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Some Street Signs Get a Little Squiggle of Linguistic Respect

Words: The city is adding a tilde to make the Spanish correct, but not everyone is pleased.

August 21, 2001|DANIEL HERNANDEZ | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In the history of Los Angeles street signs, this will be an ano to remember.

It marks the emergence of the tilde. The squiggly linguistic marker--which can turn a soft N into a sharp and tangy N --is included in 115 replacement street signs city crews began installing Monday in the hills above Studio City.

Its appearance makes Los Angeles unusual, but not unique. The makers of Thomas Bros. maps say requests for tildes or other diacritical marks are rare. One Central California town, for example, goes by Los Banos, not Los Banos.

Los Angeles owes this Spanish renaissance to Santiago Pozo, an intense Spanish-born entertainment promoter who has a passion for his native tongue.

In a city where Latinos are the largest ethnic group, and Spanish is spoken exclusively in many neighborhoods, municipal officials say a new cultural sensitivity is arising. The tilde could be added to more street signs, they say, if residents so desire.

But while city officials view the revival of "the little wiggle" as a welcome civic watershed, others are not amused.

Some residents along the 25 streets in a Studio City neighborhood where new signs will be erected said they have been content to live on plain old Dona Pegita Drive or Dona Alicia Place. To them, changing the signs to Dona Pegita and Dona Alicia represents just the latest capitulation to rampant, overwrought multiculturalism.

Pozo, who lives in the hilly tract, sees only victory, however. The 43-year-old, who immigrated to Los Angeles from Spain two decades ago, said the tilde is critical for several reasons. In Spanish, it is placed atop the letter N to create a distinct letter, the N. To neglect the tilde, he said, is to be guilty of misspelling and to invite mispronunciation.

(Dona without the tilde, for instance, might sound like the name Donna, pronounced with a soft tongue. Dona, in contrast, requires more of the tongue to meet the palate behind the front teeth to make an "ny," sound as in "canyon," to produce DON-ya.)

The marker also sometimes changes the meaning of words. And there are larger issues too, Pozo said.

"For me, the whole issue of the N [pronounced en-yeh] is to recognize our past, by having respect for the history of this town and for who founded the town," he said. "The future is always tied with our past."

Several of Pozo's neighbors, however, will not welcome the tilde-embellished signs.

"That's ridiculous. Everyone is trying to be so politically correct these days," said Judy Charles, a Dona Emilia Drive resident, when informed she would soon live on Dona Emilia. Asked whether she plans to make the change when she jots down her address, she snapped: "No, I will not."

As English Dominated, the Tilde Slipped Away

To the original Spanish and Mexican masters of El Pueblo de Nuestra Senora la Reina de los Angeles de Porciuncula, the tilde would not have been an option but a linguistic imperative, several historians said.

But as Yankees began to assume power in the mid-1800s, standard English came to rule the day. And the tilde slipped away.

Spanish diacritical symbols did not disappear everywhere, though. Officials in Beverly Hills proudly note that they spell Canon Drive in proper Spanish. All the city's records for the street also use the tilde. In La Canada Flintridge, street signs bearing the city's name use the N, although other streets that would require it, such as Pequeno Lane or the curiously spelled Alta Canyada Drive, do not.

No one can say for certain whether the Studio City streets were named for specific historic figures. The homes near Laurel Canyon were built in the late 1950s and 1960s, a century after Anglicized names became the norm for street signs in Los Angeles.

Pozo, who holds a doctorate in history from a Spanish university, moved into the neighborhood in 1990, but he said it took him a few years to grasp what it was that bothered him about the street signs near his home.

"One day, it hit me. The N was missing," said Pozo, who runs a firm that markets movies to Spanish-speaking audiences. "I started putting [it all] together."

But Pozo's recognition of the Spanish misspellings would linger for several more years as a minor irritation in his life--until his chance encounter with City Councilman Nick Pacheco.

Pozo and the councilman met at a fund-raiser for another political candidate.

In an interview, the Eastside councilman said he decided he should help Pozo and the city to correct a spelling error. But his City Council resolution made a more sweeping argument: "The city of Los Angeles should be sensitive to [the Latino] culture's concerns of pride in language."

City administrators said the change will remain cosmetic, not likely to be passed on to the U.S. Postal Service for an official name change.

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