I’ve grown used to having my surname mispronounced. It’s a pretty common experience among ethnically named kids of all origins. Nguyens, Tulshyans, and Coughlans, who are often more surprised when their names are pronounced correctly than not, abound across all states and professions.
Of course, mispronunciation is not such a big deal for me. The mispronunciations themselves are not really the issue; they’re more a product of innocent misconceptions than anything else. But lately, the misconceptions have got me thinking: What is in a name?
In answer to his own question, Shakespeare said “that which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” This isn’t necessarily incorrect (and after all, who am I to correct Shakespeare), but it does discount the importance that a name holds. What something—or someone—is called matters. Each way a name is pronounced, butchered, misspelled, however you want to slice it, holds a connotation that reflects its history.
At least, that’s the way it seems with mine.
1. Pronunciation One: The Traditional
As a result of pandemic times and thanks to modern technology, a lot of my college friends first met me through online messages with my name emblazoned at the top of each one. Through no fault of their own, they defaulted to the traditional Spanish pronunciation, elle and all. “Vee-yah-ruse,” like they’re in the middle of a Madrid Plaza or standing right next to a conquistador.
This pronunciation, of course, stems from the 16th century, when Spain colonized the Philippines. Given that this article finds its place in the APIDA Creator’s Issue of the Nass, it should come as no surprise that I’m actually of Asian descent and have little, if any, Hispanic blood flowing through my veins. Well, maybe a little, but I’ve never looked further into it.
I have very little idea of how we came to have this name. It has no real meaning in modern Spanish—technically, I think it means red house, so for some time I’ve thought that some ancestor or another way back in the 1500s lived in a red house while they were being colonized. It makes sense, no? And although I’ll never know if that’s the truth, I have to live, as so many people do, with the knowledge that half of the name I use now was first forced upon my family. I sometimes wonder what we would be called now if they had kept or chosen an indigenous surname.
Colonization is not only the source of my name. It’s the driving force behind a great deal of what I consider the Asian half of my heritage, that side of my family culture. Spanish missionaries are the reason my family is Catholic. The limited Tagalog I know contains hundreds of Spanish loan words. We cook similar food, celebrate the same religious holidays—there are very few aspects of the Filipino culture I know that aren’t tainted by their colonial origins.
Again, this isn’t an uncommon experience. Most everyone whose ancestors have been a victim of oppressive white structures have names similarly colored by their complicated histories. What’s more, I don’t mind the traditional pronunciation. Oftentimes, it reminds me of all of the people whose efforts have made it possible for me to be where I am today. But when people address me with it, I also remember that it was probably not my family’s choice to be inextricably linked with their colonizers.
2. Pronunciation Two: The Excessive
I don’t know what it is that tempts people to put an extra letter in my name. “Vil-ah-crooz,” they say, putting a “c” where there is none. Maybe they’re confusing mine with other common names like De La Cruz, or maybe the “c” simply makes it easier for people to pronounce.
Either way, I think it’s a little funny. Here is your garden-variety mispronunciation, unencumbered by any semblance of generational trauma. Most people are susceptible to this kind of little snafu, whether they are the mispronouncer or the mispronouncee. But still, it holds certain connotations that say something about the name itself—for one, that it’s too unfamiliar on the American tongue to make do correctly.
I often wonder if people are overcompensating for the foreign-ness of the word, at least in American English. My first and middle names? They’re Anglican, or so I’ve been led to believe, and both Biblical (Bethany, after the town, and Clare, after the saint). “Villaruz?” It’s a little more distinct. Perhaps those people who add the extraneous “c” are trying to make clear that they get this name, they get it so well that they are even confident in adding a new letter. Subconsciously, they try to make up for their misunderstanding of the name by pronouncing it in a way that makes sense to the American-English-speaking mind.
To me, it’s a harmless mistake, and one that I have no problem being on the receiving end of (or consequently correcting). At times, though, I think this is the pronunciation that reminds me that, despite my claim to half-whiteness, I don’t quite fit in among those whose names have been on the American roster since the Mayflower. Because of my last name, there are some people to whom I will always be a little bit foreign.
3. Pronunciation Three: The Anglicized (Or, the Proper)
I learned to teach people how to both pronounce and spell my name since I was a child. On the phone, I still copy what I heard my mom say to explain it:
“‘Vil-ah-rooz,’ exactly how it’s spelled. ‘V’ as in ‘Victor,’ I-L-L, A-R-U-Z.”
All spelled out and simplified, ready to go. I suppose she learned to do it when she got married, or maybe having the last name “Frasier” (not “Frazier” or “Fraser”) taught her that it’s usually better to spell things out.
This is the anglicized version, the one that abides by conventions of American English and the American accent. I’m not sure when we started using this one—as far as I know, my grandparents used it when they immigrated here, as did their parents and probably their parents before them. Although the Asian side of my family is only two generations in, the current pronunciation dates back.
The loss of our native language, Tagalog, does not. I know very well what my grandparents were told when they put my dad and his siblings in school in the 80s. They were not to speak Tagalog to the kids, in case it slowed their learning of English. To acclimate, my grandmother Amelia became Melly and grandfather Rogelio became Roger. Even with our already anglicized name, my family underwent the name-changing process that so many immigrants do. Tagalog in our family is lost with them—all I know are a few food words, some courtesies, a greeting or two. Although I know the anglicized pronunciation didn’t originate with my grandparents immigration, I can’t help but think of how disconnected I am from our language every time I hear it.
That doesn’t make it any less my name, however. It’s been misspelled and mispronounced in every way I can imagine (and it’s not even that difficult!) but it is my name nonetheless. It simultaneously ties me to my heritage and reminds me of my distance from it. My name exists in a space that holds a history so long I can barely fathom it, all glossed over with a nice coat of Americanization.
See, Shakespeare said that it doesn’t matter what you call a rose, and maybe it doesn’t. But I think it matters what you call people. Names are a window into all the events that have occurred to bring a person into being. For some people, it is something that is assigned to them—an identifier, and nothing more. For some, a name is something chosen, a word that reflects how they perceive themselves. But whether a name is chosen or not doesn’t matter. They are complicated, no matter how they come about.
Sometimes it feels like my name is the only thing tying me to my Asian-ness, despite not really being an Asian name at all. That’s the very reason I would never want to be called something else. The complicated nature of my name is what I like about it—it reminds me of just how complex my identity can be. No— no matter how sweet, I won’t be going by any other name anytime soon.