My first name is Juan, which is common in Spanish speaking countries, but not in DC where I grew up.
I was the only person with my first name in school.
What annoyed me growing up, now looking back is something I am thankful for.
Most children want to fit in with their peers, and I was no exception. Like all the other boys, I wore the most popular sneakers, carried the favored lunchbox, and got my weekly haircut with the exact instructions to my barber: " Half off the top, and close on the sides." But no matter how much I tried to blend in, something always left me the odd man out - my name.
I was named in protest. Once, I asked my mother why she gave me the name Juan, and she replied, "Because I was angry with your father, and I didn't want to name you Jesse." My surname, which is of Scottish origin, set me up for teasing, but not as much as my first name.
My name was uncommon in the US
My name is quite common but highly uncommon in 1960s Washington, DC demographics. Only 5.5 million Latinos lived in the United States at that time, compared to 47.7 million in 2023. The silent "J" tripped many folks, and many pronounced my name as "Jew-Ann" or, in some cases, "Warn."
The mispronunciation of my name mainly was from my peers, but in addition to standing out, I felt left out when we started taking Spanish in the Third grade. Spanish classes, at least in my elementary school, were repeating the same modules no matter your grade. We learned colors, months of the year, days of the week, and to count to twenty in the lower grades and to one hundred by the time we got to sixth grade. Additionally, we learned basic greetings and how to ask and give our names. My dilemma arose when we were given our names to use during our twice-weekly lessons.
On the first day of lessons, our visiting teacher passed out name placards on which were written our names translated into Spanish. My best friend Stephen became Esteban, and my neighbor William was Guillermo. There was no direct translation of my cousin Joyce's name, so she became Josefina. When Senorita Bennett got to my desk, my anticipatory smile turned to a frown when she handed me a placard written J-U-A-N.
Through high school, I was the only person with my first name and the only person with my last name. I had the propensity to be the class clown, which I enjoyed more, but I still managed to get mostly A's in my classes. I was well-known and reached mononymous status among my peers and school administrators, with the latter referring to me simply by my last name.
I'm grateful I stood out
A Harvard alumnus interviewed me when I applied as an undergraduate and spent the first 10 minutes of our time together discussing my name. I wasn't accepted but matriculated to a much smaller school in another part of New England.
My freshman class had eight Black students, which had dwindled to six by the second semester. It had the potential to be a lonely experience, but the international community on campus welcomed me with open arms. My best friend was from Nice and taught me how to gamble playing backgammon. I learned to count in Japanese from another friend sitting in the first booth in the campus carryout, the Dry Dock. Unfortunately, of the eight Black students that began in the fall of 1976, only three of us graduated in May of 1980.
I've had job interviewers excited to meet me because they assumed I was bilingual, and others started speaking to me in Spanish simply because I have a Latin first name. Of late, I've had UberEATS drivers look at my name on the ticket and scoff, "Your name is John," as if I was pretending to be someone I'm not.
Looking back on my life, what initially made me feel odd gave me a degree of exoticism and made people curious to learn more about me. There are several things I would change if given the opportunity, but my name is not among them.
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