The Truth About Ethnic Names and Their Marks on Childhood
How saying my name over and over has become a routine
When I was in fifth grade, my teacher decided to give me a new name because it was easier to pronounce. I recall feeling flustered by the whole ordeal—like I had been causing an inconvenience for being who I was. This alone made it hard for me to reconcile one of her comments to me during reading group. She sat in the center of our half donut shaped table and said in a clear and frank tone that I was a scholar. I didn’t know what the word meant at the time but I asked around. I felt embarrassed to ask her myself—I was intimidated by her towering presence and her weekly assessments of our oral readings of poetry and prose, among other public speaking exercises.
I realized being called a scholar was a good thing and I held on to that bittersweet memory for the rest of my academic years all the way through the MFA. I shake my head when I think about it because it summons ambivalent feelings of inadequacy, weakness, and cowardice—more to do with having allowed her to call me a new name than having rejoiced in her suggestion of my scholarship.
My mother eventually found out about my renaming. She wasn’t impressed. She quickly admonished me to never allow anyone to call me other than my given name. She said that it didn’t matter if English speakers couldn’t say it. At least, she said, they could try and that’s better than assigning you a name I didn’t give you.
When I went to college and joined The Third World and Native American Students Press as a writer/contributor, I learned that being given a name by someone other than my family was a form of colonization. It bewildered me to think that I was being oppressed that year in fifth grade—all with my consent.
It makes perfect sense now.
Last year, I read Jennifer Gonzalez’s post “How We Pronounce Student Names, and Why It Matters” from her blog Cult of Pedagogy. She describes the types of teachers who fall into one of three camps as they approach names which they cannot pronounce: fumble-bumblers, arrogant manglers, and calibrators. She also gives tips to those teachers who find themselves wrestling with mutilating someone’s name by taking it as an opportunity to understand and grow.
She further described much of what I was feeling in my younger years:
People’s reaction to this issue varies depending on their personality. If your student has a strong desire to please, wants desperately to fit in, or is generally conflict-avoidant, they may never tell you that you’re saying their name wrong. For those students, it might matter a lot, but they’d never say so. And other kids are just more laid-back in general. But for many students, the way you say their name conveys a more significant message.
Back then, I wasn’t brave enough to confront my teacher about giving me a new name, so my mother took the lead. It was settled in some sort of way, I can’t remember how; maybe during a teacher-parent conference or an open house. By then, my classmates had already called me by that new name and were telling their parents about the whole thing. Eréndira has a new name, they’d say.
They made a big deal about the whole thing because I believe they were astounded that an adult—our teacher—couldn’t pronounce someone’s name correctly. They were dumbfounded that our teacher would go so far to unburden herself of those stressful occasions when she’d mangle my name. Because my peers were Spanish speakers, we were stunned by the fact that our teacher took such measures to avoid shaming herself in front of fifth graders. However, I believe I was the one who felt the shame even more.
Today, the routine has always been to pronounce my name slowly. Write it phonetically. Enunciate it. Repeat.