by Selena Pruitt — Paraguayan adoptee, teacher, incredibly funny friend
Originally published in Gazillion Voices Magazine, 2014.
The year I was born, the name ‘Sarah’ was the fifth most popular girls’ name in the country, and the name ‘Sara’ was the forty-third most popular name. On paper my name had a hint of individuality, but out loud it was still one of the most common names for a girl. This meant that almost anywhere I went someone had the same name, and often enough, the same spelling. I hated it. I hated the way my name looked, how it sounded, and how it felt when it rolled off my tongue. I hated the spelling, but most of all, I hated the way it made me feel.
My adoptive mother told me that the name Sara had familial value and that I was named after my maternal great-grandmother. I understand her desire to honor a woman she had admired and loved, yet it was still a name chosen by my adoptive parents that was not representative of who I was. No longer ‘Ana Paola’, the name chosen by my birth mother that stuck with me in the orphanage, I was now Sara. This name is anglo, American, and non-threatening. It didn’t match who I was inside, feeling clunky and foreign in my mouth. Over time I distanced myself from it as much as possible. By the time I graduated high school I had almost no connection to the name Sara, other than what I answered to, but it no longer mattered: I was taking control of my life and changing my name.
For years, I dreamt of changing my name and even went through phases where I insisted people call me by different names. The name that stuck the longest was ‘January,’ stolen from a waitress. This ended after months when my parents grew tired of humoring me and reverted back to the name they had give me.
The other setting in which I was able to choose a different name was in my high school Spanish class. My Spanish teacher made all of her students choose an authentic Spanish name on the first day of class every year. She would then refer to us by that name for as long as we were in her class. When it came my turn to pick out a name, it felt like I had only a split second to decide. Wanting to pick a name that started with S, my eyes landed on ‘Selena,’ and I chose it without hesitation. Of course, after class I realized that everyone was going to think that I had chosen it because of Selena Gomez, but that could not have been farther from the truth. I had chosen the name because it had felt right to me. It was Spanish enough that it fit the Latina side of me, yet held a hint of mainstream Americanness that satisfied my white upbringing. It was the right name for me. Of course going by ‘Selena’ was limited only to Spanish class and no one besides Ms. Simon called me that. This, however, was enough for me; I finally had a name that accurately represented me.
Eventually, when it came time to apply to college and do all of those forms and essays, I started thinking about life after high school and life away from my family. Going to school in a different state meant a chance for a new me — a different me. I could go by whatever name I wanted to, and I wouldn’t have the awkwardness of making my friends call me something different. So by the time the first official day of Macalester had arrived, I was already known to many as Selena and it was a fresh start for me. I was finally able to make a lasting change and for a good nine months of the year, go by a name that really felt like me.
Being called Selena feels empowering and life-changing for many reasons. First and foremost, I finally felt in charge of my life and that I had the power to be who I wanted to be, instead of who my parents wanted me to be. Changing my name showed me that my parents, adoptive or birth, do not define me, but rather I, and I alone, have that power. For many kids their name is important because their parents chose it, and it often reflects who they are as people and who they will become. For me, a name was something that my adoptive parents had given me, but it was not something that described me. Of course, my first name did not fit me either, but rather reminds me of what could have been. I once explained to a friend that the three names I have had throughout my life represented who I am, who I was expected to be, and who I could have been. Ana Paola was the name of a baby girl who wasn’t adopted and remained in Paraguay for the rest of her life. Sara was the name of the girl her adoptive parents expected her to be. And Selena is the name of women I am today. She is me, and it finally feels right.
© Copyright. Gazillion Voices. 2014. All rights reserved.