(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GENE DEMBY, HOST:
What's good, y'all? You are listening to CODE SWITCH from NPR. I'm Gene Demby.
B A PARKER, HOST:
And I'm B.A. Parker.
DEMBY: This is a special episode, y'all, because we're going to introduce you to someone that we have been getting to know over the last couple months.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)
LORI LIZARRAGA, HOST:
You had to set me up like that. Hi, y'all. I'm Lori Lizarraga. I am so proud and excited to be here with y'all tonight.
DEMBY: Yeah, man.
PARKER: That was from our live show in Chicago. That's the voice of Lori Lizarraga, our third and newest co-host.
DEMBY: Part of us getting to know Lori is getting to know her work. So Lori comes to us from the world of TV news. She's been reporting at local outlets in Texas, in California, in Colorado.
(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)
LIZARRAGA: Telling a story through art is what David Garcia does.
The most distinct difference in the shooting data is race. If violence was happening at a similar rate across all races, violence victims in Denver would be mostly white because the county is more than half white. But that's not how it's happening.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
DEMBY: All right, y'all, enough with the preamble. Lori Lizarraga, welcome to CODE SWITCH, like, officially officially.
PARKER: Hi, Lori.
LIZARRAGA: Hi, Parker. Hey, Gene.
DEMBY: So, Lori, you are now on the race beat full time. Congratulations. Also, no pressure.
LIZARRAGA: Thank you. And bring on the pressure. I'm ready. And I don't know if you've ever been a general assignment reporter, Gene.
DEMBY: I have never lived that GA life, no.
LIZARRAGA: (Laughter) Well, it's the best and worst of local because sometimes it means covering the minutiae of community news that is school board drama, road closures and all. And I'm not saying it's not important. It absolutely is. But me standing in the rain telling you it's raining is not what I'm passionate about, you know?
PARKER: Agree to disagree. Green-screen weather forecasting is on my bucket list.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
LIZARRAGA: ...Hours. Rain pushing through the south valley into the desert areas. And look at all that high elevation snow. Many of you not experiencing anything...
Oh, my gosh (laughter). That's extremely...
PARKER: That's wonderful.
LIZARRAGA: That's extremely embarrassing to hear. And Parker, look; we'll have to find a friendly local newsroom and check this off your bucket list.
DEMBY: So when you weren't chasing storms, though, like, what kind of stories were you trying to tell?
LIZARRAGA: Most recently, out of Denver in Colorado, it was stuff like health care deserts in underserved community areas, legislation, assisting Black- and Latino-owned businesses during the pandemic, interviewing police agencies after a protest, interviewing protesters. And calling out the lack of Spanish-language resources was a big one in places like online state unemployment filing and state-run vaccine clinics. But it was like pulling teeth sometimes trying to get those stories approved. I'd be in a newsroom pitching a story impacting Latinos in a particular neighborhood, for example, and just because the story included Latinos, the response was, you know, we already covered that, as if there's just one story to tell about an entire population of people.
DEMBY: Like, so many journalists of color have been through the same thing, you know - thumping with editors, with assignment producers about, you know, the legitimacy of stories about race or stories about marginalized people or the way that their stations or outlets cover stories about race or marginalized people.
PARKER: So how did you keep stories about race and identity and immigrant communities at the center of your work, even as a GA reporter?
LIZARRAGA: Yeah. You know, Parker, it was hard. I kept pitching the stories I wanted to tell, the stories I knew I had to tell. And that did not make me popular with my bosses, but it got a lot of important work done. And, you know, I definitely got pushback. But I think I'm sort of known now for pushing back on the pushback, hopefully in the best way.
PARKER: Yeah. Talk more about that pushback.
LIZARRAGA: Well, yeah. A big one, for example, was the guidance from my last newsroom in Denver. We couldn't use undocumented to describe someone's immigration status. We had to say illegal or in the country illegally.
