may have gotten better, it clearly hasn’t ceased to exist.
What all of this lends itself to is cultural assimilation. Rather than acculturation—where parts of ourselves are independent but intermingled, like a salad bowl—assimilation is where we lose parts of ourselves in order to conform to the dominant culture. This is what is at stake when the dominant culture forces its ideals onto a minority group. It’s an insidious process that—while presented nicely, wrapped up in a neat little bow—centers Whiteness and subjugates people of color. It is, at best, ethnocentric, and at worst, racist.
Taking players and giving them Americanized nicknames is in itself assimilative, and it contributes to colonial mentality. When players like Luis Robert go by nicknames—especially ones that are player-given—like La Pantera? That’s integrative, and it’s empowering for players. There’s no greater stage to celebrate and learn more about each other than through sports. Players like Hernández and Robert have shown us grace in making concessions with their names. We could certainly stand to reciprocate this by learning about other cultures and picking up a few accentuation rules along the way.
Some have recognized this. Just the other week, Jon Morosi conducted a post-game interview with Randy Arozarena in which Morosi served as the interviewer and translator. It’s hardly the first time he’s done this, and he’s described it as “both a sign of respect … and a necessity if we are to tell their stories with as much cultural context as possible.”
Morosi understands that acculturation isn’t solely on players—we need to meet them halfway, if not further. Failing to do so is not only a detriment to players of color, but ultimately to everyone else as well. Morosi has been met with a resounding level of encouragement and patience from Spanish-speaking players. The result is a deepening of respect, in that both parties truly understand how difficult it is to speak in a second language on a big stage, but also, a more accurate and enriched understanding of players as well.
The solution is simple, one that shouldn’t need to be said: call players by their preferred names. For Luis Robert, we should be saying an approximation of the way his name is said in Cuba—with or without the T—not like it’s some European guy’s name. The lone exception to this rule seems to be spelling out Enrique Hernández in print, and using his nickname out loud.
This is an ongoing conversation that I’m having, one that I want to proceed with delicately, and with grace. Getting people’s names right can be a complex issue at times, but it’s also the bare minimum. To minimize acculturative stress for players, we have a lot of learning—and perhaps even more unlearning—to do. For now, we’ll use this as a jumping-off point, but we’ll need to continue this conversation, because it goes much deeper. In the meantime? It’s Enrique, not Kiké.
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