Call me by my (real) name

Cal in Color

Photo of Marina Román Cantú

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“I’m Mah-ree-nah.”

“No, no. I mean, tell me your real name.”

Well, that’s a first. 

No one — including native Spanish speakers — has ever questioned the slightly altered pronunciation of my own name. In reality, I hadn’t even noticed myself because I pay little to no attention to how people pronounce it, let alone how I mechanically utter my name everytime I introduce myself. That was, until that moment at Wheeler Hall. 

It’s only been since arriving in the United States that I’ve subconsciously “Americanized” my name to suit the American English phonetic pronunciation. After that interaction, it made more sense to do so — because why would I choose to heighten the language barrier between any native English speaker and me from the mere moment we break the ice? How would that conversation even go? 

I’m well aware that “Marina” really is a legitimate word in English, having a meaning that does not vary much in Spanish. Perhaps that’s the reason why no Latine person has ever raised an eyebrow whenever I introduce myself as “Mah-ree-nah.”

The “Americanization” of names is remarkably — and absurdly — common. There’s even an app for it. If you google “Americanize my name” and click on the first result, you will encounter an app that uses an English phonetic algorithm to transform a name into its nearest English-sounding counterpart. The premise behind this app was to reduce the effects of racial bias caused implicitly by the phonetics of what are thought to be “foreign” names to the English language. 

In case you were wondering, my top results were Marianna, Brianna and Ariana. 

Now, almost three months into my stay at UC Berkeley, I’ve realized that it’s a common phenomenon for international students (specially among Asian and Latine communities) to shorten their names or modify them completely to easily adhere to an English pronunciation. This sudden realization saddened me because names are heavily charged with emotion and cultural meaning. Why cave into altering this intrinsic part of your identity? The answer is easy though — whether we like it or not, we do it to conform to an idea of “Americanness,” which some would argue is synonymous to “whiteness.”

Technically speaking, I’m half American — only on paper, though. My mom was born in this country, but has lived in Mexico throughout her life. My first language is Spanish, but I’ve been taught English since before I can remember. When learning English, the standard has always been to sound the closest you can to a native English speaker. Living on the border, it’d be “absurd” not to sound like one — or so we’re told. 

This pursuit of “Americanness” is not only seen in the suffocation of birth names, but also within people’s accents when speaking in English as their second language. I spent the majority of my high school years feeling self-conscious about my accent, and perhaps rooted within that insecurity lies the reason behind why I’d rather express myself through writing. Finding my voice in English has been easier this way: It’s a low-stakes trial-and-error process. 

Why has “sounding American” been perceived as the ultimate goal? I think it may be because passing as “American” comes with a certain degree of privilege. However, in a country where racism and xenophobia prevail, attempting to sound as “American” as possible is sometimes the safest choice — it’s an act of self-defense.

Truth be told, international students whose first languages are not English know what a massive amount of effort it takes to completely disguise one’s accent. I don’t care about “sounding American” anymore, because I’m simply not. 

Now, I care more about getting my point across the room and that my ideas are being understood. You can now distinguish when I’m comfortable within a conversation because certain connectors and words come out involuntarily in Spanish as I immerse myself in the dialogue. 

I’ve made peace with that. 

I know there’s privilege in the choices I make. Language and accents are markers of one’s identity. Being able to strive toward “Americanness” is a decision based on privilege. For instance, people usually approach me and speak to me in English from the moment we engage in conversation, assuming I’m American based on what I look like. My identity does not come into question from the moment I introduce myself. I also inhabit a space where I feel safe enough, where showing my latinidad and the accent that comes with it is not sanctioned or discriminated against. Within that space, I feel comfortable attempting to detach myself from my assumed “Americanness.”

I’ll always prefer speaking in Spanish, there’s no doubt in that — it has more personality to it. But navigating through life these past months being Latina while speaking in this second language doesn’t feel so foreign anymore. At least, writing in English has allowed me to put my life on the internet for the last five weeks, and what a cathartic exercise that has been. 

It seems that my willingness to keep quiet over the years to mask my accent has left me with a great deal to talk about. Turns out, I have a lot to say — accent and all.

Marina Román writes the Friday column on being a person of color at UC Berkeley. Contact the opinion desk at [email protected], or follow us on Twitter @dailycalopinion.