Monday, June 1, 2009

The Name Game

My first name, like the first name of seemingly 85 percent of the female population born between 1980 and 1985, is Sara. There’s the “Sarah With an ‘H’” version of the name, there’s the slightly rarer “Sara Without an ‘H’” version of the name, and here in Mexico, we’re usually known as “Sarita” or “Saris,” but, at the end of the day, we’re all Sara(h)s. There are a lot of us running around.

Because of this phenomenon, I was usually known as “Sara M” in my elementary school years, given that there were inevitably two or three or four or nineteen other little Sara(h)s in my class. During my high school years, within my group of four best girlfriends, three of us were named Sara(h). My college roommate was Sara (also of the “Without an ‘H’” variety). As an adult, I’ve worked with dozens of Sara(h)s. My time in Japan, a place where you’d think I’d be able to “escape” my name, was met with endless mail-delivery related confusion due to fact that another American Sara(h) lived down the street. And here in Mexico, I work with another Sara(h) – also a freckle-faced Irish girl from Chicago.

I guess I’m lucky to have a lot of tocayas – that’s a hard-to-translate Spanish word for people who share the same name. But the downside of the situation is that I’m forever erroneously responding to my name. I’ll hear it called out in grocery stores, in the street, at restaurants, wherever. I’ll inevitably turn my head to find out who’s calling me, and will inevitably find that it’s someone else trying to get the attention of one of the other three billion Sara(h)s on the planet.

I recently experienced this “erroneously responding to my name” phenomenon, but, ironically, it wasn’t because there were lots of Sara(h)s running around.

Now, as usual, there were multiple Sara(h)s involved in this particular scenario – this particular time we were in quadruplicate. There was me, of course. There was Sarah, the aforementioned other freckle-faced Chicago Irish gal who lives here in Huajuapan with me. And there were to two Mexican Saritas. But the many tocayas weren’t the problem.

We were all assembled at Huajuapan’s softball diamond on Saturday afternoon. I’d come at the invitation of a Huajuapeña named Sandra. Sandra had spotted me on my morning jog a week prior, running past her sidewalk juice stand at my neck-breaking clip. Sandra, turning out to be just as speedy, had abandoned her post to run after me. The what-must-have-been strange look on my face –confusion at having an unknown apron-clad woman sprinting after me mixed with apprehension at what I thought would inevitably be an awkward interchange (remember the now-infamous quasi-stalking incident involving the taxi driver-cum television producer?) – did not seem to deter Sandra. She boldly invited me to be a part of her softball team.

So this led to the four Sara(h)s at softball on Saturday. I’d accepted, obviously, and, in turn, had invited Sarah, the freckled Irish-American Chicagoan, to come with me. And the two Mexican Saritas were already a part of the team.

The softball game was lovely. It was nice to meet other athletically-minded women – the stereotype of mexicanas content with being housewives certainly didn’t apply to this spirited group of women, women who expertly stole bases and energetically heckled the other team – as it was also nice to break my eleven-year hiatus at having actually swung a bat.

But there was a disconcerting aspect to the afternoon: I kept responding to the wrong name. And the name wasn’t Sara(h).

It was güera.

I hate that word.

Güera, translated to English, roughly means “white girl.” It’s supposed to be a neutral term. Mexicans have a tradition of calling things as they see them – so if you’re referred to as “Chaparrito” (meaning that you’re short) or “Moreno” (meaning that you’re dark-skinned) or “Chino” (meaning that you have curly hair) – it’s not meant in a mean-spirited way. It’s just because, well, that’s what you look like.

So, compared to many of my dark-skinned counterparts here in Oaxaca, I am very very very güera. And I’m reminded of it constantly – by dirty old men when I’m running, by well-intended cashiers in the grocery store, by my landlord when she sees me heading off to work in the morning. Though the term grates on my still-too-PC-from-having-grown-up-in-the-United-States nerves, I’ve slowly gotten used to responding to it.

So when the people in the bleachers started yelling at the güera on the softball diamond that afternoon, I naturally assumed that they were yelling at me. The familiar flush – part anger, part embarrassment at having been called out because I’m different – crept up my face.

But to my surprise, it was Sandra who responded back, as naturally as if they’d called her by her first name.

Sandra, by local standards, is güera. Her chestnut-colored hair is a couple of shades lighter than that of her teammates, and her skin is a light brownish color. Her "fair" complexion has become something of a trademark for her: She’s so güera that the name of her juice stand basically translates to “White Girl Juice” (Jugos la Güera). I discovered this as I ran past her closed-for-the-sabbath shop on the following Sunday morning.

Sharing my status as alpha-güera took some getting used to. I’m used to being the only “white girl” for miles. So I couldn’t help but turn my head when the bleacher set started whooping it up for the güera at bat. My ears naturally perked up when Sandra’s friends approached the dugout and called for the güera. Kids even got in on the act: A four-year-old calling for the güera – that’s Sandra, not me – even caught my attention.

It was unnerving. If Sandra wants the name, she can have it. I’ll take the confusion caused by four Sara(h)s over that of two güeras any day.


Anonymous said...

Sara no h needed says:

I love true, lots of Saras running around. I prefer to not have an "h" on my name though. :)

Miss ya Mac!

-Sara Paxton

amienamah said...

Hey! This is awesome! Fortunately, there are never other Amiena's around--for my sake and everyone else's!

Dani said...

I always respond to kids yelling out "Daddy," it sounds so much like "Dani." Not to mention always responding to people addressing male "Danny"s.

My mom has always called my sister "guera" or "guerita"...I never thought of it as anything bad, I call Ian "guero" sometimes....

I guess it does read a little like "gaijin", it's all about the attitude behind it.

Sara Mac said...

Hey "Daddy" (love it!)-- I think the word "güera" IS pretty harmless, but the problem is I hear it like 147 times per day. People could yell nice words like "unicorn, rainbow, butterfly" at me, but if I heard 'em a zillion times a day, I'd still hate 'em! Hope you are doing great, Dani. Miss u!