“What’s in a name?” Of course that is the question that Juliet contemplates in the great balcony scene of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. She continues, “That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” As most are aware, Romeo, the passion of her heart, is a Montague, the Hatfield to the Capulet’s McCoy. Juliet, however, loved Romeo, his name not withstanding.
That quote has been tumbling around in my noggin lately. Despite Juliet’s assertions to the contrary, names can and often do carry great weight behind them. Sometimes a name can summon allusions of greatness, accomplishment, or notoriety. Sinatra. Jefferson. Sister Theresa. Bach. Thatcher. Hepburn. Flatt and Scruggs! Just the mention of these names can replace dozens of words that otherwise describe and era, movement, or philosophy. To us folks with a tad less fame, our names may conjure strong emotions or thought among our friends, family and acquaintances. Some names are a legacy. A friend of mine is Harold ______ the IV. With his name comes a world view held by his family and entrusted to him and posterity by virtue of his moniker. My name has been dichotomously problematic for me. As many readers may know, I am half Puerto Rican and a first generation American. Before I started school, being called Marcitos (hard /C/) by brown skinned kinfolk, whose “r’s” rolled fluidly off their tongues was natural and beautiful to my ear. The slightly drawn out vowels of my mother’s Missouri clan calling me Markie to this day remind me of family holiday dinners–ham, raisin sauce, fresh baked dinner rolls, molded jello salad (heck, I said we were midwestern!).
All that began to change in Kindergarten when old Mrs. Burgess, my teacher who had begun her career back in the 1920’s, would call me “Marcus.” She always enlongated the “a” and the “r” and I loathed it. Being a very young Kindergartner (4 years old) and naturally shy at that point of my life, I suffered with her insult everyday for weeks. I was hurt and insulted because she didn’t care enough to know who I was. “Marcus” was another person whose name lacked the beauty of “Marcos” the way my grandmother would say it when she swooped me up into her arms and danced to an old Puerto Rican folk melody that would sing and hum. “Marcus” was the name of a stranger spoken shrilly by a cantankerous old schoolmarm.
I was at the point where I couldn’t live with it one moment longer when one day Mrs. Burgess was pinning a note on my coat to take home to my parents. I noticed that there, written on the envelope,was M-a-r-c-u-s. Before I could stop myself, I blurted, “Mrs. Burgess, please don’t call me Marcus.” I shrank back into my oversized hand-me-down overcoat like a large turtle at this unaccustomed outburst.
She straightened up, squinted down at me over the top of her horn rimmed glasses and said, “What do you mean? I don’t call you Marcus.” She flushed and her voice rose to a high dry cackle.
“Yes you do, Mame,” my own voice falling to a small whisper. “You even wrote it right here,” I warily replied, feebly pointing to the note pinned onto my chest.
She bent over again, to peer at the note closer, her stiff blue-gray brushing against the tip of my nose. When she rose again, there was a momentary, silent glower, and then an epithet admonishing me about being impudent (a new word I learned that afternoon) and not contradicting elders.
On the walk home up the steep hills of our Glen Park neighborhood in San Francisco, I recounted the afternoon’s events to my mom. I told her that I didn’t want Mrs. Burgess to ever say my name again. My mom asked me what I wanted to be called at school, but I hadn’t a clue. The names that my family had for me were always said with affection and love. Mrs. Burgess didn’t have the right or ability to say any of them the way I wanted to hear them. My mom then suggested “Marc”–with a “c” to make it special. I liked that idea. And so a whole new identity was born. An ulterior identity which I would use to navigate a world that at the best of times seemed rudely indifferent to those of us with names like Raul, Regina, Esequiel, etc. It did not escape me when a classmate’s name, Mario, was pronounced like the name Mary, but with the “-io” at the end. I would see Mario slouch slightly in his seat whenever his name was called. I was glad that I had changed my name. Truthfully, even when non-Spanish speakers say my name correctly, it sounds awkward. I understand why so many Hmong kids, today in the Valley, change their names from Ger to Jerry, or Bao to Rachel.
Forward the narrative to the 1980’s. I had just finished college with a degree in Latin American studies, a major in which everyone spoke fluent Spanish or Portuguese. For four years I had grown accustomed to professors and my friends pronouncing my real name correctly. For four years, a facet of my being was revealed again to the outside world. It was at this time I met the pretty blond, big blue eyed gal that would become my wife…and she knew me as Marcos. What’s more, she was Portuguese so I could share my name with her whole family. During that time, I also taught at a bilingual school where “Marcos” fit well with the “Señor Alvira” that I was commonly called. The we moved to the Central Valley where I discovered there were plenty of Mrs. Burgesses and people who would still call a kid Mary-io.
I have to tell you that after twenty-three years here, I feel like that angry four year old again, and with “Marcos” having appeared in print thousands of times, there is no gaining back. I have grown exasperated. Marcus. Marco. Elvira. AlvIra (long /i/). At first I tactfully corrected people with the proper pronunciation of my name…and I’m not even asking for the latinization of it. Even our own Columnist Archive has me listed as “Marco.” I have had to finally look people straight in the eye and say, “It’s Marcos, not that other thing you’re saying.” It takes everything within my power to keep from coming unhinged when they look at me blankly, as if asking, “What the hell are you talking about?”
I honestly believe that most folks don’t intend any insult, but they are insulting nonetheless. I do have to wonder what is going on in their minds when the error is brought to their attention and they don’t correct it. Is it that most folks are less interested in the person to whom they are speaking, and more interested in their own message? I once read that the ancient Hebrew believed that words took on their own life once spoken and that we a re very responsible for those words. In that light, how much more important does a person’s name become?
So, we see that a rose by any any other name is perhaps much less a rose. Of course, in the bard’s play, Juliet was proclaiming a love for Romeo that transcended the age hold feud between their respective families, but I wondered how the outcome of the play might have been affected had she mistakenly said from the balcony, “O Romulus, O Romulus! Wherefore art thou Romulus.”