The Power of Names
Earlier last month, I visited an independent school in Connecticut, to speak on Indigenous Peoples’ Day, about Hispanic Heritage Month, the power of names, and the power of naming. Names are a critical component of our identity. Names reveal —or conceal— who we are. Let’s start with “Connecticut,” which takes its name from an Algonquian word that means “land on the long tidal river.” I made that point from a podium in the land that belongs to the Nipmunks, the Sequin, the Matabesec or Wappinger, and the Pequot-Mohegan. I might have mispronounced those words, and I might have omitted others. And that is a direct consequence of the systemic erasure of “Indigenous Peoples” from our curricula, our media, and our collective narrative.
“Indigenous Peoples” is a shortcut to identify a large and diverse set of cultures who didn’t call themselves “Indigenous Peoples.” That is an umbrella under which they’ve been placed by external sources with the power of naming. “Indigenous Peoples” is a product of colonialism.
The independent school that hosted me is located in New Haven. But a “New Haven” for whom? Certainly not for the “Indigenous Peoples,” who were forced to leave their land and go on a long trail of tears to find their new haven.
I mentioned that I’m Cuban. “Cuba,” a beautiful Taino word, which means “great place.” For me, the great place from which, 23 years ago, I fled the Castro dictatorship, a totalitarian regime that has lasted more than six decades, and today is terrorizing the Cuban people who are reclaiming their right to have rights. Children, adults, and elderly people are barricading the streets and shouting “freedom,” because they believe, as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. did, that “a riot is the language of the unheard.” And, also, because, as the late congressman John Lewis said: “We do not want our freedom gradually, but we want to be free now!”
Cubans, on the island and in exile, are speaking loud and clear. They are voting with their feet, by crossing the treacherous path from Central America to the United States, by braving —on makeshift rafts— the ninety miles of sharks and uncertainty that separate Cuba from the US, or by putting their bodies in front of the police force of the Cuban government, a political system that has simultaneously lost all touch with reality and what little credibility it still had in the international arena.
Let’s go back to the power of names and the power of naming. Let’s take a look at Latino, Latina, Latine, Latinx, Hispanic… and all the possible permutations of those identifiers. Well, that’s not what I call myself. I am Cuban. My Colombian friends are Colombian. My Puerto Rican friends are Puerto Rican. My Chilean friends are Chilean. And so on, and so forth. Yet, we have been placed under a massive umbrella.
The powerful thing about shared umbrellas is that they offer shelter against the tempest. The problem with shared umbrellas is that once you’re under them, you have very little room to move about freely. You are confined to a crowded space in which you might become indistinguishable from the people next to you. You might gain a collective identity at the risk of losing your own —individual or national— identity.
Much like there are cultural differences between the people of New Haven and the people of New Orleans, the people from, say, Lima (Peru), and Cuba’s capital —Havana, another Taino word— share a common language, which is also a product of colonialism. But they differ greatly in their history, traditions, idiosyncrasies, cosmogony.
Let’s think about another continent. But, first, let’s think about the Ukrainians. Slava Ukraini!
We talk about the French, the Italians, the Germans, the Spaniards, the Greeks, the Irish; we even make distinctions for the members of the United Kingdom: the English, the Scottish, the Welsh. We don’t throw “the Europeans” under one big umbrella. They get to retain their national identities.
Therefore, I am writing this to invite you to extend the same courtesy to Africa, Asia, and the Americas. Because Africa is not a country. Asia is not a country. And America is not a country.
Let’s normalize calling our nation by its proper name: the United States of America; the US or USA, if you are in a rush. And, yes, “our nation.” I use the possessive pronoun, because, in the immortal words of Langston Hughes, “I, too, am America.”
This Op-Ed was published —with slight modifications— in the print edition of The Miami Herald, on 10/27/22.