That’s Not My Name

I’ve always felt as if the first name I was given by my parents does not fit me properly.

As far back as I know of, (unfortunately only a few generations) my cultural heritage is 3/4 Irish, 1/4 English, but this did not stop my parents from burdening me with a very Spanish-sounding name. I use the term burdened only because, in appearance, if not in disposition, I’m the antithesis of Mediterranean, so my name and I have never been a logical match.

Here I am, an Aussie, with golden (some say strawberry) blonde hair, and white, pinkish-tinted, freckled skin. I can’t go out on even a mildly sunny day without smothering myself in thick white 30+ sunscreen, a scarf and a hat – consequently if it’s hot outside, I’d rather stay inside, thanks all the same. I’m so far from Mediterranean that a holiday that involved lying on a banana lounge all day long on a beach, at a pool or on the deck of a cruise ship, would be hell for me.

You can see why I’ve never really felt as if my name suits me. If I was to change my name I’d choose something that, in my imagination at least, is better suited to my colouring and personality – something that sounds vaguely English or Celtic. Emma – the name of a great aunt. Angela, Colleen, Eileen, Bridget, or Therese – all names of cousins. Nora or Mary, my grandmothers. Catherine, Kathleen, or Kate – variations on the name have been given to many women in my family.

Others also instinctively feel that the name doesn’t suit me – or at least, that’s how I choose to interpret the fact that when I’m newly introduced, people commonly have trouble remembering my name, or incorrectly call me one of its Celtic variations instead. In circumstances where it doesn’t really matter (eg making a booking at a restaurant) I’ll usually just let them do that, because it feels silly to make a fuss about the fact that my name is a letter or two different to the name they are pronouncing, when clearly the more anglicised name suits me better.

But despite the mismatch, perhaps it’s because of my Spanish-sounding name that, on discovering a book on Spain in my parents’ bookshelves at home when I was a kid (searching for resources for a school project – this was well before Google), the thought occurred that I’d like to learn the language. Maybe I felt as if my name entitled me to feel some affinity with Spanish culture. Maybe some elements of Spanish language and culture felt comfortably familiar in the midst of my otherwise all-white, country town Australian childhood because I grew up watching Sesame Street on TV, which brought Maria and Luis, two friendly Hispanic Americans, and occasionally even some Spanish language, into my lounge room every week day.

*

As a child, it appeared as if the U.S. was more diverse, and therefore interesting, than Australia. I probably gained this impression largely because of Sesame Street, since, during the time that I watched it, I seem to recall an even mix of people of white, Hispanic, and African American backgrounds on the show, and later Asian Americans as well. Proportionally, I did not encounter equivalent levels of diversity living in country town Australia, or even in Melbourne when I moved there in the late 1980s. As an adult, I still believe that the U.S. is more culturally diverse than Australia, however all the way over here, I don’t hear much in the media to suggest that the U.S. embraces that diversity.

I started this post a few days ago, and wrote about the incongruity of my Spanish-sounding name, going down quite a different path with the direction I took. It was going to be a post about all the things I regret not doing – learning Spanish being one of those. I came back today and changed tactic, remembering that book, and Sesame Street, and how, as a child, I had wanted to find something to relate to, in this other culture that seemed both interestingly different to my own, while also comfortingly approachable and familiar because of characters very deliberately placed into Sesame Street. Maybe the reason my writing and thought process took me down that path today was because I had read earlier today of the Whitehouse taking down the Spanish version of their internet site.

Even as an Aussie on the other side of the world, I can understand what a significant gesture that is. It makes me feel sad. I concede that the Whitehouse has very deliberately not stated that the page is removed for good, so hopefully it will be reinstated – but it seems significant that the initial removal happened along with the removal of other pages supporting policies such as GLBTIQ rights and climate change, policies that the Trump Administration are openly against. I’m horrified about the removal of those pages too, but unsurprised. There is much that I could rail against, but I’ll just stick with this issue because it probably shows my naivety that I actually felt surprise, reading today that Trump has previously criticised people for speaking Spanish in the U.S.

Really? How sad.

What Trump doesn’t realise is that to those of us outside of the U.S, Spanish-speaking language and culture forms part of the culture that, in our eyes, is particular to the U.S; just like elements of Jewish language and culture do.

The first place I ever went to, upon arriving in the U.S. for the first time, was a little store on a hill in San Fransisco, with two or three tables, where we ordered a Mexican beer and ate burritos. The store was not particularly Mexican themed, whereas even in the late 1990s you’d have had to go to a themed “Mexican Restaurant” in Australia to get a burrito. To us, it was the perfect start to an overseas trip – getting something novel like a burrito and a Mexican beer from what looked like a little take-away joint with a few tables. From that, we immediately got that exciting sense of being somewhere else, somewhere different to Australia, where it was apparent that the influence of Hispanic culture and food was assimilated into the mainstream culture.

