“Names/Nombres” is a personal essay by Julia Alvarez about how she viewed the many versions of her and her family’s names. It’s a popular selection for students. This analysis starts with a summary of “Names/Nombres” then looks at a theme.
The narrator remembers arriving at Immigration in New York City. The officer pronounced their names wrong. She was too afraid to correct him.
The mispronunciations of their names continue at the hotel, their new apartment building, and at school. Julia wonders if she should correct them, but her mother says it doesn’t matter.
In high school, Julia is popular and her friends call her by a variety of names. The proper Spanish pronunciation of her name is only used by family.
Her older sister, Mauricia, has a name that doesn’t easily translate into an English version. In the hospital, her mother almost changed it to Maureen so it would sound more normal. She stuck with Mauricia, a combination of the girl’s grandmother’s names. People found it hard over the years, and she was also called a variety of different names.
Julia’s younger sister, Ana, has the easiest name and looks the most American, and is called Anne most of the time.
In school, Julia’s desire to be known by her Dominican name fades and she just wants to be called Judy. When asked where she’s from, she gives vague answers unless pressed for specifics. She doesn’t like being singled out as foreign. Sometimes people ask to hear her full Spanish name, which has twelve parts.
At school functions, like graduation, Julia’s extended family attends, sitting up front and talking among themselves. Introducing them is difficult—there are lots of them, their names are complicated, and sometimes the relationship needs explaining. They wait out in the parking lot while Julia signs yearbooks and says her goodbyes.
Back at home, her family has a graduation party for her. She gets lots of gifts—wallets, a suitcase, a charm, money and, from her parents, a portable typewriter. Her family believes she will be a famous writer. She wonders what name she will go by.
(End of “Names/Nombres” summary)
Theme of “Names/Nombres”: Identity
This essay addresses identity in three main ways—cultural or national background, personal names and interests.
Cultural or national background and personal names as facets of identity overlap throughout.
It begins as soon as the Alvarez family arrives in New York. The Immigration officer pronounces it Elbures, at the hotel people say Albureste, and at the apartment people say Alberaste.
At school, Julia is called Judy, Judith and, once, Juliet. Later she gets the nicknames Jules, Hey Jude and Alcatraz. Her feelings about her personal name undergo a change.
At first, Julia wants her name to be said correctly, in the Spanish way. She only refrains from correcting the Immigration officer out of fear. She wonders if she should correct the teachers and classmates who say it wrong. Her mother dissuades her, saying it doesn’t matter.
Julia’s mother offers a possible view of how important a personal name is when she quotes Shakespeare, “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” That is, a name is simply a label and doesn’t have anything to do with who we actually are. Regardless of what name people use to refer to Julia, who she is stays the same.
Soon after, Julia’s “desire to be known by [her] correct Dominican name faded.” She now wants to blend in as Judy. This flying under the radar is short-lived because her “accent and coloring gave [her] away.” Julia’s accent and skin tone also identify her as different from everyone else.
She answers the question of where she’s from by first saying New York, then the Caribbean, and finally, the Dominican Republic. She’s not comfortable being identified as a foreigner.
The shift is apparent when she says her sister Mauricia “had the hardest time getting an American name for herself,” because there isn’t a simple American equivalent. This wording implies Julia now wants to blend in. Julia pities her sister for having to deal with this awful name. Although it sounds very nice (I think) it’s “awful” because it prevents her from blending in; she has to go through many names—Maria, Marcia, Maudy and Maury.
Julia’s younger sister, Ana, has the easiest time blending in with Americans. Her name (she goes by Anne) is easy, she’s lighter skinned, she has blonde hair and she’s beautiful.
We see a parallel to Julia’s situation after graduation with her classmates. Other students also had nicknames and sign them in the yearbooks. Sometimes nicknames are chosen and sometimes they’re thrust upon us. Many people want or are burdened with alternate names, and this isn’t inherently related to our culture. Julia is popular in high school; this seems to give rise to her nicknames. Being willing to sign a nickname in a yearbook also suggests the person has positive feelings about it.
Cultural identity comes to the fore in the graduation scene, where Julia stands out as different. Her extended family attends the ceremony, unlike the other students who usually just have their parents there. They speak Spanish loudly during the proceedings, have Spanish names and some of the family relationships are a bit convoluted.
The congratulations sign her family hangs sums up what came before. They’ve always called her by her Spanish name. On the sign, it says “Julie”. It seems the printer, like many others, couldn’t get her name right. Or if it was premade, Julie was the closest name they could find. This difficulty people have with foreign names isn’t going away, and it will still be an issue.
At essay’s end, after graduation, Julia’s attitude is balanced but uncertain. She’s wondering which name she will go by as a famous writer. She’s open to both possibilities now—her Spanish name or an Americanized version. She doesn’t rigidly believe that one is obviously superior to the other.
Julia is also identified by her interest, as a writer. Her family refers to famous authors as her friends. Her parents give her a typewriter and her family predicts she will be known all over the United States for her writing. There doesn’t seem to be any doubt around this part of her identity.
I hope this summary of “Names/Nombres” and look at a theme was helpful.