DEMBY: Yikes. And, you know, most major newsrooms have long since moved away from using illegal in this context.
DEMBY: So, like, your newsroom's commitment to illegal, that's kind of a choice.
LIZARRAGA: Yeah. Yeah, exactly. And look; there are people in my own family and the families of some of my closest friends who are undocumented, and I would never refer to them as illegal. You know, we know illegal just isn't an accurate way to describe the 11 million or so people in the U.S. without official government authorization, and it's laced with connotations of criminality. And I butted heads with the newsroom managers about all of this on one of my very first stories, of course. I was interviewing a minor for that story, as it happens. He'd been in the U.S. basically his whole life. And I figured, like, if ever there was a person who warranted us rethinking how we talk about immigrants, it should be this kid.
PARKER: So where did y'all land with the story?
LIZARRAGA: They told me that I had to say illegal or the story wouldn't run, Parker. And I told them, in no uncertain terms, you'll never hear my voice say that, which, admittedly, set the stage for a lot of tension when I reported about immigration going forward.
DEMBY: Oh, yeah. I'm sure.
LIZARRAGA: (Laughter) But, you know, the case of this story - we did not agree, and we did not come to an agreement. And so the story never ran.
DEMBY: Wow. Wow.
LIZARRAGA: I told my dad how all this played out - right? - like, my second week at my new job. And he's just like, please don't get fired, Lori.
PARKER: That is such a parent response.
LIZARRAGA: Poor guy.
PARKER: But we know that there were these disagreements over issues like these and others, and eventually, the station decided that you and several other Latino journalists at the station would not have your contracts renewed. So your dad's fears kind of came true.
LIZARRAGA: Yeah. It's sad to think about it like that, Parker. But I didn't want it to end there. And I was thinking about writing something public about what happened to me and these other journalists with similar experiences. I even asked some of my colleagues if I should go through with it. And the consensus was a resounding no, which, you know, is fair. I got that then, and I get that now. There's just a lot of risk and uncertainty involved with doing something like this. And I was definitely scared. Like, you know, I couldn't sleep.
DEMBY: But Lori, you did end up writing about it, right?
LIZARRAGA: I did. I did, indeed. I wrote a piece about all of this and got it published in a local weekly newspaper in Denver called Westword. And it turns out that piece really resonated with a lot of people.
DEMBY: Yeah. I mean, in fact, when we first heard about you, Lori, you were in the middle of all the fallout having to do with exactly this piece.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)
DAVID FOLKENFLIK: At KUSA, Lizarraga says, she experienced pushback over her hairstyle and word choices and the stories she wanted to cover, especially those about Latinos.
PARKER: That's our NPR colleague David Folkenflik reporting about you.
LIZARRAGA: Dave - yeah, so wild.
PARKER: OK. But what didn't they like about your hair?
LIZARRAGA: Parker, I don't know. I wore it with the middle part, low bun.
PARKER: That's very rude, as someone whose hair is currently in a middle part and a low bun.
LIZARRAGA: Shoutout, Parker - I love to hear it. Thank you. And look, I mean, I was just wearing it my way - right? - like lots of South American women have always done it and how Parker is currently doing it. The people upstairs weren't feeling it, though. And I get not liking what's different, but it's not like it was unprofessional. And I looked cute, so, you know.
PARKER: But Lori, I read your piece, and there's this one part that really stood out to me. You wrote, quote, "For two years, I lugged my diversity to 9 News each day in the content of my journalism, wishing I could leave it at home without a clue as to when it became baggage. I was too close to the issues, too passionate, too emotional, too aggressive," unquote. It reminds me of this piece you wrote, Gene, that was called "How Black Reporters Report On Black Death," about what you called, quote, "the unwanted burden of representing the concerns of an entire group of people," unquote.
DEMBY: Yeah. And that burden isn't just something that happens in journalism media, obviously. Right? Like, so many people who work in professional spaces - I'm sure a lot of our listeners - have had their own only-one-in-the-room drama. You know what I mean?
