I couldn’t pronounce my own name correctly until I was six years old. Formed by American daycares instead of my Colombian relatives, my tongue froze at the thought of the round “r” in Laura, which, to be clear, is different from Laura (lor-ah), the English pronunciation of my name, the one I actually go by. But, I like to think my real name is the one my immigrant parents gave to me at birth: Laura (lauw-ra but the “r” sounds like a “d,” I would encourage searching it up on YouTube).
Round, subtle, and flowing, the Spanish-version of my name feels like home. In comparison, Laura is too junky, too harsh, too claustrophobic in the front of my mouth: not mine. But I suppose along the way, through American daycare rooms and Canadian school halls, my Spanish mutated to English, because I can’t remember going by anything other than Laura. Nevertheless, it seems like every other month, I debate changing the pronunciation of my name. Laura is the only thing my heart knows. But I’ve been holding on to Laura for so long now that I can’t let go.
The anglicization of my name, and the perpetual indecisiveness that goes along with it, leaves me with misplaced anger, with no one to exactly be angry at. My parents, understanding the never-ending questions and absurdly botched mispronunciations as immigrants themselves, gave me an easy way out, a switch from ‘child of immigrants’ to ‘Anglo-descendent’ to go along with my whiteness. Unlike a simple stressed syllable fix, many non-Spanish speakers can’t physically pronounce Spanish “r’s,” so it’s not their fault either. And as much as I appreciate the effort, hearing a disfigured Laura can be more painful than just Laura; another example of my Latina identity being perceived as foreign, unnatural. I would rather ignore it and just stick to the familiar “Laura.”
There’s no right answer. I wish I could say that I’ve completely accepted that my name simply isn’t meant for the United States, but every time someone calls me “Lara” or “Lauren” by accident, a sense of frustration arises at my name being Americanized for a second time. I’m lost in a cycle of annoyance and anger and helplessness. There’s no way to magically make the syllables of my name easy to pronounce for Americans. So I push it all to the side, and decide to think about it next month or next year or whenever I feel that the letters of my name truly belong to me. In the meantime, Laura will have to suffice.
And yet, the first time I was called Laura in a non-Spanish classroom felt like a wave of warmth, relief, and most importantly, security. Security in my identity as a Latina, in my place in the world, and in my person. For the first time, there was no conflict when my name was called in class, no reminders of the manipulation of my name as a form of assimilation. Rather, I’m just wholly me, nothing more, nothing less. Just like that, I’m drawn to that safety and pushed back into that cycle of indecisiveness.
Recently, I have been drawn to the idea of going to college: a new start, new identity, new name. I’ve been thinking of maybe changing my name to Lau, a nickname that my Colombian family uses. There’s still the authenticity of my culture but without that tricky “r.” But I’m not sure. I don’t think I’ll ever be sure of how my identity should project in this country. As the child of immigrants, I’m not welcomed here, and as showcased by the rise of xenophobia, I much less belong here. I hope I’ll find power in that eventually.
However, there are thousands of immigrant and first generation names that are mangled and distorted, not by physical incapability, but by lazy indifference. We can tell the difference between when you physically can’t pronounce our names and when you give up on correctly acknowledging and validating our identity. For example, my mom, whose name is Natalia, was always referred to as “Natalie” by the owner of my daycare, although she was corrected several times. When people refuse to put minimal effort into correctly pronouncing our names, unable and refusing to respect the label that is supposed to define us, it sends immigrants and the children of immigrants the message that we are perpetual foreigners, that we do not belong, and that our cultures don’t deserve to be understood.
For Anglo-Americans new to this idea, this doesn’t mean berating your non-Anglo friends about what their “real” name is; people will ask to be called what they want to be called and will project their identity on their own terms. Rather, if someone prefers to go by their non-English name, take the time to learn it (you’d be amazed at how helpful YouTube is). Syllables and a couple of letters can make all the difference in creating a safe and welcoming environment for immigrants and their families. Correctly pronouncing someone’s name is the least we can do to show that we respect them and value them, in their entirety. The safer we feel in our own communities, the more we can be our true selves in our cultural identity, non-English names or otherwise.