I cut through the neighborhood park on my way home from walking my dog. I see a young woman near her blond, curly-haired toddler in the grass. I smile at her.
“Oh, I saw you the other day with your son, walking into the house that just sold. Did you just move in?”
“How do you like it?”
“We love it, and this park right near our house is great for my two-year-old. We call it our 'side yard' ”.
“Yes, the playground, the basketball court, and all this grass area is great for kids.”
“We love it. The people have been so friendly, and it is quiet here.”
“I agree. I hope you enjoy it.”
“What is your name?”
“My name is Vin.”
“Hi, Vin, my name is Nat.”
“Is that short for something?”
“Yes, Natale. People don’t often pronounce it right, so I go by Nat.”
My mother named me Vincentia, an anglicized version of Vicenta, which is the Spanish female version of Vincent. Why anglicize my name? I guess so the English can pronounce it easily, which they still can’t, so I have to shorten it. When people stumble over my name or can’t remember it the second time we meet, I want to put them at ease. Why? Because it is worse to not be called at all, because they can’t say your name, so I make it easy for them. We all want to belong.
I ask a college student who moved to the USA from China two weeks earlier, what her name is, and she says “Betty”. She smiles. She is eager to assimilate, to belong, to be called by a name easy to pronounce. But it always makes me wince. Like a part of one’s identity is sacrificed on the altar of joining the mainstream. Who are you? Who am I? I do want to fit in. I do want to get called, but I want to hold onto me. I want to wear my feathers if I’m Native American, my Afro or locs if I’m black, my kimono if I’m Japanese, and use my Spanish name if I’m Spanish.
My Spanish mother was named Romana, but all through school she went by Ramona. During a recess in grammar school, some of her friends were huddled in a circle, all speaking their native Spanish. But they were only allowed to speak English at school. My mother saw an angry nun across the yard, coming to beat them with a switch, so she pinched her friend hard on the arm, in order for her to stop speaking Spanish.
What’s in a name?
My body, my soul, my face.
Take it away with a slap, a frown, a switch.
I may change it for you.
Bury it and let it lie dormant.
The rains trickle down.
Coaxed by sun and water
A sea of poppies emerges and paints the hillside orange.
I turn my ear and hear the wind call my name, and all other sounds cease.
I turn my poppy face to that sound, drink her in, and nod.
Yes, that is my name…call me by my name.
It’s mine. I don’t have much different and unique that is me,
just my face, my voice,
My own name.
The next time I walked through the park and saw Nat, I said, “Hello, Natale” and she smiled.