Recently, I had a conversation with another immigrant about names. We talked about how as an immigrant to the United States, you come here with several identities. You identify as your whole family. You identify as an individual. You identify as a person with an exotic name from whatever country you came from. You identify as who Americans want you to be or who you think you should be for American culture. You have a tendency to be stripped and participate in that stripping of your root and true identity for the sake of “blending in,” not seeming too “out there,” or just trying to make things easier for everyone else at the cost of losing yourself. Your identity is stolen.
I had recently met the Jewish woman in diverse Oak Park. She initially told me her name was Rebecca. I got used to calling her Rebecca until the day I revealed to her that people say my name incorrectly a lot. I should not think it’s a big deal; it made me think about how as a former wife and foreigner, I lost my name.
She explained that her name was actually Rivkah. Her name was mispronounced and misspelled so many times, after a while for the sake of not being constantly exasperated by repeating her name or spelling it multiple times, she just gave in and “gave up the ghost” of her name. I told her I did the same thing.
I felt like it was a silent demoralization. Yes, I know it’s just a name, but this is the core of our identity.
When you are coerced into this world through the portal called your mother’s womb, many wait in anticipation of your arrival. In most cases they love you and want you here, and are so relieved you have finally arrived. They want to call you something. Some even pay to have consultants get the perfect name for you. They recall their ancestry to scour for appropriate names. They pray about it. They think hard about it. They listen to songs, celebrities, or other inspirations just to find the perfect name for you.
For us, names have meaning that can cement our life trajectories. In our cultures, the name of a person is the equivalent of putting a blessing (or curse) on their life. In Jewish ancestry, names are often biblical and represent the spirit with which the person is named.
Rivkah is Rebecca in the Hebrew form of the name. Americans are more familiar and comfortable with the name Rebecca. However, “Rebecca” strips Rivkah of an essential part of her Jewish heritage; one that identifies the true name on her birth certificate as being “Rivkah.” Her family is Orthodox Jewish, so to edit the name is to edit herself and her identity. Rivkah means “to tie or to bind.”
I have another friend whose name is Cielo but goes by Maria. “Cielo” means “sky.” She is of Philippine heritage and decided to go by a name that is easier for the American “market” to comprehend and not make mistakes. But “Cielo” is beautiful. I recently asked to start calling her “Cielo” instead, even though we have known each other for over 20 years.
You can imagine how many variations of my name there have been. It may give the impression that you are purposely harnessing multiple identities when, in actuality, you are self-suppressing and people pleasing. I suppose it keeps the hackers on their toes. My name, “Serumaga,” is a very special family name. We were the only Serumaga family up until the early 2000s. My family name was established centuries ago and has a lot of depth and history. I know the clan I am from, the tribe I am from, and my heritage in general, including the part of me that is “other.” The name is special and gives me a sense of pride.
My decision has been in my life to no longer edit myself to fit anyone’s narrative. I admire people who are adamant about maintaining their cultural identities, whether you are African, Irish, Jewish, Italian, etc.
America is a basket of exotic flowers. It would be great to embrace that instead of fearing it or trying to change it.
EL Serumaga is a resident of River Forest and founder of ecovici.com, a site for sustainable products.