"What's your name?" the little boy asked, poised at the bottom of the slide.
My daughter, halfway up the rope ladder, turned to her new playground BFF and responded, "My name is Gabriella, but you can call me Gabby."
I nearly fainted.
Like all parents, my husband and I had agonized over the naming of our first-born. Well, I had agonized while he casually dismissed all of my ideas. When I asked for suggestions instead of only negative feedback, he handed me a piece of paper with five names and way too many z's and x's. I refused to name my daughter Xena.
One challenge we faced was our desire for a multicultural name. My husband is Guatemalan and a primary Spanish speaker, whereas I was born and raised in the U.S.. We wanted a name for our little one that allowed fluidity between both birth cultures, a name that would help establish the bicultural, bridge-building identity we were praying for our baby.
The name Gabriella had been a last minute surprise. In fact, we were at the hospital and already settled on our boy and girl names when it popped into my mind. I couldn't shake it. So there, in the early stages of labor, my husband and I moved Gabriella into first position. Besides, everyone thought we were having a boy, so it was really moot.
"It's a girl!" the nurse announced. When she asked my husband her name, he said, "Gabriella," rolling the r's with beautiful perfection. The nurse cooed over my newborn daughter, shouting, "She's so beautiful! She's just so beautiful!" I had two thoughts in my head. One: Back off, lady. That's my baby. And two: Really . . . Gabriella? Are we sure?
Post-birth, I tried to engage my husband in yet another conversation about baby names, but he shut that down right away. Her name was Gabriella.
There was only one problem—Gabby. The default nickname didn't really resonate with me. To be honest, I just didn't care for it. But I decided I loved the name too much, and so I announced we'd be calling her "Ella" for short.
Our daughter was about nine months old when I stumbled across a personalized water-bottle with her nickname. "Oooh, look!" I told my husband. "Ella!'
"Oh," he responded. "Is that a real name? I thought you made that up."
"YOU THOUGHT I MADE THAT UP?" I didn't know whether to be touched or appalled that for almost a year, he'd been listening to me (and others) call her by a name he thought I invented one afternoon hopped up on pregnancy hormones. I then realized I couldn't recall a single instance where he'd actually called her Ella.
And it wasn't just him. I realized that few—if any—of our Latino friends and family called her Ella. Of course, one reason was because of a hiccup in our bicultural naming plan. If you know Spanish, you already know that ella is the Spanish pronoun for she or her. For some reason, I didn't notice this fact until she was several months old. It was basically like we'd named our daughter Sheila and announced, "We're calling her 'She' for short!"
A quiet, yet distinct, bicultural divide had formed. In her English-speaking worlds, she was Ella. Around Spanish-speaking friends and family, she was Gabriella.
Our hope to choose a name that would help her identify with both cultures was faltering. Now I worried we had created a bicultural personality schism of some sort. Culture-hopping and being bilingual can be confusing enough without literally having different names in each culture. Still, I decided to let it go. Just call me Elsa.
But around age three, my daughter told me she preferred people to call her Gabriella. Not Ella. Not Gabby. Not Bri (which I also tried to convince my husband could work as a nickname). Gabriella. So we started using Gabriella more. Naturally, everyone started shortening it to Gabby. Thus, her own playground introduction.
On the drive home, I asked her, "Why did you tell that boy your name was Gabby?"
She sighed, "Well, that's what the teachers call me."
"Do you want people to call you that?"
"No. I want people to call me Gabriella."
Gently, I explained that she will need to tell people, even grownups, what she prefers to be called. And I encouraged her not to introduce herself by any other name.
Exploring one's identity and place in the world is the work of all children. Yet I know there are extra nuances for bicultural kids. She is always balancing, navigating, uncovering a mix of language, customs, and experiences. I am trying to guide her through this tangle of cultures to the best of my abilities.
Sometimes her name stands out to me as our first attempt to equip her to be fluid, to dance along the line of her dual heritage. And it's gone off the rails a little bit. Or, maybe more accurately, it hasn't been as cut and dry as I'd hoped. Even with a bicultural name, she is having to learn to embrace her identity and also to engage others in understanding her.
I always knew that—with her white skin and accent-free English—she would forever have to explain that she's half Guatemalan. There will be people who will try to dismiss her cultural identity for her. They will tell her, "You're not really Guatemalan," or that they only see her as white. I have often wondered if I will have the savvy to instruct her in these areas. I so often feel like I'm winging it. And in this first attempt—her name—well, you might say we tripped right out of the gate.
On the other hand, maybe her name is teaching all of us what it means to be a bicultural family. I am practicing how to guide her in expressing herself and communicating her identity to others. And I hope she is learning that I am always here to support her: that other people may try to rename her, but I am always here to talk, to affirm her identity, and to hold her hand as she walks between two cultures.
Sarah has lived in Kentucky, Los Angeles, Nashville, Buenos Aires, and currently resides in Atlanta, Georgia. She shares life with her Guatemalan husband and provides unlimited snacks to two kids whose legs must be full of granola bars and string cheese by now. Sarah writes about multicultural life at home and around the world. When she's not clicking away at the laptop, she sneaks away to play basketball with other moms, which is basically as awesome as it sounds. You can read more at her blog, A Life with Subtitles, or follow Sarah on Facebook.
Photo by Laurie Carrozino.