I walk into my abuelita’s room and she’s hunched over a book of genealogy- the old ones with the long horizontal pages of lines and brackets that fan out into generation after generation. She has a pencil and is making notes, small scribbles about memories or facts, reading and revising, checking and rechecking. She doesn’t hear or see me standing in the door and I always have the same thought when I see her curled over the books in her lap “Doesn’t that hurt her back and neck?” I straighten up vicariously before calling her name “Hola Abuelita- cómo estas?” She looks up, her eyes brighten, her mouth makes a little delighted “oh” and she smiles. Then, she says my favorite thing in the world “Ahhh hola Sarita!”
When she arrived in the US as a Mexican immigrant she presented her passport and papers to the woman behind the glass and waited. She knew a few words of English- enough to understand when the women looked at her name, Maria de los Angeles Rueda, and drew a line through “de los Angeles” and said with disdain, “I don’t need to know where you are from” and changed her documented name forever, oblivious to her own ignorance. Catching on that Americans needed things in simplistic terms, she went by Angela from then on, Angie to her friends.
She named my mom Irma and I loved to hear her say it- the roll of the “r” falling softly out of her mouth, distinct from the harder “Errrrrma” from my dad and everyone else. I was today years old when I learned that Irma has Germanic roots and means “universal” or “complete.” Did my mom complete some part of her? Did she become the center of her world, if only for a little bit before her siblings arrived?
The story goes that when my mom was pregnant with me, she and my dad wanted a name for me that reflected my mixed race heritage. My dad was born in Bountiful, Utah and like other Mormon colonizer descendents was all British Isles but had skin and hair just as dark as my mom’s. His darkness and his spanish- learned as a missionary in Mexico- often had people guessing where he was from.
His mom- Grandma Bybee- was not pleased when he decided to marry Irma. Spencer W. Kimball said that the prophetic “recommendation” was that people marry within their own race and Grandma believed him. It’s one thing to go and preach the Gospel to them, another thing entirely to marry one of them. She did what she could to stop the marriage, and when that failed, she found other ways to intervene.
My dad wanted to name me Xochitl, meaning “flower” in Nahuatl. Grandma campaigned for something more acceptable, lobbing visions of teachers being unable to pronounce my name, kids making fun of me, a lifetime of me having to correct people’s attempts to talk to me as the next round in her war on everything Mexican. So Sara it was. Easy, biblical.
I don’t know why my parents didn’t call me Sarita. I do know that they made conscious decisions to de-emphasize our Mexicanness; mom learning to cook casseroles, stopping speaking Spanish to me in the home when Grandma Bybee objected, emphasizing the Gospel as the most important “culture” in our home. I only ever heard “Sarita” when we visited Abuelita and Abuelito from my mom’s side of the family.
I grew up in Central California, surrounded by Mexicans and disconnected from my own Mexicanness. My parents taught me again and again that the most important “culture” in our house was the Gospel. So when my white boyfriend told me that his dad said we have to break up because he “didn’t want his son dating some Mexican” I told him that his dad was an idiot because “I’m not Mexican.” My only real connection was “Sarita” and that name was like a cultural artifact in a museum that I only saw a few times a year; it was hard to feel like it much to do with me.
It wasn’t until I was filling out my application for BYU and I saw the “Hispanic” box that I began to be curious about what checking that box meant about me. “Technically” I thought, “It’s true- if my mom is Mexican then I’ve got to be Mexican too…” and I tenuously checked the box. I remember exactly where I was- the school library- and I remember that it felt like something with significance.
I went to BYU and two seismic things happened; I was radicalized into a more strict form of Mormonism which birthed my hypervigilance, and I was Mexicanized. In California, almost everyone had looked like me but now I was swimming in a sea of blond hair and it felt very, very different. I was Mexican. I was Mexican.
It was like discovering a hidden room in the house of my being, camouflaged behind a false wall of “Gospel culture” that was always there, waiting to be found. I threw myself into filling that room with semester after semester of Spanish classes. Serving a mission in Bolivia sealed the Spanish-speaking deal and after I came home, I loved to delight my Abuelita by speaking the language that had become an easy, permanent part of me. “Aye Sarita, que bien hablas español!” she would say with her crinkly, twinkly eyes.
When she passed away last December, I was afraid that my name had died with her. We had been neighbors for the last 8 years of her life and almost every week she greeted me with “Hola Sarita” in her wispy, elderly voice. I loved it every time I heard it. Names matter; what we call people roots them to themselves, so much so that sometimes they choose a new name to root into that feels more authentic to them than the “best guess” their parents gave them at birth. So, I asked some of my friends to call me Sarita. It will never replace her voice- but I don’t need a replacement. I just love the reminder.