LIZARRAGA: And I don't want to set the standard for people of color having to be sacrificial lambs in order to see overdue necessary change. I'm also not mad at anybody for this not being their hill, but it's definitely mine. And I'm just really, really glad my experience didn't end there. It was all always leading here to this beat and to this seat with y'all.
DEMBY: Well, we are really glad that you're here with us, Lori, on CODE SWITCH. Oh, wait a second.
(SOUNDBITE OF RECORD SCRATCH)
DEMBY: Is it Lori, though? Like, you been lying to the people because a little birdie told us that Lori isn't your actual name.
DEMBY: Explain yourself.
LIZARRAGA: You've been holding on to that one, haven't you, Gene? OK, Lori is my actual name. It's just not the one on my legal paperwork. And excuse me...
(SOUNDBITE OF RECORD SCRATCH)
LIZARRAGA: ...Neither of y'all go by your legal names originally either.
DEMBY: I mean...
PARKER: Easy now.
DEMBY: That's true. Sometimes we call Parker B.A., you know, when, I mean, we feeling, like, a little, like, you know, informal.
DEMBY: I always assumed the B.A. in B.A. Parker was like B.A. Baracus from "The A-Team." That's a very current and topical joke.
PARKER: We are nabbing the youths today. I'm sorry to tell you this, but my first name is actually Brittany (ph).
LIZARRAGA: (Imitating airhorn).
DEMBY: ...Like the region of France?
LIZARRAGA: So, Brittany, how did you get going by Parker, then?
PARKER: I was born in the era of too many Brittanys. Thanks, '90s. And my mom was adamant about pronouncing it with the three syllables, like Brit-ta-ny (ph). And I was like, I'm not going to correct people when they say Brittany. I'm just going to go by Parker.
LIZARRAGA: Well, that worked. I mean, you're the only Parker I know.
PARKER: Thank you.
DEMBY: Thank you.
LIZARRAGA: Gene, I know this isn't a negative thing necessarily, but people know you as Gene Demby. And that's not your full name really, either.
DEMBY: I mean, I guess - I mean, my full name is Gene Demby-Afum. I've written about this. I don't feel like Gene Demby-Afum. That's, like - that's my government name. But Afum was my father's last name. He was not around. I don't feel any particular connection to that name. I don't know him at all. So I just don't use it, you know what I mean? But wait - that's all, like, neither here nor there. I see you trying to deflect. Lori, what's the deal with your name? This is the episode about you.
LIZARRAGA: OK. I do go by Lori, but my official name is Laura. And actually...
LIZARRAGA: ...All five...
PARKER: That was anticlimactic.
DEMBY: Exactly. It's pretty...
LIZARRAGA: It's not...
DEMBY: ...Close. Same number of syllables, same energy.
LIZARRAGA: It's really not that dramatic. And actually, all five Lizarraga children, myself and my siblings, go by nicknames different from our birth names. My, like, understanding of this my whole life, growing up, was that our nicknames were easier to pronounce - you know, that, like, classic immigrant assimilation thing.
PARKER: Mmm hmm.
DEMBY: Mmm hmm. Right, right.
PARKER: I get that, but Laura isn't hard to say.
DEMBY: It's not.
LIZARRAGA: You would think. It's pronounced Laura, but it's spelled L-A-U-R-A like Laura. And I think because my mom got her name mispronounced all the time when she was a kid immigrating to the States, I always understood her choice to nickname us as a way for her to have control over the mispronunciations. But, yeah, I mean, the truth is, beyond that, I'm really not sure.
DEMBY: There's a whole group of Lizarraga children who have nicknames that are very close, like, very good approximations of their official names. And y'all go by those names all the time in every setting. And none of y'all have bothered to ask, like, what the deal was with that?
LIZARRAGA: Well, Gene...
DEMBY: Like, what's good?
