David Vargas acquired his new name at an indigenous ceremony 15 years ago. An old teacher visiting from Mexico rechristened him by some calculus involving the Aztec and Gregorian calendars as well as his favorite animal and color.
People have since known him as Texomazatl, which translates to Blue Deer.
“I have considered making it my primary name because of how common my actual name is and to feel more close to who I am,” says Vargas, a lifelong dancer who founded the San Jose-based Tezkatlipoka Aztec Dance and Drum School in 1988. “The historical reality for a lot of Mexican and Central American people is their Spanish names and last names are a reflection of the Spanish conquest.”
Since his renaming, Vargas has become known as Texomazatl—pronounced Te-sho-ma-zal—among traditional dance circles. At work, however, he still goes by David. Although his birth name is fairly common, it also tells a story. His mom named him after King David, the giant-slayer from the Old Testament. Unsurprisingly, his Aztec name is often mispronounced. But so, too, is his birth name.
“If they mispronounce my name, I just smile and tell them my name,” Vargas says. “When people call me Dave or Davey I tell them to either call me David [English pronunciation] or David [Spanish pronunciation] but don’t call me Dave or Davey, and I laugh and they laugh with me.”
Vargas is part of a growing movement in the United States to embrace traditional or unusual names. Though he adopted his Aztec moniker as an adult, a national campaign launched by the Santa Clara County Office of Education (SCCOE) called “My Name, My Identity” encourages children to feel a sense of pride about their name and patiently correct people who mispronounce it.
As a father, Vargas wanted to honor his heritage by giving both of his sons a Mayan first name and an Aztec middle name. “They are both adults now,” he says, “but when they were younger they got made fun of by their classmates for their unique names.”
Even though he attended a bilingual school, his eldest son, Balam Vargas, was teased about his unusual identifier. “He was called ‘bin Laden’ by his classmates,” his father says. “His classmates did not realize where his name came from or the importance in how it defined Balam’s identity.”
Mispronouncing a person’s name can invalidate their identity and lead to anxiety and resentment, says Yee Wan, who oversees English-as-a-second-language programs for the SCCOE and helped launch the “My Name, My Identity” campaign this year. It has since taken off on social media under the hashtags #MyNameMyID or #ActuallyMyNameIs.
I ask my students to not "Americanize" their names for me, but to model pronouncing them the way their mothers do/did. #ActuallyMyNameIs
— LaVondia Menephee (@LaMenephee) June 10, 2016
For generations, ethnic minorities have grown used to having their names butchered by teachers, friends, coworkers and anyone outside of their immediate family. It may not seem like a big deal, Wan says, but that subtle inconsideration can have profound psychological effects. Children whose names are mispronounced tend to grow up feeling less important, sociologists Rita Kohli and Daniel G. Solorzano found in a study on the impact of racial microaggressions published in 2012 by Santa Clara University.
San Jose State student Kavin Mistry has only had one teacher in his life pronounce his name the right way, his fifth grade teacher. His first name, Kavin (Ka-veen), is of Indian descent and denotes poetry and creativity. His mother carefully chose the name because of its artistic meaning.
Mistry says that his name was mispronounced so often he just began to respond to the pronunciation, “cave-in,” because he didn’t feel correcting his teachers was worth the effort anymore and he got accustomed to it.
“It got frustrating after a while, but I understood why people had trouble saying it correctly,” Mistry says. “My second year of high school I just stopped correcting the teacher, because I knew they were not going to get it right.”
Names tell a unique story about a person’s culture and who they are, says Wan, who experienced microaggressions over her Chinese name as a first generation immigrant who moved to the United States as a 17-year-old college student. Her first name, Yee, means friendship and her surname, Wan, means warmth.
In America, people call her Yee Wan. In China, she’s called Wan Yee. The name-flipping has caused a lot of confusion among her American friends and coworkers. Often, people around her would call her something else entirely. For years, Wan says, she was too timid to correct them.
“When I first came here as an international student my teacher had given me the name ‘Winnie,’” Wan says.
Though her teacher nicknamed her for convenience and no ill will, being called Winnie brought some sense of cultural erasure. It made Wan feel that her name and identity were unimportant. “I love her dearly, she’s very kind, helpful and supportive,” Wan says, “so I didn’t feel comfortable correcting her.”
Wan hopes that the “My Name, My Identity” initiative will educate teachers and community members about the importance of a person’s name. Particularly for people named after a family member, a saint or a positive personality trait. Or for people who choose to rename themselves.
The campaign asks people to take a pledge to respect a student’s name and identity. It’s a message that Wan expects to resonate in the South Bay, which claims one of the most culturally and ethnically diverse populations in the country. “The first step to make a student feel welcomed is by showing interest in their name so they feel welcomed and connected,” she says.
By promoting self-advocacy and personal pride, the campaign also aims to prevent bullying by teaching respect, building a more inclusive community and making students feel more engaged in school. Evergreen School District recently wove that message into its back-to-school campaign. The district will give students name tags and buttons so students and staff can wear their personal identifiers as a badge of honor and a conversation prompt.
To date, nearly 1,883 people around the world have taken the “My Name, My Identity” pledge, in addition to more than 370 school districts and 760 cities.
“It’s about taking action,” Wan says. “We have such a diverse community and this is something we should be really proud of.”