Two weeks ago, I caved in. I gave a fake name to a Starbucks employee. After years of not even pronouncing my name, but simply spelling it as if I were a robot from out of space — an alien after all — I gave myself a simple but pretty name that happens to have the same vowels as mine: Nina.
I didn’t think about it, I hadn’t planned it. It just happened. The barista didn’t even look up as she wrote it and took my card. Next.
It turns out I’m not the only one. When I mentioned it in my very diverse class at Columbia University, at least two students told me they have done the same for years. Who knew?
When I came from Cuba in 1980, immigration officials who interviewed me a few days after arriving asked for my name, but before I could reply, they told me that I could come up with a new one. After all, I was in a new country, and I could forget about the past. I was 16, so I said thank you, I’ll keep my name and my past.
And it’s worked OK. I have to spell it often, M-I-R-T-A (pause) O-J-I-TO, and sometimes weeks go by before I’m startled by an actual correct pronunciation of my name, but I’ve gotten used to it.
For South Floridians, especially those in Miami, this is probably a non-issue. After all, a recent Herald story revealed that in Miami most people speak with a “Hispanic” accent, even those who are native speakers of English.
But the issue is not a trivial one. Names, like faces, are our passports in the world. It’s what people hear or see first — in our increasingly tech-driven world, sometimes it is the only aspect of us they get to know. Names can help open doors or present a barrier.
At cocktail parties, informal gatherings and business meetings, an unpronounceable name can be a barrier. I have stopped counting how many people have asked me where I’m from when I say my name. I happen to have a story behind the name, and I happen to be from somewhere else, but what about the Juans, Robertos, and Armandos born in the United States? Must they justify their provenance as well?
And what about a name and a face like Prabhjot Singh’s?
Dr. Singh is a 31-year-old Columbia professor and a medical doctor. He is also a turban-wearing and bearded Sikh — a follower of a centuries-old religion that emphasizes the equality of humankind and the concept of universal brotherhood. Last Saturday, he was attacked by about 20 teenagers, who called him “Osama” and “terrorist” as they pummeled his face. Dr. Singh ended up with a broken jaw and some loose teeth.
The attack took place in Harlem, his neighborhood, blocks from Columbia University and from my own home.
The FBI announced last year that “of the 6,222 reported hate crimes [committed in 2011], 6,216 were single-bias incidents — 46.9 percent were racially motivated, 20.8 percent resulted from sexual-orientation bias, 19.8 percent were motivated by religious bias, 11.6 percent stemmed from ethnicity/national origin bias, and 0.9 percent were prompted by disability bias.”
That pretty much means that no one is safe. There have been recent attacks against blacks, Hispanics, members of the Amish community, Arabs, gays, and even non-Hispanic whites.
A white man died in New York recently after a black man punched him, causing him to fall and hit his head on the pavement. A witness heard the attacker say he was going to [expletive] the first white person who walked by. That happened to be 62-year-old Jeffrey Babbitt.
Dr. Singh has told reporters that he is more interested in teaching his attackers about his religion than in catching them. He’s not planning to move, he said, adding that the attackers do not reflect the community he serves and the neighborhood he has come to love and where, along with his wife, he’s raising his 1-year-old son.
More broadly, he said, the attack should lead to a conversation about who “looks American,” and “what does it mean to be American.”
These are noble and important words that we must all heed. A turban can’t possibly define a person. Neither can a name. Or a skin tone. There must be room in this multi-hued America for people of all religions, ethnicities and colors — including the milky white one.
For my next tall, non-fat, wet cappuccino I’m going back to M-I-R-T-A. Nina didn’t work that well anyway. The barista spelled it as “Nena,” an entirely different and Hispanic nickname.