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California Legislature

What's in a name? This bill would allow accent marks on California birth certificates

Nico and his mom, Nancy Chaires Espinoza. (Family courtesy photo)
Nico and his mom, Nancy Chaires Espinoza. (Family courtesy photo)

The smiling, little boy in the photo is Nicolas — not Nicolás, as his father, Pablo Espinoza, wanted to name him when he was born in May at a Los Angeles hospital.

"We thought it was an issue of the keyboard," said Espinoza, special projects media consultant for Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon. Instead, it was a result of state law.

Due to Proposition 63, which voters approved in 1986, English became the official language of California. Since then, legislative analysts say, the Department of Public Health has interpreted the rule to mean that diacritical marks, such accents (è or á), umlauts (ö or ü) and tildes (ñ or ã), on vital records are unacceptable. 

This legislative session, a bill filed by Assemblyman Jose Medina (D-Riverside), with urging from Espinoza, aims to overturn the ban. The proposal would allow diacritical marks on marriage licenses and certificates of birth, fetal death or death.

Supporters say a name is intimately tied to history and family, tradition and identity. And they say the law is currently not equally applied: Hospitals allow names such as "O'Doyle" to be annotated properly on vital records but not those such as "Chloë" or "José." Other agencies, meanwhile, allow diacritical marks on state road and event signs. 

But similar legislation has failed in the past. A bill introduced in 2014 by Assemblywoman Nancy Skinner (D-Berkeley) did not make it out of the appropriations committee after state agencies estimated it would cost $10 million to reprogram and upgrade their IT systems and searchable indexes.

Espinoza said he remains optimistic that the law will change in one of the most ethnically and culturally diverse states in the country. 

"Right now, we are all talking about California being a place where your values can be respected, whether you are an immigrant or of a different ethnicity, or whether you come from another country, and it all starts with the name," he said.

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