Everything in Mexico is fluid: even a name isn’t fixed

Spanish is pronounced phonetically, so my name doesn’t make any sense to the children. They sound out it out, letter by letter, and Diane becomes dee-ah-EN-eh, not at all what I usually answer to.

The confusion comes with the vowels. Spanish has one pronunciation for each vowel and one pronunciation only. And vowels are never silent, as they are in English. Diane has a silent ‘e’ at the end: problem #1. Problem #2 is the letter ‘i’ in my name. In Spanish, the vowel ‘i’ is pronounced ‘ee’, never ‘eye’. In English, we have 3 pronunciations of ‘i’. Maybe more, I don’t know, I’m not a linguist. An English ‘i’ can be short, as in kick, or long, as in mind, or short again, as in a cold wind, or long again, as in winding the clock. It can even be ‘ee’ as in previous. I am constantly apologizing for this whenever I teach English to Spanish speakers.

I’d be better off as Maria or Ana or Guadalupe or Ofelia. Or Betty. When my friend Betty and I volunteered in the small village school in Chacala, we both became Betty. Beti is a familiar name to Spanish speakers, a diminutive of Beatrice. Betty/Beti is pronounceable, whereas Diane is not. My friend Colleen faces an even worse problem. Colleen is utterly confusing. It sounds out as Koh-yeah-EH-en, which confounds everyone.

If I were of a more willing nature I’d settle for Diana (Dee-ah-na), Diane’s Spanish equivalent. The kids say Diana with a Spanish fervency I like, but even still I’m not willing to settle. English has slower, rounder vowels. To approach a Spanish vocal quality, I have to spread my lips as if in a smile and move my voice to the front of my mouth.

When Betty and I started volunteering, the youngest girls — Jacqui, Vianey, Crystal, Fernanda, Nayeli, Esvehedi, and O’Neill — were all just learning to write. They wrote their names in crooked letters, experimenting with how best to spell them. Jaki. Vianné. Cristal. O’Neill, whose name is certainly very odd in Mexico, had a lot of scope for interpretation. She printed her name in coloured pencil on all her drawings, choosing a different spelling every time. O’Nil. Onill. Oniel. O’Nill.

“O’Neill?” I asked Betty. “After Shaq O’Neal?”

“More likely the surfboard company.”

O’Neill was sweet and chubby, with a clear and sunny disposition. She had an astonishingly thick braid hanging down the centre of her back. That braid was a sailor’s rope, a miracle in hair. She loved to read and she is a born teacher. Given any opportunity, she grabbed the chalk and stabbed at the library blackboard, offering precise instructions for her current lesson. One day the lesson was my name. O’Neill wrote out a number of variations. Dallan. Dallane. Dajan.

I raised my eyebrows, impressed with her inventiveness.

She gave me a broad smile, looking very pleased. Then a ray of inspiration lit her face, she raised a finger in the sudden recognition of a brainstorm and turned to the board to write — Dayán. She added the accent over the ‘a’ with the whipsaw flourish of a matador’s cape. Dayán, she said with emphasis, as if the matter were settled. I agreed. Dayán it is.

Boys raising Mexican flag in the schoolyard

Chacala is not a literate pueblo. Why would the people in this town trouble themselves with spelling? Or a better question might be how could they? Spelling comes from reading, and rural Mexicans don’t read. The books in the children’s library (built by Rotarians) are virtually untouched. I’ve never seen anyone sitting in the shade snapping open a newspaper.

Spanish does not have an apostrophe, neither for contractions nor for possession. In Spanish, there is no ‘don’t’ and there are no ‘Mary’s’. I wondered about the fairness of putting an apostrophe in a child’s name in a language where the apostrophe does not exist — she’ll be explaining it all her life — but what would make young, often very young, parents consider the apostrophe, or the lack of it, when naming a baby? What would they know, or care, about punctuation?

Neither the lovely sound of O’Neill nor its surfing associations would alert them to future trouble. And it’s not only the apostrophe. What about the compounding difficulty of that final double ‘ll’? By the clear and consistent rules of Spanish pronunciation, the ending of O’Neill’s name is not a mellifluous sounding ‘ell’, but something that sounds more like ‘yuh’, like the ‘y’ in yellow or young. O-nay-EE-yuh.

Little O’Neill sat in the library practicing her signature with a look of concentration on her broad brown face. She loved that unfamiliar apostrophe so much that she decorated it with a tiny face or drew it as a dramatic flourish with a different coloured pencil. She’s proud of her apostrophe and she wants to flaunt it.

The inventive names of the children in the village, and their spelling variations, drove the pueblo’s doctor crazy. In Mexico’s medical training, graduating students do a year’s practicum in remote communities. That year’s young doctor did not seem overly pleased with his constituency.

“These parents make up names,” he complained. “Why don’t they use Mexican names? How can I write a prescription when parents can’t spell their own child’s name? How do I keep a register at the clinic?” He told me that some children have no name at all, officially. Two percent of rural Mexican children are not registered at birth.

After a time, I realized that the children had double first names — Francisco Daniel, Rosario Leticia, Christian Darío. Their teachers and their parents use children’s given names interchangeably, or together, according to principles which I am still unable to work out. Why is Luis better for some situations and Fernando for others?

My friend Socorro, who manages Betty’s house, has a son Daniel who also answers to Pedro. His sister Daniela can be Natalí, when the mood strikes. Vianney sometimes signs her name as Dulce, and Nacho who is really Ignacio is also called Saul. Jaqui is Iliana, and Itzuri is Abigail. If there is any logic to all of this, I have yet to discover it.

Add the complications of diminutives and the problem of names is compounded. Along with complex verb tenses and the highly rule-bound use of pronouns, I now must get a handle on diminutives. Here everything can be spoken of fondly. Casa to casita, house to little house, I understand, and Rosa to Rosita, but how does Chepe come from José or Pancho from Francisco?

Betty’s gardener’s name is Lencho, a diminutive of Prudencio, both of which escape her mother-in-law who calls him Cilantro. “Why doesn’t Cilantro trim those bushes?” she asks. I understand her problem.

The double-barrelled last names of Mexicans makes more sense to me, hooking together the last names of both mother and father. The last name of the children of my friends Ruben Darío Mondragon Rivera and his wife Alma Iliana Ibarra Gómez is Mondragon Ibarra. When their daughter Fernanda Mondragon Ibarra has children, they will keep the Mondragon (wouldn’t you? — it’s such a great name), drop the Ibarra and add on the paternal name of Fernanda’s husband. I find this custom useful, you know where people come from. But even this is about to get more complicated. A recent Mexican law allows families to dispense with this tradition if they prefer.


This is the third story in the weekly publication A Remarkable Education: Lessons Learned in a Mexican Rural School. The next story introduces Alexis, a bright boy who took things in hand when the teacher was AWOL.

The previous story described 3 years experience — from good to very bad — as a volunteer in the village school of Chacala, a small fishing village on Mexico’s Pacific coast.

Starting in the winter of 2009, Diane Douglas volunteered three years in the two-room school in the fishing village of Chacala, north of Puerto Vallarta. Since 2012, she’s been working to improve online learning at el Colegio Patria, a remarkable rural school in the poor, agricultural town of Las Varas.