Say My Name, My Very American Name

“Hi, my name is Maribi”

“You mean Maribel?”

“No, I mean Maribi”

“Like Will You Marry Me?”

“Like Maribi…”

My Kindergarten teacher provided me with the English pronunciation of my name. It is the only way every friend and colleague lovingly calls for my attention, assistance, a beer to share. They don’t know any better, but Ma-ruh-bee is not what my mother intended the world to call me. However, Ma-ri-bí seems to be challenging, confusing, a cause for disruption and distraction from the real conversation being had.

As an extroverted introvert, I don’t exactly love standing out and I really don’t like when people expect an explanation of my name: My time cannot be used as story time, all of the time. Also, unique doesn’t feel very cool when people treat you like you’re a unicorn. Like they had heard about people like you but they had never actually seen one in the flesh! Live and speaking all of the English and articulating herself very well…

For most of my life I introduced myself as Ma-ruh-bee, until Starbucks came along and I felt I had to become Mary because “it’s just easier.” Constantly concerned about the convenience of others, of the “Americans”, I forgot the importance of identifying genuinely with authentic descriptions of who I am. In the words of Marc Anthony, “I’m as American as apple pie”  though I speak 2 languages and identify with more than one culture. In my very arrogant opinion, I’m a superstar American.

When speaking in public, I used to avoid pronouncing names of nations like Puerto Rico or Venezuela correctly for fear of creating a space of discomfort for non-Spanish speakers. I realized, that if I was going to represent myself in a manner that demanded respect of my presence (my Latinx ass presence) language was extremely relevant and I needed to just speak the names I knew, accents and all. For me, representing myself includes representing my ancestry, the immigrant experience of my parents, and the pride of identifying as many things because I can.

Puerto Rico and I have  a lot in common (hence my semi-obsession with learning Puerto Rican history). Besides the fact that both our names include a good ol’, not real lengthy, R roll, our names are depictions of our American stories. We are American, not exactly by choice (a story for another day), but we bleed colors red, white and blue in name of 2 nations. We live on the margins, our names dripping with the tensions of migrant history. Who, exactly, are we responsible to?

The answer is quite simple, but the practice is much harder. To be responsible for yourself requires a great act of self advocacy, something a 5 year old taught me. Kids say and do some crazy things, but they are so colorfully brave. They allow themselves to consider all of the possibilities and they certainly don’t limit the abilities of any human being. Adults assume too much (Read, I assume too much). I assumed that I couldn’t teach an “American” how to say my “un-American” name. They can’t speak Spanish and I can’t force them too… right? (Read, wrong). Also, the exposure of correct pronunciation of my name usually leads to conversations of what languages are spoken at home, and what country is my family from, and how did my mom come up with that? It’s such a beautiful name they had never heard of. How frustrating it is to constantly answer questions about my name!

My excuses shut down the day it took 20 seconds for 5 year old Zoe to teach me that her name is not Zo-ee, it is Zoè. All she had to do was say, “excuse me, my name is not ____, it’s____” and she had my full attention with no further question or suggestion that she could possibly be wrong or foreign. I was the fool in that brief moment, but I was also extremely proud of her and optimistic for the future. We have reached new heights.

I was one of 4 Latino students in my Kindergarten class way back when, and my teacher in conversation with my English language learning mother compromised on a new pronunciation of my name. It would make it easier for the non-Spanish speaking teachers, less awkward for the already pause filled moment when teachers attempted to announce “unique” names correctly in class, and more efficient for the American society I was growing up in. I do not have vivid memory of my Kindergarten years, but I do remember that I have had 2 versions of my name since I was a little girl and as an adult it is a struggle to let either one of them go.

Though I grow in consciousness and effort to change the world in adulthood, I don’t press too much on the issue of my name and I answer questions briefly and smile. When I did embrace the radical notion that I could only be Ma-ri-bí, I was emotionally drained from denying the reality that I liked the 2 pronunciations of my name. The reality of my history led me to an English version and a Spanish version, so I correct the 2 pronunciations to fit my liking and I introduce myself in the lengthy matter of Ma-ruh-bee in English and Ma-ri-bí in Spanish. And those are the only versions of my name I ascribe to no matter where I am (I’m looking at you Starbucks).

As Zoè taught me, we are free to stand 7 ft tall in this soil of liberation too. I feel unchained after I’ve introduced myself fully, leaving no pronunciation or correct spelling behind. My names and I are Dominican, American, Dominican-American, Latinx, Gringa. We carry the scars of many wars and social politics on our backs and have become very attached to one another. We can’t help but be exactly who we are, at all times.


3 thoughts on “Say My Name, My Very American Name

  1. penfar

    I am an American fluent in Spanish. As a matter of fact, I teach it at a University. I pronounce the countries as a native would, as intended. You should see the looks I get?! Kudos to you for embracing your heritage. I too am uber proud to be a Jewish Russian/Polish American whose (in my case) grand parents immigrated to this county.

    • projectchula

      I love that! Yesterday I went to the doctor and he was Asian American, said my name completely correct and revealed that he looked at it for a minute thinking of the correct pronunciation before coming out. I greatly appreciated that!

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