What’s In A Name?

I’ve been fighting the battle over pronouncing my name since I was a child. I should give some background before I go further. My family is Mexican American. My great-great grandparents crossed over from Mexico into Texas over a hundred years ago. Assimilation for Mexican Americans in Texas is fairly straightforward: Once Spanish ceases to be a primary family language, you’re assimilated. I imagine it works differently for Mexican Americans (and other ethnicities) in other places. I know, for example, that Latinos in New Jersey cling to Spanish as a badge of culture.

Not so in Texas. In the Lone Star State, Spanish is the language of the underclasses: maids, janitors, landscapers, construction workers, and so on. To be perfectly frank and abrupt, Spanish is part of low culture in Texas. With this in mind, my grandmother’s need to distance herself from Spanish seems reasonable. She’s naturally bilingual, but she remembers being punished for speaking her parents’ language in Texas schools. So she never taught me Spanish and this distancing even entered into the core of my identity.

That is, my name. My first and middle names are English (I suppose “Eric” is actually Nordic, but you get the idea). Monolingual Americans don’t stumble over my first or middle name. It’s the last name that always trips them up. My grandmother lived with this obstacle after marrying my grandfather and sought an immediate remedy. My last name is Camarillo. The “c” is hard, each “a” is long, the “r” is rolled, and the double “l” makes a “y” sound. In her attempt to bring down the barrier of my name, my grandmother translated the pronunciation into typical American English. Hard “c,” short “a” then long “a,” the “r” is average, and the “y” sound becomes “l.”

I never really felt trapped by this pronunciation. It happens all the time in Texas. The long “a” in Sanchez becomes short. The double “r” in Torres becomes single. The “h” sound in Jimenez becomes a true “j.” English sometimes breaks Spanish names so completely that the names become unrecognizable. Vasquez, for instance, sounds (to be honest) ugly, when people attempt to pronounce the “u” as a “w.” As an adult, I have trouble understanding this resistance to pronounce things correctly. Monolingual Americans have a tendency to disguise this unwillingness as inability, but if you can say a name like Schlesinger, Giuliani, or McCullough, you can say a name like Vasquez.

As a child, I just kind of accepted it. My dad, a native Spanish speaker, tried to point out that my name (which is my mother’s for reasons I will not get into in this article) wasn’t pronounced the way I was pronouncing it. However, even at nine years old I recognized this as nitpicking and ignored him. It wasn’t until middle school that my eyes opened up to how “white” I talked. The name that brought this to my attention is Rodriguez. I had always pronounced it as “Rod-riguez.” As it turns out, this is incorrect. Spanish blends the “d” and “r” sounds, so it sounds something like “Ro-dri-guez.” It was a small, almost imperceptible change. And I began to think that maybe my dad knew more than I thought.

I started playing around with pronunciations in high school. I spoke my name on the bus, in class before lectures, during lunch, on the way home, in the bathroom, in the shower, in bed. I said it in English. I said it in Spanish. I said it in Spanglish, that delightful mix of Spanish and English that only exists in the southwest United States. I was trying to free my name from the shackles English had placed on it so long ago, but all I did was make that familiar pronunciation just as foreign as the other two. None of the three felt right. Did saying my name in Spanish alienate my European and African American peers? Was I trying too hard to “be Mexican”? It didn’t help that I stumbled over the Spanish pronunciation almost every time I said it.

I didn’t know how to pronounce my own name.

College was better. In an attempt to get closer to my cultural roots, I joined a committee that promoted Mexican American cultural events. It was an awesome experience. I was surrounded by people who were proud to speak Spanish and had no qualms about pronouncing their names, setting them off like firecrackers from their mouths. It was almost like they were speaking in colors, vibrant and scintillating. Interestingly enough, it wasn’t anyone in this committee who made me feel totally comfortable enough about saying my name in Spanish. It was an Indian American friend of mine (who speaks Spanish very well) who did it. He said my name with a flourish that I had never heard before. I tried saying it the way he did and it was like spinning a black cape around myself, Zorro-style. What had been missing wasn’t the long “a” or the “y” sound. I lacked confidence in my pronunciation and the belief that my name should sound this way.

Camarillo. I said it to myself a lot that day and it became kind of like a song.

I understand that many people don’t have the same problems that I have. They say Sanchez with a short “a” and it doesn’t bother them a bit. I’m not saying those people should abandon their pronunciation. What I’m saying is that pronouncing a name is as important to identity as the name itself. In English, my name is clumsy, a mouthful. In Spanish, my name levitates.

People mispronounce and misspell my name a lot (Caramillo? Really?), but it doesn’t bother me the way it used to. I’ve come to a point where I really like my name.

So if you’re like me and you think your name is awkward, I hope that you’re able fall in love with it. Say your name over and over and over until it drips from your lips like poetry, until it rings in your ears like a song. Because it’s your name and it’s special because it belongs to you.

What’s in a name? You are. You are in your name. Your name is your entire being translated into a few syllables.

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