You can’t use accents on California birth certificates. This proposal would change that

Paul Kitagaki Jr./

Nicolás Agustín Espinoza Chaires may be only 6 years old, but he has a request for the state of California.

“I want to be able to spell my name correctly,” he said on Wednesday afternoon, while holding his teddy bear.

Due to the interpretation of a 37 year-old law, his name is Nicolas Agustin on his California birth certificate. The use of diacritical marks — like tildes and accents — are not allowed on marriage licenses and certificates of birth or death. When attached to a letter, the marks indicate a particular pronunciation as well as meaning.

The ban can be traced back to Proposition 63 in 1986, which established English as the official state language. Since then, the Department of Public Health has mandated diacritical marks as unacceptable.


But Assembly Bill 77 would change that.

The legislation, authored by Assemblymember Blanca Pacheco, D-Downey, clarifies that diacritical marks can be used. The bill would also retroactively apply to children like Nicolás, if a written request and fee are submitted.

Pacheco said the legislation is especially important to the state’s 16 million Latinos, but not only specific to that one community. She cited Asian, Hebrew and German names that use diacritical marks.

“It will allow individuals to be able to write their name correctly and be respectful of everybody’s various identities in different cultures,” Pacheco said.

“It’s much more than grammar”

In 2016 the parents of Nicolás, Nancy Chaires Espinoza and Pablo Espinoza were shocked to find out about the ban while filling out his birth certificate form in a Los Angeles hospital.

They initially thought the pushback was a keyboard issue.

“We were just confused as to why the state would be telling us that we couldn’t give our son the name that we had chosen,” said Chaires Espinoza, an education lobbyist.

Supporters, like Nicolás’ parents, say the correct spelling of a name is closely tied to identity and cultural heritage. They also point to the state being selective about which marks it allows.

Hyphens and apostrophes are allowed while diacritical marks are deemed “unacceptable entries,” according to the California Department of Health’s Office of Vital Records handbook.

That means the state accepts “O’Connell” and “Smith-Jones,” but not “José” or “Peña.”

“It might seem very minor to a lot of people that don’t have that sort of sense of connection with our roots. But it’s much more than grammar. It’s about identity. It’s about our values,” said Espinoza, an Assembly legislative staffer.

Espinoza argues the bill, if passed, would also be a source of local revenue with counties receiving a payment for certificate revisions.

Third time’s charm?

Similar legislation has failed in the past. A bill introduced in 2014 by Assemblymember Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley stalled in the appropriations committee. State agencies said the bill would cost roughly $10 million to reprogram and upgrade software.

Then in 2017, the Legislature overwhelmingly passed an identical bill. However, Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed the bill after opposition from the California Department of Public Health, County Recorders’ Association of California and the California Association of Clerks.

At the time, the Department of Public Health cited concerns that the bill would create inconsistencies with federal government records and require “significant state funds” to replace or modify existing systems. The U.S. federal government does not use diacritical marks on documents, such as passports and social security cards.

Pacheco said AB 77 is not anticipated to be too costly.

The Department of Public Health declined to comment on this year’s proposed legislation. Tomás Aragón, the current head of the department and state public health officer, uses diacritical marks in his name.

Chaires Espinoza said she is optimistic of the bill’s chances the third time around, particularly in a state that prides itself on diversity.

“We talk so much about inclusion and engagement of the public but how do you even get down that road of inclusion when you’re not even acknowledging somebody’s name,” she said.

This year, Nicolás has also joined the push. He will be speaking alongside his mother in the Assembly Health committee at 1:30 p.m. next Tuesday.

“I just want people to say my name right,” said Nicolás.