“Sign your complete name, please.”
Alicia Ruth Mendez
And with a flourish, my official signature was changed.
“Re-sign your name. This is not how it appears on your residency card,” the tax official ordered.
“No?” I questioned.
“See here. There is a very clear ‘th’ in Ruth.”
“Oh, okay, but that’s not how I always sign my name.”
“Well, we need your signatures to match. Here is some paper. You can practice.”
And as I practiced copying my own signature, I realized what I had done three weeks prior. In the Mexican immigration office, when I had also been told to sign my “complete name,” I had misunderstood. And now, I was fated to learn a new signature with all three names for every official Mexican document.
The next year, when I was re-issued my residency card, the immigration official told me to sign my name as listed on my U.S. Passport — Alicia R Mendez — my usual signature. Instead, I listed my entire name again. After all, at this point, all my tax documents already contained Ruth.
“No second last name?”
“No accent on Mendez?”
My transition to a new country and language makes it even clearer how quickly it is to misunderstand, cross wires, mis-translate.
The majority of my confusion results from times I think I understand what is being communicated when, in fact, I misunderstood a crucial element. And I’m too embarrassed to ask for clarification.
“Bruth?” The bank clerk asked with a puzzled face, hands alert on her keyboard.
“No…Ruth…with an R.” Then — since this is not the first time — I show her the spelling on my cell phone.
Things as simple as a name — with an accent, slight hesitation, or twirl of the tongue — can be completely changed.
I remember learning how multitudes of people were mis-registered at Ellis Island when arriving to the U.S. in the first half of the 1900s — either because the officers misunderstood, or deliberately chose a more “Americanized” spelling, or because the migrant wanted a chance to start anew.
When my grandfather immigrated to the United States in the 1940s, for example, he lost the accent on Méndez and changed his legal name to Eli. (It was easier to pronounce than Severino Eleucadio Mejía Méndez.) And, now, back in México, I am unable to officially add the accent back to my name, because it is not the registered spelling on my U.S.A. issued birth certificate.
But what I have added is my middle name, even if it means I am forced to pronounce it correctly in Spanish.
Learning to navigate the world in another language is a challenge. Learning to ask someone, “otra vez,” because Spanish is not my native tongue, and I need it repeated one more time makes me cringe.
I’ve spent the past two years living as an immigrant in México — in a reverse narrative of the worn-out story of “coming to America” to “make a new life” and “pursue your dreams.”
What if leaving America was the new beginning? This might be what it would look like.
I’ve spent the past years rewriting my narrative — changing my phone number, bank account, residency, and name.
I’ll spend the next years perfecting my introduction.
“Mucho gusto. Soy Alicia Ruth Mendez. Nací en Estados Unidos. Vivo en México.”