LIZARRAGA: ...As it happens, we've been busy. But I have asked for the purposes of this episode.
DEMBY: OK. We're about to get into your family business. OK. Well, I mean, Lori, do you want to do the honors?
LIZARRAGA: Yeah. Yeah, I'd love to. All right. Coming up, I'm going to ask my mom a bunch of questions I probably should have asked her a long time ago.
PAULA CALDERON LIZARRAGA: So your name means - do you know what your name means?
LIZARRAGA: We're going to get into the social dynamics of names. Stay with us.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
LIZARRAGA: Lori - just Lori. CODE SWITCH.
I've been thinking a lot about names lately - what a name means, why people go by a name that isn't what's on their birth certificate. I've gone by a nickname my whole life. I mean, my name is legally Laura, but I've only ever gone by Lori. And that's the case, actually, for all my siblings. Kristy (ph), Stevie (ph), Timmy (ph) and Abby (ph) are all nicknames. It wasn't until I started reporting this story that I thought about how being Lori has made it easy to feel normal. And that normal feeling isn't a given. Someone made sure that I, quote, "fit in" and that I didn't struggle with my name - someone who was forced to struggle with hers.
(SOUNDBITE OF PHONE RINGING)
CALDERON LIZARRAGA: Hi, Lori.
LIZARRAGA: Hi, Mom.
I'm new here. So I called my mom because she's the GOAT of complicated name stories.
Will you introduce yourself? Like, start by saying your full name, how you introduce yourself to people.
CALDERON LIZARRAGA: Well, how I introduced myself to people is Paula Lizarraga.
LIZARRAGA: That's an important distinction, the way she introduces herself to people, because she's talking about people here in the U.S. But that's not her name when she goes home.
CALDERON LIZARRAGA: When I'm in Ecuador or speaking to my family, then I introduce myself a different way.
LIZARRAGA: So if you are speaking to your family, how would you introduce yourself?
CALDERON LIZARRAGA: Then I would say, I'm Paola Calderon.
LIZARRAGA: My mom, of course, is by no means the only person changing her name for an English-speaking American audience. I mean, immigrant name changes have a long history in U.S. culture, beginning with the era of mass immigration in the late 19th century. And there are a lot of studies that show pretty clearly why that is. People with foreign-sounding names are treated as foreign. In many cases, that means with prejudice. So the logic behind changing your name was the same then as it is now. Change your name, avoid discrimination - at the very least, avoid leading with a name that screams I'm not from here or the humiliation of having your name mispronounced over and over. That was definitely the case for my mom when she came to the U.S. as a kid.
CALDERON LIZARRAGA: So I was 11, and I didn't have any - except for just one Spanish-speaking friend in my school. And so as people around me weren't able to pronounce my name properly, and then they would tell me, you know, your name is - that how you say it. It's P-A-ola. That's pay-ola (ph). And I do remember something arising within me and just thinking, I hate that name. That's so ugly. That's not my name. They would ask, like, what is it in English? And so I began to understand that it just needed to be, like, translated. But then it seemed to make sense to me because other words needed to be translated, too. So it just seemed like a natural thing.
Oh, OK, well, in English, my name is Paula. And so I just changed it. I just started spelling it a different way. And so I just spelled it P-A-U-L-A. No one seemed to notice. And I was too young to know that I couldn't just change my name because I felt like it. And so I just did.
LIZARRAGA: For her, it was self-preservation. It was like, you know, about simplifying whatever she could.
CALDERON LIZARRAGA: Everything was so off in my life. You know, it was new - new country, new language, new living situation. So...
CALDERON LIZARRAGA: ...Like, the last thing I wanted was to make another encounter hard.
LIZARRAGA: It's sad, Mom.
CALDERON LIZARRAGA: I know. It's pretty...
LIZARRAGA: Does it make you feel sad now? Like, did you know it was sad at the time?
