“Last name?” the receptionist asked, her face glowing a faint blue before her large computer screen. I let my older son answer the question. It was his orthodontist’s visit after all.
“R-u-i-z,” he said with that grave, puzzling voice that only teenagers and mobsters in movies have the ability to produce. While she looked up his file in order to schedule his next appointment, I stared hard at him.
“Can you please repeat that for me?”
“Ruiz,” I jumped in. “R-u-i-z.” He stared back at me and looked away; his eyes a luminous highway message board that read “EMBARRASSING DAD AHEAD.”
“Got it! I thought you’d said ‘L’ instead or ‘R,’” the receptionist said apologetically.
We were already in the elevator when I asked him why he’d spelled out our last name, instead of saying it.
“’Cause no one gets it,” he said grumpily. “I’d have to spell it anyway.”
Fair enough. I recently volunteered for my younger’s son soccer club, signing up players during tryouts. I had to find their names on a long list and mark them off with yellow highlighter. Only a few—Allen, Gonzalez, Smith—didn’t have to spell theirs. The rest assumed that, in this country, saying your name is a two-step dance as ubiquitous as bumper stickers against Obamacare in the streets of Texas. And yet, what my son had just done made me feel incredibly uneasy.
“Yeah, but your name is not ‘R-u-i-z,’” I said. “If you have to spell it out afterwards, that’s fine. But if they ask for your name, you say it first.”
We jumped in the car. He turned on the radio and started searching for one of his favorite stations, like a reflex action. An expression of boredom or dismay, I couldn’t tell, spread across his face when he mumbled, “I wish I had a different name.”
It was almost 4 p.m., and we were late to pick up his younger brother at school. I didn’t feel like performing a scene from Lifetime’s original movie “I Don’t Like My Name: An Immigrant Son’s Tale” in my own car, but I couldn’t find my way out of it. (See, I was made in Mexico. I am prone to melodrama.)
“Your name is beautiful. You should be proud of it,” I cried, trying to keep my gestures from going all soap opera-like. I wanted to stop the car and give him a hug, but my voice sounded as if I was going to ground him. “What’s wrong with your name?”
“There’s nothing wrong with my last name,” he said, as if the clarification would make me feel better. It broke my heart to think that he thought I was hurt. “It’s my first name I don’t like.”
“What name would you like to have then?” I felt as comfortable and in control of the conversation as a creationist touring a Natural History museum. “Bob? John? Kyler? Skyler? Carson?”
“No, tell me. I want to know,” I said defiantly, definitely acting my age here. Like, totally grownup.
“One that I wouldn’t have to spell all the time,” he said. He sounded exhausted. I’ve lived 13 years of my adult life with this guy. He might be as tall as I am now, but I changed his first diaper, at the hospital, hours after he was born on a rainy Sunday morning in April. I can tell when he’s making stuff up. He wasn’t. “Every time I meet someone new, I think, ‘Please don’t ask my name.’”
According to the Social Security Administration, my older son’s name, Emiliano, occupied the 528th position on the list of most popular male names in the United States in 2001, the year he was born. The top ten spots that year went to Jacob, Michael, Matthew, Joshua, Christopher, Nicholas, Andrew, Joseph, Daniel, and William, none of which was in the pool of possible options his mother and I put together as soon as we found out we were expecting a baby.
The other male name we considered was Clemente. Had he been a girl, we’d have named her Federica.
Good luck finding either one on the SSA’s lists.
Perhaps because that same year it was the 353rd most popular male name in the U.S., people often mistake Emiliano’s name for Emilio—not crazy-popular either if you like, but at least it ranked 175 positions above his. And, yeah, you could say it’s a nice name too. It actually is. It’s just not his name, the same way Anthony is not mine, neither are Valeria or Veronica or Victoria my wife Valentina’s—no matter how similar they may sound.
A couple of years ago, we found out that one of his new teachers in seventh grade had been calling him Emilio for several weeks without him complaining. His mother and I asked him why he’d let that happen. He said it was too much work to correct her every time, and that he didn’t care. “Well, you should, because that’s not your name,” we said. We told him to talk with his teacher the next morning, or else we would. He said he did, but we never followed up with him, or with her.
At any rate, we’d never name him Emilio. But neither would we Jacob nor Michael nor Matthew nor Joshua nor Christopher, because he wasn’t born here in the first place.
Both of our sons were born abroad: Emiliano in Mexico City, his younger brother in Madrid. When we named them, we didn’t imagine we’d move to the U.S. and raise them here. We didn’t wonder whether people would find their names hard to pronounce, whether they’d struggle to spell them. We just wondered whether these names would convey their personalities, whether they would be a genuine reflection of the men they would eventually become.
