Hillary/Hilaria: what’s in a name?

I grew up a white-appearing girl in American border town with an American mother of Mexican ancestry and a Mexican father who’d immigrated to the US at the age of five. We lived two miles from Mexico and I could see the lights of our sister town on the Mexican side from my house at night. There is “no-GAL-ez air-ih-ZO-nah” and there is “noh-GAH-les, soh-NOR-ah.” Two towns divided by a common name.

My name is complicated to the untrained ear and different people call me different things. Vene, Veneranda, Bene, Beneranda, V and all sorts of things I’ve never sanctioned. My father, who had to adapt early and often through life, is sometimes Ricardo, sometimes Richard, sometimes Gordo and sometimes, jokingly, Dick Ah-Gwy-urr. My mother was adamant that we three daughters learn to say our names proudly while looking strangers in the eye. Veneranda, Andrea, Margot. Family names passed down. We would not be ashamed.

I grew up going to American schools, speaking English, Spanish and French and there are still times when I blank out on words in both English and Spanish. My accent comes in and out depending on the circumstances. It’s called code switching. I didn’t do it to be accepted. It came about quite organically. I never chose to pander to anyone.

It wasn’t until I was in middle school choir and began to travel, encountering white children from other parts of Arizona that I began to feel my “otherness.” And in those instances, I learned to pick my battles and pick my pronunciation. I moved in American and Mexican society and I had to adapt to survive amongst different crowds.

Hilaria is not putting on an act. This isn’t a girl who went to “Barça” for a semester. To a Spanish-English speaking native her accent comes off as authentic.

Identity is not binary. We should not have to pick one for the sake of those who have only ever been exposed to a single culture. Americans find my rolled Rs intimidating and my pronunciation when I talk about Mexican food cute. They sometimes think it is a put on. But even the white Americans who live in Nogales speak this way. It is the difference between being Hispanic (from a place where Spanish is spoken) and being Latina (of Latin American derivation). Even these terms betray the complexity of multi-cultural identity.

My sister, who is an Army wife living on a base, has anglicized her name to make her life easier. When I’ve heard her speak her new name, I’ve always felt a bit of loss of the girl I once knew. But I understand why she has made the compromise. Our words and background confuse people and alienate us from others. She wants to blend in. I don’t care if I stand out.

I don’t encounter this with Non-Americans or American POC. It is only when I have successfully moved among American whites, undetected, that my identity is ever called into question. As though I were upping the difficulty quotient or somehow being pretentious. Talk about hilarity. My Spanish is humble and so are the words I am using. But they offend the untrained ear with their perceived flourish. If I had darker skin, I sometimes think of how this integral part of me would limit my potential in society. It is only my perceived white privilege that instead makes it more of a innocuous parlor trick.

I can’t win for losing. It isn’t true that a rose by any other name would smell as sweet. If I were to deny my father and refuse my name for the sake of others’ lack of understanding, I wouldn’t be the me-ist me I could be. And that truly would smell rotten in New Amsterdam.

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