“What is your name?”
What is my name. What is my name, they asked. Not, “how do you say your name?” As if it were some other creature only tied to me by the pencil and paper I write it on. As if it was never mine in the first place. As if it were not me. As if it did not belong to me. As if I did not belong to myself.
My entire life has been a saga of deja vu, where I explain my name to friends, teachers, colleagues, and the baristas at Starbucks. Sometimes I’ll spell it out, or write it down — everyone learns a different way, and “it’s very important to foster a learning and positive environment,” said every Berkeley mother. It astonishes me how many times I have to repeat my name to the same person, and to each person I meet. While their reactions vary, I am left with the same feeling: isolation.
As with all things, I didn’t become ashamed, embarrassed, confused by my name until I reached the age of schooling, where I was ripped out of the safe web my mother had created for me, and into the sea of stubborn ears and tongues that did not listen. I dreaded the first days of school, because every damn year, I would have to go through the same public humiliation of a teacher butchering my name. I was not an exception — there were plenty other children of immigrant parents who suffered the same invisible terror. But this is my story. And no one else had my name, or was me: Camila.
“Kah-mill-uh” is what I got instead. Camille. Camillia. Camilla. Kamila. Cammy.
I was a painfully shy child, so when this happened every 365 days, I wanted it to be over as soon as possible. Never mind that they got it wrong, just get on to saying Hoshang’s or Ayeyi’s name. For the love of God, just butcher someone else’s name. And people wonder why I have anxiety. (Yes, it’s your fault Mrs. Downey. Mr. Aiken. Oh yes, I’m calling you out — funny how the tables have turned, eh?)
The worst part about all of this was not so much that everyone and their literal mother got my name wrong — it was that I didn’t have the courage to tell them that. I didn’t want others to experience my shame, my embarrassment. I just thought it would be easier to let it be, and that being called something other than my name was a fair price for anonymity and minimal humilation. I really did believe I’d come off as a stuck-up, snotty paled-skinned Latina brat who thought she was better than everybody (and for a time, I definitely did). So my voice remained quiet, and I let others name me. Me, my person, my literal identity, didn’t even belong to me. It belonged to those who were willing (or cared enough) to say it. But honestly, by the end of the year, or once soccer season ended, no one remembered my name anyways. No one remembered me. I was just that weird white girl with the weird name. And I stayed that way for the rest of my life.
The most puzzling part of this identity ordeal was that while people called me a literal flower, my name was perfectly normal in Argentina. Normal. There was nothing weird about my name, my skin, or the way I pronounced by double L’s. At six, I didn’t even know what normal was — and I still don’t know. The main difference, though, is that I don’t give a shit about normal anymore. But six-year-old, 12-year-old, and 16-year-old me did.
Each time I hopped on a plane to South America, I was able to shed the snakeskin of my phony identity off my body. I didn’t have to coil myself together like I did on the playground or during show-and-tell. People didn’t have to come up with nick-names or alter ego names just to interact with me (It’s Maya, if anyone is asking. My alter-ego name is Maya.) There were no misunderstandings in my name, and there were no fifth-graders to make fun of my stutter while giving the lunch lady my name. I was free. I was normal in Argentina. And more than anything, everyone in Buenos Aires said my name flawlessly. I fell in love with each person who uttered my name. It was a love affair with my own name, one that was forbidden and chastised in California. It put Romeo and Juliet, Rachel and Ross, and Kimye to shame.
“It’s not that hard of a name,” people would tell me years later, after I decided I would correct people until they said my name properly. I remember sitting at the table, passing hookah around with my college roommates while playing reggae in the background and sipping on beers. In unison, they all agreed that Camila Martinez-Granata was not a difficult name to say or spell. Truly, I know their intentions were well-meant. But on the inside, the smoke of the hookah plumed out of me, leaving the room thick with tension. It was, and continues to be, one of the most back-handed compliments I have ever received. Not the, “You’re pretty for a curvy girl,” or “You don’t look Hispanic.” Never mind that. There I was, sitting at a table, with mint-flavored tobacco in my lungs. The taste went bitter. I took another hit, held my breath, and with my exhale, pushed out every foul and insulting word I wanted to say. I couldn’t. I couldn’t tell them that they were being insensitive or that instead of making me feel validated, they made me feel dumb. Dumb for always correcting people, dumb for speaking out about my name. Dumb for being me. Instead of comforting me, I was pushed against a wall, alone and naked, shut out in the dark. My entire life, I had listened to people, just like my room mates, murder my name, carelessly. And suddenly, it was so conveniently pointed out that my that name isn’t that difficult to begin with. You’re right. It isn’t. My name is not what’s hard. It’s the people. It’s the ignorance that is hard. You do you not get to selectively choose when a name, or a fucking word, is hard to say. It suddenly becomes easy when they decide it is. It’s selfish as fuck.
I blow out the smoke. “Yeah, I guess you’re right,” I say.