By Julia Alvarez
When we arrived in New York City, our names changed almost immediately. At
Immigration, the officer asked my father, Mister Elbures, if he had anything to declare.
My father shook his head no, and we were waved through. I was too afraid we wouldn’t
be let in if I corrected the man’s punctuation, but I said our name to myself, opening my
mouth wide for the organ blast of a. trilling my tongue for the drumroll of the r, All-vabrrr-es! How could anyone get Elbures out of that orchestra of sound?
At the hotel my mother was Missus Alburest, and I was little girl, as in, “Hey, little
girl, stop riding the elevator up and down. It’s not a toy.”
We moved into our new apartment building, the super called my father Mister
Alberase, and the neighbors who became mother’s friends pronounced her name Jewlee-ah instead of Hoo-lee-ah. I, her namesake, was known as Hoo-lee-tah at home. But
at school I was Judy or Judith, and once an English teacher mistook me for Juliet.
It took me a while to get used to my new names. I wondered if I shouldn’t correct
my teachers and new friends. But my mother argued that it didn’t matter. “You know
what your friend Shakespeare said, ‘A rose by any other name would smell as sweet’.”
My family had gotten into the habit of calling any famous author “my friend” because I
had begun to write poems and stories in English class.
By the time I was in high school, I was a popular kid, and it showed in my name.
Friends called me Jules or Hey Jude, and once a group of troublemaking friends my
mother forbade me to hang out with called me Alcatraz. I was Hoo-lee-tah only to Mami
and Papi and uncles and aunts who came over to eat sancocho on Sunday afternoons—old world folk whom I would just as soon go back to where they came from and leave
me to pursue whatever mischief I wanted to in America. JUDY ALCATRAZ, the name
on the “Wanted” poster would read. Who would ever trace her to me?
My older sister had the hardest time getting an American name for herself
because Mauricia did not translate into English. Ironically, although she had the most
foreign-sounding name, she and I were the Americans in the family. We had been born
in New York City when our parents had first tried immigration and then gone back
“home,” too homesick to stay. My mother often told the story of how she had almost
changed my sister’s name in the hospital.
After the delivery, Mami and some other new mothers were cooing over their new
baby sons and daughters and exchanging names and weights and delivery stories. My
mother was embarrassed among the Sallys and Janes and Georges and Johns to
reveal the rich, noisy name of Mauricia, so when her turn came to brag, she gave her
baby’s name as Maureen.
“Why’d ya give her an Irish name with so many pretty Spanish names to choose
from?” one of the women asked.
My mother blushed and admitted her baby’s real name to the group. Her motherin-law had recently died, she apologized, and her husband had insisted that the first
daughter be named after his mother, Mauran. My mother thought it the ugliest name
she had ever heard, and she talked my father into what she believed was an
improvement, a combination of Mauran and her own mother’s name, Felicia.
“Her name is Mao-ree-shee-ah,” my mother said to the group of women.
“Why, that’s a beautiful name,” the new mothers cried. “Moor-ee-sha, Moor-eesha,” they cooed into the pink blanket. Moor-ee-sha it was when we returned to the
States eleven years later. Sometimes American tongues found even that
mispronunciation tough to say and called her Maria or Marsha or Maudy from her
nickname Maury. I pitied her. What an awful name to have to transport across borders!
My little sister, Ana, had the easiest time of all. She was plain Anne—that is, only
her name was plain, for she turned out to be the pale, blond “American beauty” in the
family. The only Hispanic thing about her was the affectionate nicknames her boyfriends
sometimes gave her. Anita, or, as one goofy guy used to sing to her to the tune of the
banana advertisement Anita Banana.
Later, during her college years in the late sixties, there was a push to pronounce
Third World names correctly. I remember calling her long distance at her group house
and a roommate answering.
“Can I speak to Ana?” I asked, pronouncing her name the American way.
“Ana?” The man’s voice hesitated. “Oh! You must mean Ah-nah!”
Our first few years in the States, though, ethnicity was not yet “in.” Those were
the blond, blue-eyed, bobby-sock years of junior high and high school before the sixties
ushered in peasant blouses, hoop earrings, serapes. My initial desire to be known by
my correct Dominican name faded. I just wanted to be Judy and merge with the Sallys
and the Janes in my class. But, inevitably, my accent and coloring gave me away. “So
where are you from, Judy?”
“New York,” I told my classmates. After all, I had been born blocks away at
Columbia- Presbyterian Hospital.
“I mean, originally.”
“From the Caribbean,” I answered vaguely, for if I specified, no one was quite
sure on what continent our island was located.
“Really? I’ve been to Bermuda. We went last April for spring vacation. I got the
worst sunburn! So, are you from Portoriko?”
“No,” I sighed. “From the Dominican Republic.”
“South of Bermuda.”
They were just being curious, I knew, but I burned with shame whenever they
singled me out as a “foreigner,” a rare, exotic friend.
“Say your name in Spanish, oh, please say it!” I had made mouths drop one day
by rattling off my full name, which, according to the Dominican custom, included my
middle names, Mother’s and Father’s surnames for four generations back.
“Julia Altagracia María Teresa Álverez Tavares Perello Espaillat Julia Pérez Rochet
González.” I pronounced it slowly, a name as chaotic with sounds as a Middle Eastern
bazaar or market day in a South American village.
My Dominican heritage was never more apparent than when my extended family
attended school occasions. For my graduation, they all came, the whole lot of aunts and
uncles and the many little cousins who snuck in without tickets. They sat in the first row
in order to better understand the Americans’ fast-spoken English. But how could they
listen when they were constantly speaking among themselves in florid-sounding
phrases, rococo consonants, rich, rhyming vowel?
Introducing them to my friends was a further trial to me. These relatives had such
complicated names and there were so many of them, and their relationships to myself
were so convoluted. There was my Tía Josefina, who was not really an aunt but a much
older cousin. And her daughter, Aida Margarita, who was adopted, una hija de crianza.
My uncle of affection, Tío José, brought my madrina Tia Amelia and her comadre Tía
Pilar. My friends rarely had more than a “Mom and Dad” to introduce.
After the commencement ceremony, my family waited outside in the parking lot
while my friends and I signed yearbooks with nicknames which recalled our high school
good times: “Beans” and “Pepperoni” and “Alcatraz.” We hugged and cried and
promised to keep in touch.Our goodbyes went on too long. I heard my father’s voice calling out across the
parking lot, “Hoo-lee-tah! Vámonos!”
Back home, my tíos and tías and primas, Mami and Papi, and mis hermanas had
a party were many gifts—that was a plus to a large family! I got several wallets and a
suitcase with my initials and a graduation charm from my godmother and money from
my uncles. The biggest gift was a portable typewriter from my parents for writing my
stories and poems.
Someday, the family predicted, my name would be well-known throughout the
United States. I laughed to myself, wondering which one I would go by.
“Do you think the Supreme Court was correct or incorrect? Should a U.S. citizen be allowed to protest a war or draft in time of war?”
Try your hand at grading some of the following essays by your peers. It’s a great opportunity to learn from others and good practice to help you clarify what qualities your own essay should possess.