Fair warning: This post is way personal, but it comes back to librarianship eventually.
When you grow up along the U.S.-Mexico border, Mexican surnames, like mine, are the norm. The teachers, classmates, doctors, customer service workers, or really anyone I interacted with there never had a problem pronouncing my name: Veronica Inez Arellano. I took that name with me on a slight move within Texas (Houston) and later, on a big move to the Mid-Atlantic (Southern Maryland). The further I got from the border, the harder it was to say. Every sound in the name is a sound you find in the English language, and yet the variations on pronunciation were vast.
- Aye-rel-ah-no (forgivable)
- A-rrrrrrrrr-el-a-no (because I had to have a rolling ‘r’ in there somewhere)
- Ariel-anoh (thanks, but, no)
- Aye-ray…”I’m just horrible with names!”
- *a look* followed by, “I’m not even going to try”
That last variation was always the worst. As women are often socialized to do, I’d respond with a shy, polite smile, say “that’s ok,” and hope I hadn’t inconvenienced anyone. When their unwillingness to pronounce my name was followed by a “Where are you from?” I’d respond in the usual way–Texas. Houston. South Texas?–eventually share what the asker really wanted to know, and watch their faces fall as they learned my “beautiful/exotic/unusual” last name was Mexican, not Portuguese or Italian or some other ethnicity that didn’t evoke images of border crossings.
I kept my name well into 5 years of marriage, never bothering to change it, never feeling pressured by my husband, family, or friends to change it. Then I got pregnant. Then I lost my full-term baby during his delivery. Then I got pregnant again. I felt a strong need to connect with husband, with my lost son, and with my son-to-be, all of whom shared the last name “Douglas.” So, in the emotional hellhole that is grief and the hormonal turmoil that is pregnancy, I changed my name.
Inez was erased. Arellano was minimized to a middle name. Douglas was the new family name.
I’ve kept my name this way for 5 years, never thinking too much about the change. It’s sort of a minor thing to focus on when you’re living on minimal sleep, nursing, potty training a toddler, trying to carve out time with your partner, and attempting to jump through tenure hoops at work. But over the past year it’s become a sore spot. It feels like a self-inflicted dis. I know it’s a stretch, but it makes me feel a bit like those people who didn’t even pretend to pronounce my original last name. I think of them every time I’m forced to type “Veronica A. Douglas” on a conference registration because “Arellano” doesn’t fit on the name tag. I think of them every time I say “Veronica Douglas” when I call my son’s preschool, or when I’m speaking to a customer service rep who I know won’t be able to understand Arellano. I think of them whenever I anglicize the pronunciation of “Veronica” so that people aren’t thrown off when the “Douglas” follows.
I’m changing my name again this summer, to Veronica Inez Arellano-Douglas. Doing so is a guarantee that I will never again have a reference desk name plate that anyone can read from a distance of greater than a few inches, that my conference name tags will be a jumble of initials, and that any speaker intros I receive will leave the facilitator tongue-tied. But it feels right. I never thought that a name, my name, would make such a difference in my identity, in my sense of myself, of my sense of self in relation to others.
It does. It makes a big difference.
I think about names a lot now, especially when I teach and meet with students, faculty, and staff in the library. I’ll usually ask a person’s preferred name. If their name is not one I can readily pronounce, I’ll ask the person if they feel comfortable stating it for me so that I can repeat it back. I acknowledge their name, because it’s an extension of who they are, of their general personhood. I don’t assume that someone will be ok with me “not even trying to say that” because it’s not ok to deny that basic part of a person. Libraries and classrooms should be a place of belonging and rightness for people. That starts with a simple effort to say a person’s name correctly, or as best as you can. It’s a simple act, but it matters to people. It’s an expression of respect, an acknowledgement of their inherent human dignity, and a demonstration that you are ready to engage in communication with empathy and decency. It’s something we should all do at our libraries, on our campuses, and in life.