What’s in a name? Often, a rich heritage that shapes our identity and opens up new worlds for those whom we choose to let into ours.
I think about my first name, Rosa Maria. When I was small and throughout my adolescent years, I wanted nothing more than to fit in.
So many times, I had wished that my mother had named me Allison, her American alternative at the time of my birth. This desire continued when friends, teachers and anyone else I met would hear my name for the first time and take it upon themselves to shorten it to Rosa (pronouncing it Ro-za), or to inject it with American endings such as Rose Marie or Rose Mary.
My Puerto Rican mother wondered why I didn’t correct them; it was my grandmother’s beautiful name after all. My response was to shrug. It did bother me, but didn’t she understand how hard it was to feel different among all the blue-eyed, no-fuss Melissas, Jennifers and Amandas?
She did understand though. Coming to this country from Puerto Rico, alone to attend boarding school at age 13, doesn’t leave a person unmarked. She often quipped about her own long name being garbled and the raised eyebrows when she mispronounced certain American words. Hearing this always made me feel better and proud of my strong mother, but still — it didn’t change my name.
It wasn’t until my time at Middlebury College that things shifted. Having just spent the first part of my life as “Roza”, I wondered what it would be like to go to a new place and to insist on my full identity. Meeting my freshman roommate was the start. “I’m Rosa Maria,” I said at introduction. “Wow, that’s cool, but do you go by the whole name?” she asked. After a split moment of weakness, I replied to her without a stammer, “Yes, I do.”
After that, it became easier and easier and I soon found myself explaining the interesting history behind my name with enjoyment and pride. I liked being half Puerto Rican. I liked that I was the namesake of a smart and fiery grandmother. I liked having more cousins than I could count. I liked that my favorite thing to eat was arroz con habichuelas. I liked that my grandfather owned a successful rum business. I liked that my ancestors were from the Basque region of Spain. I liked being unique, and I liked being me.
It is with this same consideration and during this month of National Hispanic Heritage that I’m having my students at Penguin Hall read and discuss one of Julia Alvarez’s personal essays called “Nombres/Names”. In this short, but powerful piece, Alvarez demonstrates her own conflicting feelings surrounding her name, after moving to New York City from the Dominican Republic. She is exasperated by the mispronunciations and Americanized nicknames inflicted on her by the people she meets and can’t understand how the apartment super could get her last name wrong. “How could anyone get Elbures out of that orchestra of sound?”
But she also enjoys reshaping her identity with the flashy nicknames that are given by her American classmates. She describes wanting her Dominican extended family to go back to where they came from and “leave me to pursue whatever mischief I wanted to in America. JUDY ALCATRAZ, the name of the “Wanted” poster would read. Who would ever trace me to her?”
As a middle and high school student in the 1950’s, Alvarez just wanted to blend in. She describes brushing away fellow classmates who ask her where she’s “originally from” and shocking them when she rattles off her full, 12-word-long name. But as she ends the piece, she shows that she is grateful for her large, foreign family. As she opens graduation presents, including a typewriter from her parents to write her stories, she thinks toward the future. As a famous author, which name will she go by? Years later, readers have the answer.
I had the great opportunity to meet and study under Julia Alvarez during my senior year of college. It was a month-long creative writing course that took place in her Dominican Republic, high up in the mystic mountains of Jarabacoa. I will never forget my time with this slight, yet hugely inspiring and deeply compassionate woman. And I will certainly never forget, as we introduced ourselves around the circle, the smile we shared when I introduced myself as Rosa Maria.
Read more about Rosa Maria and Penguin Hall’s other amazing faculty members.