What’s in a name?
My first time relating to my full given-name was in another language.
In some ways, I’m tempted to say it was in Señora Kennedy’s 8th grade Spanish class. She’s the kind of teacher who’d play Ramones during breaks and wore her short-cropped chestnut hair pinned gently above one ear — perhaps with a few bobby pins or a simple barrette. Nothing against Sña. Olsen, but younger teachers often have the advantage of making a more lasting, characteristic impression.
Roll call. There was really only one other Danielle in my grade and she wasn’t in this class, so upon hearing “Danielle,” though this time silkily pronounced with elongated, flowing vowels vibing perfectly with the consonants, I raised my hand and chirped “Presente!”… at the same time Daniel raised his hand.
I should have known! I clenched and reflexively withdrew my hand… typical, first-day-of-class blunder (of freshman year of high school to boot). Plus, roll call being on first-name basis doesn’t mean the attendance sheet would be read in any order other than alphabetically by last name (and Daniel’s began with a B).
“Oh— lo siento…”
By the time my name is called it’s been decided that I am — clearly — a “Daniela” and must accept this reality. I slumped microscopically in my seat.
Spanish fluency has been a lifelong aspiration of mine. I relished the opportunity to learn in grade school; bolstered twofold by encouragement from my family to explore my heritage plus all of the usual practical reasons for learning Spanish (growing up in California I’m shocked it’s not required curriculum). “Wait,” you’re thinking, “don’t all Chicanx grow up bilingual?” Before you begin questioning the validity of my ethnic identity any further let me explain that the last fluent Spanish speaker in my family was my great-grandmother, Eliza. During my young summers my parents would drop me off at her home in East Oakland, early morning on their way to school or work, just as the day’s batch of tortilla dough would be beginning to rise. We’d clean and flour the long tin-edged Formica table in the kitchen and don our matching aprons (delicate floral pattern, appropriately sized for abuelas y niñas) and begin rolling. I’d flatten out the basic round and she’d expertly push the dough into each luna perfecta, their individual craters to be expressed as the edges of bubbles crisped into being on the cast iron griddle. The radio would fill the air with canciones de cumbia from one of many stations at the low end of the dial. My great-grandmother spoke perfectly unaccented English; the last time Spanish was the primary home language being when her and my grandfather joined my great-grandfather in the east SF Bay Area during WWII, leaving their home among the rural potato farms of Monte Vista. Despite only speaking Spanish in his formative years, today my Grandpa Lorenzo speaks not a single word. Speaking English was the fastest way to integrate into the multi-ethnic housing projects where most new laborers’ families lived during the war effort, separate from the predominantly white, single-family home neighborhoods.
Mijita was the most frequent Spanish word from my childhood (besides perhaps names for food, I can taste the chile colorado y papas now…). Great-Grandma was warmly patient and encouraging during my awkward grade-school forays into a language I feel I should naturally know yet shamefully do not. Our practice sessions became less and less frequent over the years, and it remains one of my biggest regrets I didn’t keep up with the habit, especially felt after her passing a decade ago this year. To this day there’s an ineffable quality to being surrounded by a language which is so inexorably linked to one’s culture, one’s childhood, and yet after years of study whose most mundane meaning lies just out of reach of comprehension. I do, however, still jokingly blame my Chinese tongue for its difficulty in rolling my ‘r’s (a complaint common to my other non-Filipino Asian-American classmates).
“Danielle” is still a bit tricky for my Chinese grandmother to pronounce, and besides, since the time before I’ve had teeth I’ve been “Danni” (albeit in vastly varied spellings) to my numerous aunts, uncles, grandparents, and older cousins on both sides of my family. Friends who spent a lot of time around my family picked it up as well — Danni’s the only name that sounds right coming from Travis, my best friend since first grade. It’s my home name, with “Danielle” over the years assuming a titular role reserved for formal gatherings and foreign environments such as school or work, in which I’d exclusively introduce myself as Danielle. I kept doing so even through points where I couldn’t stomach being associated with things heavily feminine; much of elementary school I wore my hair in a low ponytail and dressed in plain t-shirts and jeans most suitable for climbing or reading in the shade of trees. My name became a gatekeeper, indicating when I’d be leaving territory where I could be “Danni” and behave and dress and act how I wished, into a zone in which I’d be expected to like hair scrunchies and costume jewelry and have crushes on boys. My great-grandmother was just about the only person I’d let braid my hair, if only for the fact that I wouldn’t then have to bother with it for nearly a week as her braids held tight and kept my bothersome long hair out of my face. Much of elementary school if there was anything society expected girls to like you can be sure that was the hallmark for me to shun it. By contrast, my late high school and early college years were punctuated by voluptuous, vibrant scarves (occasionally mistaken for tablecloths) and scouring thrift stores for flamboyant ruffled prom dresses and the best sequined butterfly blouses the 80's had to offer.
The fluidity of my gender has been tantamount to my experience of it; it has never been an entity fixed in time or space. I wouldn’t say I have ever felt entirely masculine or feminine, instead embodying something that to the untrained eye looks like a shy tomboy girl-geek or an outdoor enthusiast art-nerd. Not that any of those descriptors are false, rather they never quite express my ‘self’ in its entirety. Any dissociation with the feminine inherent in being called Danielle was softened in being Danni at home, at heart. How blessed I feel to have been granted a given-name with such a gender-inclusive nickname.
So, in hearing Danielle, Daniel… in high school Spanish class, a new environment, among many who do not know me, in a pronunciation that somehow felt and aligned with the core of my being, was strange. It felt so natural yet so exhilarating. How appropriate, it is in actuality as genderqueer as I am — the masculine version of my formal feminine name uttered in a language I don’t understand, yet feel in my bones.