If he wants to wipe out the speaking of the language, will Trump also require all other Hispanic elements are wiped out of U.S. culture too – the Mexican beer, the churros, tacos, burritos, and all Spanish-Mission style architecture knocked down?

Enough on the U.S. I’m sure that there are other commentators out there who will analyse the Trump government’s actions to discourage Spanish speaking, far more eloquently and with more right to speak about the topic than I have.

I’ll just go back to thinking about how because of, or despite, my ambivalent attitude to my Spanish-sounding name, which doesn’t suit my Anglo-Celtic coloring at all, I’ve always wanted to learn Spanish. Perhaps now is the time to start.

 

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7 Comments

  1. LOVE this! There is not enough time or space for me to coherently express how I feel about Trump’s recent actions. But, I think now is a great time to start learning Spanish. I think I will, too!

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  2. I have long thought that the name given us by our parents ought to be considered a temporary one and that we should be allowed a free change of name when we reach adult age. Many people feel that their names do not suit them or are embarrassed by them. Making it easy to change one’s name to something more comfortable would be a boon for such folk.

    I don’t know about Australia but in the UK it is not illegal to use a name that differs from your legal name as long as this is not for the purpose of facilitating criminal acts. Many people have a legal name and a different name that they they ‘go by’. Also, you can change your name by deed poll. The new name then becomes your name for all civil and legal purposes though your original name may still haunt you and pop up occasionally joined to you by the phrase ‘also known as’.

    I did think of changing my surname to my partner’s. The slight disadvantage of that would be that my name would then be the same as that of a famous novelist. (No, not Charles Dickens!) Why didn’t I do so? I think because I have come to feel that names, both first names and surnames, are not empty vessels but have a character of their own and that to embrace a new name is to join the community of namesakes and participate in their history and culture. (Perhaps others feel this too and it accounts in part for the fashion in new or made-up names.) It seems safer to stick with the name I know and the comfortable niche within it that I have made for myself. Add to that that I have never found a name that I really liked…

    I suspect, though, that dissatisfaction with one’s name may be a symptom of a deeper malaise, code for the real question ‘Who am I, who am I really?’ I have never managed to answer that question for myself but I think that if I could, then the mere matter of names would seem unimportant…

    The world is going through a period of insanity and I fear its consequences. The election of Trump is a symptom of this and an aberration of the worse sort. So is the decision of the British Government to leave the EU when it has no legal obligation to do so. Many other symptoms of this insanity are visible all over the world and their consequences are likely to be dire.

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    • I’ve never thought about the feeling one has, of being a part of the history of a first name, although it’s something we clearly attribute to our last names. I did read a really good piece of ‘creative Non-fiction” recently written by a writer with a name like Brian Johnston. For the piece, he researched all the other Brian Johnstons living in the US, and wrote to them asking for information about themselves, which he then wove into a piece about being Brian Johnston. It was a very lighthearted look at the significance of a name. (I must find it and correct this with his actual name.) Your insight into why there may now be a trend to name human babies things like Apple, South and Blue, feels quite believable.

      On dissatisfaction with a name being a sign of deeper malaise, I think you could be correct – how much your name bothers you being directly proportional to the level of malaise. I’m not too bothered by it on a daily basis, but have never really felt as if my name is really “me”, so that probably says a lot about me.

      On Trump, and Brexit, I echo your feelings of dread. It does seems as if history repeats, and that we are entering into what will, in time to come, be recorded as a dark period in history. When the question is asked in some future time, why did no-one speak out, the answer will be that those who attempted to protest the insidious and gradual removals of rights and freedoms were silenced by accusations of being too concerned with “political correctness.”

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  3. It’s such a beautiful language; I always preferred it to French, which has always seemed so in love with itself. We didn’t have it in school & my only unsolicited advice to my nieces & nephews (apart from 200 other essential pieces of advice they’ve already defied) was to learn it; it’ll enable them to converse with more people round the globe. That’s if they obey my order to travel.

    Am curious about your name. I, too, was saddled with a polysyllabic Spanish name so out of kilter with my dreary complexion and cultural environment. For reasons unknown, it escaped less ornate shortened versions even when bearing a traditional Irish mouthful of an Irish surname demanded it. I had the chance to pare it down when I got hitched, but why make it easy for folk?

    Trump & co. What’s to say? We’ve all got chills. They’re multiplying.

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  4. As an American, this makes me want to learn Spanish and teach it to my daughter. For what it’s worth, Trump does not represent MY America, nor my feelings about diversity. And I, too, am saddened to see the actions he is taking to destroy the country I once knew…

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