CALDERON LIZARRAGA: I didn't know that it was sad at the time, but I had so much going on in my life that I knew to just deal with things.
LIZARRAGA: Did it feel like it was, like, an imposition to people to try to make them say your name or embarrassing, or were you also territorial over the correct pronunciation of your name?
CALDERON LIZARRAGA: When people said my name so wrong to me, as in Paola, that resonated as something that was really harsh within me. And it was something that I couldn't have articulated. But I got very defensive about that, and I didn't like that. It felt like I was being assigned this name that I didn't identify with.
LIZARRAGA: So my mom gave up parts of herself, like the O in Paola and replaced it with a U to preserve the rest. And that's how she became Paula.
CALDERON LIZARRAGA: So I just made that conversation go away.
LIZARRAGA: That whole experience had a huge impact on how she decided to name me and my siblings just seven years after she came to this country.
CALDERON LIZARRAGA: I didn't want my kids to have the same struggle that I had, and there was no need for that because we lived in the States. And the kids were born here, and they were going to go to schools that were American schools. For people to be able to say your name correctly, that was really important for me, I guess because my name was so misunderstood. And so we chose American names.
LIZARRAGA: Yeah. Did you ever feel any sort of regret or any sort of, like, inclination to name us names that were more Latino, that were more Spanish-sounding?
CALDERON LIZARRAGA: Yeah. Because in my choosing to help you belong, in my choosing to keep you from a struggle that was, you know, hard in the life of an 11-year-old little person, I was making the decision to have the name sound off in my country.
LIZARRAGA: I'd never really heard my mom put it this way, and it kind of broke my heart. She wanted to protect us from the humiliation she felt as a kid by giving us names that assimilated us into American society. But that came at the expense of giving us names that were native to Ecuador or names that she just might have liked better. That calculation isn't uncommon.
Ruchika Tulshyan is an expert in inclusion strategy and workplace culture, and she's written about this - the long-term implications of having your name mispronounced.
RUCHIKA TULSHYAN: A number of studies have found that especially when children's names are mispronounced in schools, it can create these really negative knock-on effects, whether it's lower self-esteem, whether it's a shame associated with your identity. And eventually, it can even lead to you wanting to completely reject your cultural identity in order to want to assimilate.
LIZARRAGA: Ruchika's been focusing on the power of name pronunciation professionally in recent years, but it's a personal struggle that she's been up against her whole life.
TULSHYAN: When you've always had your name mispronounced, there's a cringe that kind of comes with any new interaction where you either know for sure or you believe that your name is going to be mispronounced.
LIZARRAGA: Even when you get older, she says, that doesn't go away. And because of the nature of this struggle will inevitably repeat itself at the onset of literally every new interaction, Ruchika argues it's a form of trauma.
TULSHYAN: I'm 35 years old, and even today, even when I'm in a brand-new meeting with someone I don't know well, right as we're getting started, there's a moment where I'm like, is there a way I can slide in before we even get started? Hi, my name is Ruchika, you know? And it's this little, like, mental dance that you have to do.
LIZARRAGA: A name holds so much significance. There's research showing the correlation between a person's ethnic-sounding name and how they're valued in society. A study out of the University of Kansas a few years ago, for example, gave participants this life-or-death scenario where they were asked to make a decision about who they would save, an Asian immigrant named Mark or an Asian immigrant named Xian. Surprise, surprise, they were more likely to save Mark. And, sure, that's a hypothetical situation, but that bias is very real and is brought into real-world situations where it has serious material consequences.
TULSHYAN: This is studies done in France, in Canada, in the United States, which finds that people with Anglo-Saxon names are more likely to be called back for job interviews compared with people with identifiably Asian names, African American names, Muslim names.
LIZARRAGA: For Ruchika, this feeling of being devalued started when she was a kid.
TULSHYAN: Back in the school days, definitely. I mean, I was so embarrassed and so ashamed of my name. I went by Chika for quite a while - you know, Ruchika shortened to Chika. Some teacher came up with it. And I just remember wishing and even having long discussions with my own mother saying, you know, why did you name me Ruchika?
