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As my father and I walk down Avenida Quinta, a main street in Asuncion, Paraguay, we come up on a store with large, heavily tinted windows. I don’t recognize it until I read the name of the store, printed across the front of the building: “Anahi” in all lowercase letters, outlined in yellow. I am 16 years old now, but instantly I am transported back to my first visit to Paraguay. At seven years old, this ice cream shop looked prodigious, with its giant, mirror-like windows and my name printed across the exterior, a proclamation of its importance to the rush of people passing by. In comparison to my memories, the current Anahi looks sort of dumpy. The windows are no longer quite as grand or as glossy, the letters printed across the front of the building are underwhelming, and the rush of people I so clearly remembered have suddenly vanished. We go inside, and I order a cone with chocolate ice cream.
Before we leave, my father tells me to pose for a picture in front of the ice cream shop. I wonder how rare it is for an apparent tourist to take pictures in front of something so mundane; after all, this is no monument or landmark, but a shop with a name as common as the people who walk past it. Inevitably, most of these locals know the meaning behind my name, which I will not know until a couple of years after this moment when I find a Wikipedia page entitled “Anahí (nombre).”
Anahi was a princess and political agitator who the Spaniards burned at the stake for being a witch. She accepted her fate honorably; instead of screaming out in pain, she prayed, asking God to save the Guayaki people (an indigenous tribe in Paraguay). In the place where she died, a tree with bright red flowers sprouted, and today the flowers of the ceibo tree signify Anahi’s martyrdom.
After Anahi was murdered, the Spanish continued to plunder Paraguay for its resources, murdering native people and wiping out a large portion of an entire culture in the process. Ironically, this doesn’t seem to faze Paraguayans, who celebrate Anahi relentlessly by writing songs, selling dolls, and naming ice cream stores after her. A more personal example of the irony of my name is one of the questions I most often receive after I introduce myself to someone: “Is that Spanish?”
It is some time in the first grade, and I’m sitting next to Austin Martin (the trochaic title to end all trochaic titles). Ms. Planto has just handed back our papers, on which I have replaced all periods with butterflies. At the top of my butterfly-ridden paper is my name in big, messy letters—“ANAHI MOLINA.”
“What kind of name is that anyway?” I look to my left, where Austin sits with his face in a menacing grimace. I realize that he must be talking to me when he expectantly raises his eyebrows.
“What?” This syllable comes out dryly and quietly, but what can I do? My shy reputation precedes me.
“Yeah, uh-na-hee,” John Anthis chimes in. His reputation of being a sidekick precedes him. I feel suddenly small and defeated even though the argument has not yet come into full swing. It won’t until recess, since Ms. Planto is trying to teach us how to tell time and demands that we stop talking.
Recess proves my pre-argument defeat to be true, and I remember sitting in sandy dirt and having my light blue fleece pullover sleeves tugged at from either side. The boys have now been joined by another boy named Paris Shirley, and I wonder somewhat hypocritically why they chose to pick on me and not him. They chant my name almost satanically, and I kick dirt up into the air creating a cloud of dark sand around all of us. Had I known the story of my name, this would have been the perfect time to imagine myself disintegrating and re-emerging as a ceibo tree, red flowers in full bloom. But instead, the end-of-recess whistle is blown, and I’m left to my own devices. There is dirt on my light blue fleece pullover, and in my hair, and on my small hands. I sulk until Ms. Planto calls my name to come inside.
When I get home from school, I ask my mother what Austin meant. “Ignore him,” she says, “your name is the kind that’s beautiful.” Somehow this argument is flawed, but at six years old I am unsure of how.
After the first grade, deliberate teasing is less common. Instead, I learn quickly that substitute teachers do the teasing for everyone else; a plethora of mispronunciations will burden my entire elementary, middle, and high school careers. They are always prefaced with a small introduction speech, in which almost every single substitute apologizes preemptively for the butchering of anyone’s name. As the inevitably cursed substitute teacher reaches the M’s on the roster, her face suddenly resembles that of a person who has just realized that she has a dentist appointment tomorrow morning. “Anna-hi,” “Uh-na-hee,” and “Ana-li” are the most common, though there is an occasional pronunciation which is so absurdly incorrect, I assume it’s my name based solely on its place on the roster. There’s even the rare “Molina?” since it’s clearly not obvious from the “Ana” in my name whether I’m male or female. These various slips and garbles cue an almost eerie laughing track throughout the classroom, though it is unclear who is laughing at me and who is laughing at the teacher. I laugh along with my peers so they don’t mistake my quietness for embarrassment.
