“She has this fear / that she has no names / that she has many names / that she doesn’t know her names”
By: Frances Molina
When I was eighteen, I shaved my head. My hair, strong, dark, and Mexican, had always been an object of high praise. “I wish I had your curls” was the popular refrain of my white girl classmates. My hair had always been long and heavy, riding on my shoulders like an animal, shielding my face like a mantilla when I wanted to hide. But when I left for college, I cut it off, impulsively, without telling anyone. In the same way, when I was finally on my own and away from home, I shed myself. Gradually at first, but it began when I picked a new name: Frances.
To be clear, it is not really a new name and my choosing was not arbitrary. Frances is my middle name and it is a family name. My father’s mother and my mother’s father were both named Frances and in that way it represents a synthesis of my heritage: Irish-Catholic and Mexicana. But for me, when I chose it, it represented an exhilarating newness and a departure from the shame and sadness of my real name.
Elisa. Ee-lee-sa. It rolls out of the mouth like an exhalation. My mother stopped breathing on the birthing table from the effort of bringing me into the world and when she woke up, she breathed out this name. In a way, I didn’t know my name until I started school. I grew up an only child and I knew myself as my parents knew me. I didn’t know that my name could change and with it, my idea of myself.
My classmates were white and they had “good” names and when I say “good” I mean easy. Short and simple and uncluttered by foreign rhythms and accents. Easy to pronounce and easy to remember. I envied this easiness, this banality and I tried very hard to mimic it. I renamed myself constantly. I doodled cute, frilly white names in the margins of my notebooks like a girl with a crush: Missy, Lacey, Bonnie.
Just like my father, who had changed his name from Roberto to simply Robert, I wanted to forget my own name just as it had been forgotten so many times before. From the time I was six, I have been called every other name except for my own. Alyssa. Elise. Alicia. Eliza. That Molina girl. And after so long, I put down my pride and I stopped correcting them. (It’s funny because white women are always the first ones to compliment my “exotic” name but are also the first to mispronounce it.) Unless you too have a name like mine, you cannot understand the pain of having your name repeatedly mispronounced. It may seem trivial but then I don’t think you understand what a name is. It is the self and the center of pride. It is a history told in ten characters or less. It is what tethers us to one another, to our families, to our cultures. And to have this name forgotten, broken, or cheapened is an insult that cuts deep in a place that does not heal.
It may seem trivial but then I don’t think you understand what a name is. It is the self and the center of pride. It is a history told in ten characters or less.
But I tried to heal it and I was mostly successful. I began to introduce myself as Frances at college. At first, there was hesitation. The name lingered coyly on my tongue. It was silly but I worried strangers would know I was lying, that I was playing a part. But my confidence grew as people remembered my new name, pronounced it correctly, and again, complimented me on its originality. “You look like a Frances. The name suits you.” Each time I was told this, I snickered from behind my mask. I glowed, triumphant, savoring this victory over myself.
I came home for the first time during my freshman year and my parents tried to call me “Elisa”. I was stubborn. “Don’t call me that now,” I demanded, half-joking, “Elisa is dead and I killed her.” My parents, unfazed by my morbid humor, referred to my new name as my stage name. With them, the name never sticks and they remain the only ones that I allow to call me by my first name. With everyone else, however, the name caught like wildfire. Relatives, new friends, boyfriends, and even friends I’ve had since before my self-christening started to use the name. They are considerate to a degree I find almost embarrassing. (“What would you like to be called?” “Oh that’s right, you go by Frances now.”) I wonder sometimes why this thoughtfulness had been lost to me when I was a little girl.
Soon, Frances took on a life of her own. Out of myself, I grew another self, someone that had been asleep in the ashes for a very long time. Someone angry and strong and whimpering and anxious and resilient all at the same time. If Elisa is a breath, then Frances is a scream. When I became Frances, I began to know myself. I inverted myself, turned my skin inside out and opened my guts. Like this, I could dissect my pain. I could finally realize the rage that had been brewing in my marrow, coiling itself around and around in my DNA for generations. I could hold myself, forgive myself, come back into communion with myself. I could occupy a space in between, as someone who could look back at the past that had made me and the future I was making for myself.
If Elisa is a breath, then Frances is a scream.
But with every duality there must be harmony and when I split myself apart I did not do it carefully. I tore out of my old self like Lazarus ripping away his burial clothes, desperate and anxious for new life. I saw who I used to be as less than who I had become. She was the Other. She carried my shame, my fears, the pain of my family and my past loves. She had the potential to disrupt the illusion of perfection that I tried to carefully maintain in my new life away from home. To keep her away and apart from me, my name became my best kept secret. I only told other people when I had to. They were professors mostly, confused by how I introduced myself in class and by the name on their class rosters. This confusion wasn’t uncommon among my classmates and it was deeply embarrassing. I feared that they would figure me out and accuse me of being a phony. I felt like a phony.
And still on my visits home, I was Elisa again by designation only. I would experience great bouts of anxiety during these visits. I would wake up clutching my chest and crying for no reason. I walked aimlessly around my parent’s house and spent too much time alone. I didn’t know who I was in my hometown, which to me was full of ghosts and abandoned by everyone I knew. Even here, in a new city, I feel displaced from myself. As time goes by, Frances feels more and more apart from me. She no longer eclipses me; either she has become too small or I have become too large. I hear this name and I respond to it but there is no connection in my mind. I respond like an animal. I do not necessarily recognize the name, but the familiar sound of it. I am still in between and now the space between these two names, these two selves, has widened, leaving me adrift. I am not sure yet which one to tether myself to or in which direction they will take me.
Sometimes my mother asks me if I’ll take my first name again. Sometimes I wonder if it’s even possible. If I’ve gone too far. I suppose that if I want it bad enough, I will wait until it’s time to move on, away from these people and away from this place. I could shed myself again. I imagine that it feels natural and that I am content, like an insect shrugging itself without ceremony from the chrysalis. I imagine myself in harmony. I imagine myself coming home.
I imagine that it feels natural and that I am content, like an insect shrugging itself without ceremony from the chrysalis.