Now try this:
Say it out loud.
Okay, try breaking it down into syllables.
Yeah, I know.
That’s my younger son’s name. It occupied the 428th position on the list of most popular male names in the U.S. in 2003, the year he was born.
Before my older son avalanched into adolescence and our predicaments with his name were picked up for a new Netflix Original Series—as of yet unnamed—one of our favorite family dinner conversations was to recount the many outlandish ways in which nurses, teachers, and telemarketers have mispronounced our names over the phone. Every time, Guillermo’s variations would get the most laughs, hands down.
If you don’t know at least a bit of Spanish, I admit, it’s a tricky one. In order to pronounce it correctly, not only must you know that the ‘U’ is silent if sandwiched between a hard ‘G’ and an ‘I,’ but also that two ‘L’s’ together are pronounced as ‘Y.’
So, in order for him to get his name right, he should write it as:
By comparison, Emilio looks and feels closer to my older son’s original.
Guillermo is a goalkeeper. Becoming a professional soccer player is his dream. But it is hard to envision Real Madrid jerseys with the legend GUILLERMO on the back. Too long, too hard to pronounce in most languages—a global marketing disaster waiting to happen.
When he got his start in the game a few years ago, coaches and parents of other players joined teachers and nurses in the linguistic nightmare, tripping over his name every time they tried to say it. Soon enough, one of them, who will forever bear our gratitude but whose name we’ve long forgotten, came up with a sticky nickname, a shortcut for the ages:
He loves it. His teammates love it. Coaches love it. Team parents love it. We accept it. It’s nice and short and distinctive—and EVERYBODY GETS IT.
And it will make killer soccer jerseys one day.
In a piece called “A Return to Nigeria,” which she wrote last April for the “Private Lives” blog in The New York Times, Enuma Okoro described the journey that led to her decision to move back to the country where her parents came from, “a land and a people that rightfully claimed” her.
“Coming of age in foreign classrooms,” Okoro wrote about her experience growing up in New York, “my sister and I slowly shed our native skins. We let teachers mangle our names, then adopted their mispronunciations—introducing ourselves with syllables our own relatives tripped over.”
When I read Okoro’s piece, I realized that it’s been 13 years since I last lived in a place where I don’t have to explain myself, or tell my own story when people ask where I’m from, or even spell my name. I hadn’t yet realized how exhausting and alienating that can be, the everyday effort that it takes to forge the muscles of your mouth—or is it on your mouth?—to produce foreign words with an accent good enough so people can understand you, how long it takes to write the simplest of emails because you have to reread it several times to make sure the English grammar, which doesn’t come naturally to you, is correct.
I left Mexico, the country where I was born and raised, at the age of 28 in 2001. I have since returned several times, but never for periods longer than a month. I don’t see myself moving back anytime soon. But like Okoro with Nigeria, I know that the only land that can rightfully claim me is Mexico. Anywhere else, I’ll always be an outsider, no matter how well I have assimilated.
Okoro’s piece made me realize that what Mexico had been for me, the U.S. has become for my kids. One was three, the other one six months, when we arrived. I realized that this is the one place where they shouldn’t have to explain themselves, or feel self-conscious about their names. I wondered whether they’d agree, and what they would say if I asked them to name the land, and the people, which could rightfully claim them.
And like every time they have a problem at school or their mood changes because something’s not right, I began to worry, because I wasn’t sure what they would reply, and because sometimes you just can’t help your kids out—no matter how hard you try.
My older son and I spent the rest of the ride from the orthodontist’s office in silence. We picked up Guillermo at school and headed home. The goalkeeper jumped out of the car as soon as we arrived, and dashed out to the backyard, determined to destroy what’s left of our fence with his soccer ball.
“I don’t like my name, but I like the way you and Mom call me, though,” Emiliano said when we were alone again. He’d never made any kind of remark about his nickname before, and when he signed up for Teenage Mood Swings Pre-AP, I worried that one day he’d deem the term ridiculous or embarrassing, and ask us to drop it.
Only my wife and I call him by that nickname. I’ve always thought it perfectly conveys who he is and what he means to us. But I didn’t know that he thought the same.
The day he was born we started calling him:
It means pup, but also cub.
“I hope you keep calling me that when I grow up,” Emiliano said, and slipped out of the car slamming the door unwillingly, still unable to control all the incredible might of his growing, phenomenal self.
Antonio Ruiz-Camacho is the author of the forthcoming story collection “Barefoot Dogs.”