Monday, July 7, 2008

What's in a name?

When I first started teaching in the United States (at this incredible adult-education program outside of Washington, DC), I had thirty or forty students from all around the world, and names to match. I had students from Mongolia, from Sudan, from Burundi, Peru, Ecuador, Laos, Vietnam, Gabón, Khazakstan, South Africa, Equatorial Guinea and lots of countries in between. I had my hands full with the different sounds, and I tried really hard to remember everyone's names, even as they called me "teacher" despite every effort on my part to have them call me some part of my given name. My name, they explained, was too weird to remember.

Here in Chile, the variety of names, as you might imagine, is not nearly so great. In fact, I quickly noticed that in any given classroom of eight or more students, so long as I called the name Marcelo or Christian, I was sure to get a response. I was practically guaranteed at least two Marcelos, Christians or Claudios. For the women, Marcela and Claudia were sure to elicit a response.

Of course names are important. Someone looked at you in their arms, or on a sonogram and decided, this child we will call X. And if you're lucky, X is a name that will take you where you want to go.

Alot of names here in Chile are unloaded. Anyone can be named Jaime. Ditto Andrés. But certain names will bring connotations of class. Composite names, like José Luis, Juan Pablo or any of the various versions of María _______ (second name) tend to be from families with money. Never truncate these names. Ask your friends if they've seen María when you're really looking for María José is a surefire way to have them look at you blankly and say... who?

Another naming red flag is the gringofied hybridized name, a famous example would be Briathon. Any mezcolanza (mixture, with negative connotation) of two English names, or even just an English name on its own often connotes lower-middle class roots. In this class-obsessed society, your name can be very important.

Yesterday I met a guy at the skatepark named Jonathan. We chatted for a while, and I found out he lives in Estación Central, a comuna (district) of Santiago that is centrally located, inches from many bus terminals, congested, and a great place to peruse any manner of stolen wares, if you get my drift.

A little later in the conversation, he asked me if I had a second name. Isn't it Eileen ... something, he asked, hopefully. Well, sure, I said. But nobody calls me Eileen Barbara. He repeated my name, Eileen Bárbara (accent his), as if judging for himself if my gringo first name makes me sound común y corriente (run of the mill), or if my middle name somehow negates it. In the end we decided that Eileen Bárbara, or even Eileen Barbara (no accent) is too much of a mouthful, and that I should just go by Eileen, even if it does seem declassé for a Chilena.

And for what it's worth, I take pictures at the skatepark not infrequently, and though everyone has their own nickname already, I like to give them my own.

This miniguy is called the littlest skateboarder. And he's fierce. Wonder what his real name is?

1 comment:

Sharon said...

Gringo names are not bad per se, it's the fact that they are misspelled and usually don't really match the last name soundwise, so their full name sounds fractured and just plain weird. Besides, it's not very fun having one, since you end up having to spell it all the time, but you probably know that as well as I do.