My bi-cultural parents ensured that I grew up bilingual and gave me the same name in English (my first name) and Spanish (my middle name). I've never felt embarrassed when speaking my mother's tongue. (Unless you count my embarrassment at my lack of fluency — and my American accent — in Spanish.)
I suppose that's the advantage of growing up on the winning side (if there is such a thing) of a dominant culture. But I've learned far more by being on the losing side of that equation (usually when I'm outside of the U.S.)
Leave Your Name at the Border
By MANUEL MUÑOZ
AT the Fresno airport, as I made my way to the gate, I heard a name over the intercom. The way the name was pronounced by the gate agent made me want to see what she looked like. That is, I wanted to see whether she was Mexican. Around Fresno, identity politics rarely deepen into exacting terms, so to say “Mexican” means, essentially, “not white.” The slivered self-identifications Chicano, Hispanic, Mexican-American and Latino are not part of everyday life in the Valley. You’re either Mexican or you’re not. If someone wants to know if you were born in Mexico, they’ll ask. Then you’re From Over There — de allá. And leave it at that.
The gate agent, it turned out, was Mexican. Well-coiffed, in her 30s, she wore foundation that was several shades lighter than the rest of her skin. It was the kind of makeup job I’ve learned to silently identify at the mall when I’m with my mother, who will say nothing about it until we’re back in the car. Then she’ll stretch her neck like an ostrich and point to the darkness of her own skin, wondering aloud why women try to camouflage who they are.
I watched the Mexican gate agent busy herself at the counter, professional and studied. Once again, she picked up the microphone and, with authority, announced the name of the missing customer: “Eugenio Reyes, please come to the front desk.”
You can probably guess how she said it. Her Anglicized pronunciation wouldn’t be unusual in a place like California’s Central Valley. I didn’t have a Mexican name there either: I was an instruction guide.
When people ask me where I’m from, I say Fresno because I don’t expect them to know little Dinuba. Fresno is a booming city of nearly 500,000 these days, with a diversity — white, Mexican, African-American, Armenian, Hmong and Middle Eastern people are all well represented — that shouldn’t surprise anyone. It’s in the small towns like Dinuba that surround Fresno that the awareness of cultural difference is stripped down to the interactions between the only two groups that tend to live there: whites and Mexicans. When you hear a Mexican name spoken in these towns, regardless of the speaker’s background, it’s no wonder that there’s an “English way of pronouncing it.”
I was born in 1972, part of a generation that learned both English and Spanish. Many of my cousins and siblings are bilingual, serving as translators for those in the family whose English is barely functional. Others have no way of following the Spanish banter at family gatherings. You can tell who falls into which group: Estella, Eric, Delia, Dubina, Melanie.
It’s intriguing to watch “American” names begin to dominate among my nieces and nephews and second cousins, as well as with the children of my hometown friends. I am not surprised to meet 5-year-old Brandon or Kaitlyn. Hardly anyone questions the incongruity of matching these names with last names like Trujillo or Zepeda. The English-only way of life partly explains the quiet erasure of cultural difference that assimilation has attempted to accomplish. A name like Kaitlyn Zepeda doesn’t completely obscure her ethnicity, but the half-step of her name, as a gesture, is almost understandable.
Spanish was and still is viewed with suspicion: always the language of the vilified illegal immigrant, it segregated schoolchildren into English-only and bilingual programs; it defined you, above all else, as part of a lower class. Learning English, though, brought its own complications with identity. It was simultaneously the language of the white population and a path toward the richer, expansive identity of “American.” But it took getting out of the Valley for me to understand that “white” and “American” were two very different things.
Something as simple as saying our names “in English” was our unwittingly complicit gesture of trying to blend in. Pronouncing Mexican names correctly was never encouraged. Names like Daniel, Olivia and Marco slipped right into the mutability of the English language.
I remember a school ceremony at which the mathematics teacher, a white man, announced the names of Mexican students correctly and caused some confusion, if not embarrassment. Years later we recognized that he spoke in deference to our Spanish-speaking parents in the audience, caring teacher that he was.
These were difficult names for a non-Spanish speaker: Araceli, Nadira, Luis (a beautiful name when you glide the u and the i as you’re supposed to). We had been accustomed to having our birth names altered for convenience. Concepción was Connie. Ramón was Raymond. My cousin Esperanza was Hope — but her name was pronounced “Hopie” because any Spanish speaker would automatically pronounce the e at the end.