By the seventh grade, my name resembles my nail-biting habit: neither an attractive nor a repulsive quality, though slightly off-putting and inconvenient for all parties involved. My shyness has only worsened, and I have shot up about six inches in three years. I resemble a baby giraffe escaped from its mother.
Because of my passivity towards the mispronunciation of my name in almost every situation, my friends have started competing to see who can come up with the best messed-up version of my name. In addition to the substitute teacher paradigm (which has now become a game of sorts to me and my friends — “How do you think she’ll say it? ‘Anna-hi’ or ‘Anna-hee’?”), I am now regularly being called “Ahi Tuna,” “Nahahi,” and “Hi-Anna.” My close friends account for most of these nicknames, with the exception of “Ahi Tuna,” which is still confusing and off-putting to me even now. These little names seem strangely detached from my person, yet somehow essential to it — if I don’t accept them, what am I? Picky? An asshole that can’t laugh at herself? I figure I should play along because much like the substitute teacher paradigm, there is almost nothing else I can do.
An uncanny addition, or rather, final blow to the impending identity crisis which burdened my young life was my high school graduation. Much to my mother’s anguish and my unsurprised annoyance, the Hispanic announcer failed to pronounce my name correctly, announcing me as “Uh-na-hee Mo-lee-na.” I stood center stage, hair blow-dried, cap and gown in place, and listened as my entire life (so far) was epitomized in three short syllables. In some ways, this moment was one of closure. I didn’t blush, or pout, or really react. I did giggle, actually, but that had more to do with what I imagined my family members’ reactions to be: my mother’s pure anger, my father’s unaggressive irritation, and my grandmother’s oblivious clapping. In a sense, each of these reactions represented my own reactions to the various names I had accidentally or purposefully adopted over the years. I left the stage with a general sense of indifference.
Somehow it never once occurred to me that my name wouldn’t be left behind with my stuffed animals and old books when I went to college. As if time itself had circled around and dropped me back off in the first grade, everyone who I talked to at orientation reacted to my introduction in a toned-down version of Austin’s timeless line, “What kind of name is that anyway?”
During an interrupted study session in the early weeks of the first semester, I am reading a textbook when a boy named Conner interrupts me and my friends’ studying to discuss a multitude of unimportant things. Before he leaves, my friend jokingly asks him what my name is, knowing that he won’t know or be able to guess it.
“Anahi. My name is Anahi.” I say after 30 long seconds of being stared at.
“What? Ana? How do you spell that?” He says this condescendingly, but because of his baby face he exudes an aura of innocence. My friends stare expectantly, the room now awaiting my spelling lesson.
“A-n-a-h-i. Anahi.”
“Hm. Ana-hee. If I saw that on a resume…Hm. I don’t know about that one.” Conner then waved his goodbyes, turned around, and left the room. I wait for my friends to comment or react at all, but instead they all turn back to their work. I sit in bewilderment, eyes wide and mouth agape. Each time I see him, I will recall this memory vividly.
But college is also the first place where my friends refuse to pronounce the silent “h,” or let anyone else do so. This small kindness manifests itself on the first day of the second semester. A professor mundanely botches my name, and after I correct him, he still naturally pronounces the “h.” At this point, the roll call would normally continue without interruption. However, in this instance my friend interjects.
“It’s actually pronounced ‘Ana-ee,’” she says, “but she would never tell you that.” I turned and shot her a look, my face red. The teacher made a note on the roster, and continued to take attendance. Immediately after this happened, I felt a strange sense of being cheated; more specifically, I felt that my friend had just used my own name against me in order to get the upper-hand in a weird power play situation that I was now losing. This small moment was the first in which I got upset for someone pronouncing my name correctly, and even writing this now I feel like a complete asshole.
When I imagine the end to which my name is the single mean, I immediately think of my funeral. Assuming that my parents will not be in attendance, one of two things will happen: 1) someone (the priest, a friend of mine, anyone) will casually mispronounce my name, forcing the “h” out of silence and into the dense air in which my death lingers; or 2) my name will be said sparsely, but perfectly each time, the syllables ebbing around other words fluidly and effortlessly. I am inclined to believe that the first option will always prevail, but this is not unsettling or even bothersome to me. If the afterlife exists and I get to watch my own funeral, I will be laughing from the grave. This will be the final coup de grâce to my lifelong preoccupation with my name. That names are just arbitrary placeholders for our existences will be instantly clear, and I will be forced to come to terms with my empty fixation post-mortem.
Image Credit: Wikipedia.