by Celia San Miguel

My name is Celia - "ce" as in celebration, "lee" as in Bruce, "ah" as in “ahh, it’s Friday.” My name is Celia - like Celia Cruz, the Cuban Salsa queen who shouts “Azuca’!” playfully throughout her repertoire.
There are no anglicized accents in this name, no long vowel sounds, and definitely no generic naming associations. There is only Spanish sesoning and a mouth full of mambo when you utter my name. Make no mistake about it - I carry the island of Borinquen not only in my heart, but also in my name. What’s in a name? Well, everything.

We carry our names as badges of pride. It is through our names that we assert our individuality. It is by our names that we will be remembered. Bernardo Vega. Eugenio Maria de Hostos. Pedro Albizu Campos. Piri Thomas. Raul Julia. Rita Moreno. We know these beings by what they have accomplished, but we celebrate them not by reciting their resumes, but by invoking their names. Performers select their own names, seeking monikers that embody the persona they wish to assume when stepping on stage. Graffiti writers spray their names in highly visible public spaces, exhorting society to acknowledge their existence. Muslims assume new names to reflect their religious convictions. Malcolm X changed his name in order to make a vital political statement about the manner in which certain last names reinforce the oppressive legacy of slavery. In Song of Solomon, Toni Morrison depicted her belief in the intricacies of naming by bestowing Biblical names upon her characters. In her famous song, Four Women, Nina Simone unraveled the tale of four women whose names were not recognized. The point Simone makes in the song is invaluable - the failure to recognize these women’s names was a failure to recognize their humanity.

A name, then, is not merely a word. It is an affirmation of uniqueness, a plea for recognition, an abstract exclamation point.

How does pronunciation figure into this scheme? Simple - if a name is an intagible exclamation point, then the pronunciation dictates if the exclamation point will swerve to the left, stand erect like a cement column, or even loom timidly in its tinyness. At times, the pronunciation of a name can turn an individualizing arrengement of letters into mere gibberish - what was once the most aurally satisfying synthesis of vocals and consonants suddenly becomes a deafening screech. In my opinion, it is only when a name is mispronounced that said name becomes a mere word. When my name is mispronounced, it ceases to become my name and instead becomes a name which others attempt to brutally impose on me.

The mispronunciation of my name also has an intrinsic political dimension. Having grown up in a Puerto Rican household where Spanish was the dominant language, I never heard my name pronounced as anything other than Ce-lee-ah. When I moved to the United States, I suddenly heard my name pronounced in a different way. I was told that the correct” way to pronounce my name was in English. I disagreed. The correct way to pronounce my name is, by definition, the way in which I desire my name to be pronounced. If one’s name alludes to one’s individuality, then to allow my name to be mispronounced would be to allow the dominant white power structure to designate my identity. And since my identity is not open to negotiation, neither is the pronunciation of my name.

I wear flashy and bright clothing. I speak with a thick Spanish accent. I make no attempt to hide my wide hips and fleshy thighs. I am proud of my Puerto Rican heritage. And so I defend my name as fervently as I defend my flag, hoping that as you utter my name, your tongue will start doing the mambo inside your mouth.