Ours, then, were names that stood as barriers to a complete embrace of an American identity, simply because their pronunciations required a slip into Spanish, the otherness that assimilation was supposed to erase. What to do with names like Amado, Lucio or Élida? There are no English “equivalents,” no answer when white teachers asked, “What does your name mean?” when what they really wanted to know was “What’s the English one?” So what you heard was a name butchered beyond recognition, a pronunciation that pointed the finger at the Spanish language as the source of clunky sound and ugly rhythm.
My stepfather, from Ojos de Agua, Mexico, jokes when I ask him about the names of Mexicans born here. He deliberately stumbles over pronunciations, imitating our elders who have difficulty with Bradley and Madelyn. “Ashley Sánchez. ¿Tú crees?” He wonders aloud what has happened to the “nombres del rancho” — traditional Mexican names that are hardly given anymore to children born in the States: Heraclio, Madaleno, Otilia, Dominga.
My stepfather’s experience with the Anglicization of his name — Antonio to Tony — ties into something bigger than learning English. For him, the erasure of his name was about deference and subservience. Becoming Tony gave him a measure of access as he struggled to learn English and get more fieldwork.
This isn’t to say that my stepfather welcomed the change, only that he could not put up much resistance. Not changing put him at risk of being passed over for work. English was a world of power and decisions, of smooth, uninterrupted negotiation. There was no time to search for the right word while a shop clerk waited for him to come up with the English name of the correct part needed out in the field. Clear communication meant you could go unsupervised, or that you were even able to read instructions directly off a piece of paper. Every gesture made toward convincing an employer that English was on its way to being mastered had the potential to make a season of fieldwork profitable.
It’s curious that many of us growing up in Dinuba adhered to the same rules. Although as children of farm workers we worked in the fields at an early age, we’d also had the opportunity to stay in one town long enough to finish school. Most of us had learned English early and splintered off into a dual existence of English at school, Spanish at home. But instead of recognizing the need for fluency in both languages, we turned it into a peculiar kind of battle. English was for public display. Spanish was for privacy — and privacy quickly turned to shame.
The corrosive effect of assimilation is the displacement of one culture over another, the inability to sustain more than one way of being. It isn’t a code word for racial and ethnic acculturation only. It applies to needing and wanting to belong, of seeing from the outside and wondering how to get in and then, once inside, realizing there are always those still on the fringe.
When I went to college on the East Coast, I was confronted for the first time by people who said my name correctly without prompting; if they stumbled, there was a quick apology and an honest plea to help with the pronunciation. But introducing myself was painful: already shy, I avoided meeting people because I didn’t want to say my name, felt burdened by my own history. I knew that my small-town upbringing and its limitations on Spanish would not have been tolerated by any of the students of color who had grown up in large cities, in places where the sheer force of their native languages made them dominant in their neighborhoods.
It didn’t take long for me to assert the power of code-switching in public, the transferring of words from one language to another, regardless of who might be listening. I was learning that the English language composed new meanings when its constrictions were ignored, crossed over or crossed out. Language is all about manipulation, or not listening to the rules.
When I come back to Dinuba, I have a hard time hearing my name said incorrectly, but I have an even harder time beginning a conversation with others about why the pronunciation of our names matters. Leaving a small town requires an embrace of a larger point of view, but a town like Dinuba remains forever embedded in an either/or way of life. My stepfather still answers to Tony and, as the United States-born children grow older, their Anglicized names begin to signify who does and who does not “belong” — who was born here and who is de allá.
My name is Manuel. To this day, most people cannot say it correctly, the way it was intended to be said. But I can live with that because I love the alliteration of my full name. It wasn’t the name my mother, Esmeralda, was going to give me. At the last minute, my father named me after an uncle I would never meet. My name was to have been Ricardo. Growing up in Dinuba, I’m certain I would have become Ricky or even Richard, and the journey toward the discovery of the English language’s extraordinary power in even the most ordinary of circumstances would probably have gone unlearned.
I count on a collective sense of cultural loss to once again swing the names back to our native language. The Mexican gate agent announced Eugenio Reyes, but I never got a chance to see who appeared. I pictured an older man, cowboy hat in hand, but I made the assumption on his name alone, the clash of privileges I imagined between someone de allá and a Mexican woman with a good job in the United States. Would she speak to him in Spanish? Or would she raise her voice to him as if he were hard of hearing?
But who was I to imagine this man being from anywhere, based on his name alone? At a place of arrivals and departures, it sank into me that the currency of our names is a stroke of luck: because mine was not an easy name, it forced me to consider how language would rule me if I allowed it. Yet I discovered that only by leaving. My stepfather must live in the Valley, a place that does not allow that choice, every day. And Eugenio Reyes — I do not know if he was coming or going.
Manuel Muñoz is the author of “The Faith Healer of Olive Avenue.”