LIZARRAGA: Even after all those years struggling with her name, wishing it were different, Ruchika told me she'd never considered changing her name. It made me wonder if my mom ever regretted changing hers.
Do you ever feel like you would go back to, in the States today, being Paola? Or do you feel like you're Paula here?
CALDERON LIZARRAGA: Yeah, I've thought about it a lot.
CALDERON LIZARRAGA: Actually, I'd like to go back to my name.
LIZARRAGA: You would.
CALDERON LIZARRAGA: Sometimes, you have to come full circle with things and compassionately understand that that struggle that was there when I was 11 was a lot - you know, had to do with a lot more than a name. But the name was such an important part of that transition between one place to another. But it would be nice to close that loop and go back to how I came.
LIZARRAGA: Would you still give the five of us, Mom, the names that you did all those years ago today?
CALDERON LIZARRAGA: I think that today, I would choose names that spoke to me in both cultures and that were as easily pronounced in both worlds. And that was something that I didn't feel I could do at the time. I was only 18 when I had my first baby, and I still had so much growing up to do that I just wanted as much as could be easy to be easy.
LIZARRAGA: My mom was practically a kid, a kid protecting her kids in the ways she knew how. And for what it's worth, she accomplished her mission. We didn't struggle with our names like she did. And now I know the gift that is my name.
CALDERON LIZARRAGA: So your name - do you know what your name means?
LIZARRAGA: I think I remember us talking about this once upon a time, but I don't remember what it means.
CALDERON LIZARRAGA: It means victorious. Laura comes from Laurel, which is a crown of victory. And so your name has the meaning of victorious one and leader.
LIZARRAGA: That's beautiful. I'll take victorious every day of the week.
CALDERON LIZARRAGA: That's you.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
LIZARRAGA: And that's our show.
PARKER: We want to hear from you. Email us at email@example.com. You can also hit us up on social media. We're at @NPRCodeSwitch on Instagram.
DEMBY: And we just want to give a quick shoutout to our CODE SWITCH Plus listeners. We appreciate y'all, and thank you for being subscribers. Subscribing to CODE SWITCH Plus means you can listen to all of our episodes without any sponsored breaks, and it also helps support our show. So if you love our work, if you rock with us, please consider signing up at plus.npr.org/codeswitch.
LIZARRAGA: This episode was produced by Kumari Devarajan with help from Christina Cala. It was edited by Dalia Mortada. And shoutout to the rest of the CODE SWITCH massive - Karen Grigsby Bates, Alyssa Jeong Perry, Jess Kung, Diba Mohtasham, LA Johnson, Veralyn Williams and Steve Drummond.
DEMBY: I'm Gene Demby.
PARKER: I'm BA Parker.
LIZARRAGA: I'm Lori Lizarraga.
DEMBY: Be easy, y'all.
LIZARRAGA: Call your mama.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
DEMBY: All right, Lori, real quick - lightning round. You lived in a few cities. What's the best food town?
DEMBY: Correct answer. Right.
PARKER: Favorite movie.
LIZARRAGA: It's between "My Cousin Vinny," "The Princess Bride" and "Some Like It Hot." Sorry.
PARKER: That's respectable. All right. OK.
DEMBY: You're on a desert island, and for some reason, it gets just enough Wi-Fi for you to stream one album forever for eternity. Which album is it?
LIZARRAGA: Enough Wi-Fi to stream music and I'm not texting for help?
PARKER: Don't question it.
DEMBY: Lori, just go with it. Just go with it.
LIZARRAGA: Selena's '94 album "Amor Prohibido."
PARKER: (Singing in Spanish).
LIZARRAGA: Aw, Parker.
PARKER: Favorite book.
LIZARRAGA: "Little Women."
PARKER: Twinsies (ph).
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.