Posted inCultures

What’s in a name?

Illustration by Ben Beechener

The story behind my name isn’t very grand. Long story short, my parents heard my name and liked the sound of it, and my mother appreciated how it was similar to hers but not quite the same. My mother claims that she heard my name has a French origin and it meant something related to ‘strength,’ but a quick Google search reveals that that is just one of several interpretations behind my name. Because my name is a bit unique, I’ve never been able to find a conclusive meaning of it, nor did I get lucky as a child to ever find it on a keychain inside a souvenir store. When I was younger, I was extremely jealous of other children with more common names like “Jane” or “Emily” because they could always find their names on random items inside gift shops. I hate to admit that growing up I spent many years wishing I was given a different name, something more conventional that could be found on souvenirs, but also something that people could properly spell or pronounce. 

Over the years, I have heard many versions of my name and have seen many fail to spell it properly, sometimes even after I’ve spelled it out letter by letter. I would be lying if I said this bothered me every time because I understand that sometimes it is an honest mistake. But other times people choose to not say your name properly with malicious intent behind it. In fact, research has shown that choosing to repeatedly mispronounce someone’s name is an act of implicit discrimination. This takes me back to my onboarding day at my first post-university job when some of my coworkers said they needed to give me a nickname because my name was too hard to pronounce and they would never remember it. They made it a point to mention that even my last name was too complicated, so a nickname would be required. I noticed similar comments were said to the only other new coworker who was also from an ethnic minority group — no one else had to sit through comments about how their name is “too complicated.” 

The irony of moments like those is that my name is not even that complicated. Phonetically, it’s simply “ya-nel” or “jah-nel” if you’re saying it in Spanish, my native language. Despite it all, I have learned to love my name for everything it represents. I am no longer the young girl who wished for a more common name so she could get a keychain with it, I am now incredibly proud of my full name. My name tells the story of who I am and where I come from. Being from Latin America, I have a long full name — Yanelle Valeria Cruz Bonilla — and it used to annoy me, but now I get annoyed when my full name cannot fit in official forms because it means I have to choose which name to omit and it means the name on that form will not match the full name on my passport. While I used to think of ways to shorten my name, I now insist on using my first name and my two last names because they each honor my parents and the lineage that I come from. Recognizing my lineage matters to me because there is so much history attached to the names we all hold. For me, using my full name represents the history of multiple generations within my family. Within that history are stories of perseverance, resilience, and strength — three traits that I think of when I think of Latin America. 

For many of us who experience mockery, mispronunciation, and othering because of our names, learning to love and embrace our names can be a revolutionary act. Many of us have been forced to ‘westernize or whiten’ our names growing up to avoid being mocked, or even when searching for jobs and opportunities because studies show minorities with ‘ethnic’ names can have a difficult time being hired. I believe that we should not be blamed for making the choice to change our name to appease others. Instead, it should be on others to change the culture around “difficult” names. Reading about actress Uzoamaka “Uzo” Aduba’s own journey with her Nigerian name, the point that remains with me the most is something her mother told her. She said, “If they can learn to say Tchaikovsky and Michelangelo and Dostoyevsky, they can learn to say Uzoamaka.” 

Stories like Uzo Aduba’s journey with her name helped me realize that I needed to stop making myself small and appease others who could not figure out how to say my name. Taking time to pronounce and properly spell someone’s name is not only the bare minimum, it is also a sign of respect to that person and their identity. It is okay if it takes you several times to learn how to say someone’s name, and it should be okay to ask them to remind you, what is not okay is to call someone by the wrong name or a nickname they never asked for because you refuse to learn their name. Our names hold power, and it is up to us to prevent others from taking away this power and agency.