For the past several years, there has been a sentiment going around on social media that is some variation of, “If you can pronounce the name of the fictional character Daenerys Targaryen from ‘Game of Thrones,’ then you can pronounce the real names of people of color.”
An unwillingness to say a person’s name correctly is finally being called out for the not-so microaggression it really is.
The year I was born, the three most popular girl’s names were Lisa, Kimberly, and Mary. My first name, the one that appears on my birth certificate, Aizita, appeared nowhere on that list. My friends and classmates called me Zita for short — also not on that list.
The tweets about Daenerys wouldn’t happen for several more decades. When I was growing up, every first day of school I had to endure my name being mangled by my teachers, who treated its difference and difficulty to pronounce as a nuisance.
In the first grade, my teacher was Mrs. Patrick. Tall and stern, with a jet-black bouffant, she worked her way down a list of names. All of the students promptly raised their hands when called upon with an enthusiastic “Here!” But when she suddenly paused, looking perplexed, I knew she’d reached my name. Her face contorted like she’d eaten something sour, and she said my name as a stumbling half-mutter.
“Uhzitia? Or is it Azeeita? Zayetah?” She looked up, and over her horn-rimmed glasses, her brow creased with agitation. Gazing around the room, she waited for a response. I silently raised my hand.
“Yes?” she asked, looking directly at me. At that point, all other kids turned to stare.
“It’s Aizita,” I responded, in a monotone voice. She nodded, made a mark in her book, and without attempting to say it correctly herself, went on to the next student, whose name rolled right off her tongue.
I was embarrassed by the negative attention and ashamed to have a name that was so singular and difficult to pronounce. I was Latina, brown-skinned, with long, dark braids, in a practically all-white elementary school in a nearly all-white town. My name combined with my ethnicity and appearance made me anxious about fitting in or being accepted.
Along with mispronunciation, my name was also often spelled incorrectly. Sometimes the first “i” would be left out, or an “e” would be added. With time, I got better at responding to confused questioning about the pronunciation. When asked, I would say what I thought was simple enough: “The ′a’ is silent, the ′i’ is long. Think of the name Rita, but instead with a ‘z.’”
Some people get it and some people don’t ― but it’s the earnest effort to say it correctly that matters to me most. When people make eye contact and want to know if they said it right, it signals to me that we both matter. Knowing when my name or the color of my skin is perceived as a threat is a self-preserving intuition I’ve had for most of my life. A stranger who takes 30 seconds to pronounce the long “i” in Aizita correctly creates a feeling for me of safety and belonging.
My family of course knew how to pronounce my whole name correctly, but when I was young they rarely used it. My mother lovingly called me Zita Pita and my grandmother called me Zita Nita. I can’t remember at what age it began, but my father came up with the nickname Zeeter and more formally, Zeeter-Skeeter. One of my favorite aunts must have heard him, because she called me Zeeter-bomb. My brother and sister called me Ziti (like the pasta) and so did many of my friends.
Sometime during college, with confidence and pride, I began to use and ask to be called by my whole given name. Less concerned about belonging or acceptance, I appreciated how unique it was. It gave me a sense of individuality and complemented my then-recent embrace of my Latino ethnicity. But having such an unusual name also meant that other people tried to decode it or add meaning.
Not only was my name rare, I also didn’t know where it came from. The internet didn’t exist back then, and my parents could only offer that my father had come across it in a magazine. He found the name beautiful, he told me, as well as the woman it belonged to, and for those reasons he chose it for me.
The many times I was asked what my name meant, I’d truthfully answer that as far as I knew, it had no meaning. What I came to understand was that because I am brown-skinned, and my name is unfamiliar, what people often actually wanted to know was my race or ethnicity, or if I was born in the U.S.
“But what kind of name is it? Where is it from? What are you?”
Finally, sometime in my early 40s, information about my namesake appeared online, and discovering her was akin to finding part of myself. I finally knew whom I was named after, and it was worth the wait.
Aizita Nascimento was born in 1939, in Rio de Janeiro. An actress and model, she was, in fact, beautiful, as my father had described. In the 1960s, she was featured in the magazine Life Español, where he saw her photos. Tall, curvy and with a dark brown complexion, her expressive eyes were often painted with a cat eye effect and she had a big, bright smile.
Born of mixed ancestry, she was referred to then as mulata, a classification used at that time for and by people of European and African descent and with dark skin. Mulatto derives from the Spanish or Portuguese term for mule, a mix of a horse and a donkey. Although the term is considered antiquated and offensive by some in North America, it is still sometimes used to refer to people of mixed race.
I learned that Aizita became the very first Black woman to compete in a beauty contest in Brazil. Aizita won the Miss Renascença contest of 1963 and went on that same year to participate in a much larger pageant in the northern part of Rio. When the eight finalists were announced, Aizita was among them — a groundbreaking event for a Brazilian woman of color.
“Queremos a mulata, queremos a mulata, queremos a mulata!” “We want the Black woman,” shouted the crowd of almost 25,000 that evening, cheering for Aizita. When she only placed sixth, the audience replaced their cheers with boos of anger and outrage.
Shortly after, the story of her pageant loss appeared in one of Brazil’s most popular news magazines with the headline taken from the crowd’s chant, “Queremos a Mulata!” Aizita is credited with having paved the way for other mixed-race women, including the winner of the following year’s pageant, who was also a woman of color.
The next year, in 1964, Aizita who was also a registered nurse, launched herself as a singer and recorded several songs, and went on to have substantial success in film and television. Going back a decade, I have found her story included in academic articles, blog posts and popular media about social and cultural changes in Brazil, Afro-Brazilians and notable Black women of Brazil. She is considered to be a maverick who changed standards of beauty and improved perceptions of women of color in Brazil.
Recently on eBay, I purchased a copy of one of the singles Aizita recorded, described as “samba-jazz bossa nova.” On the cover, she smiles playfully, and looks alluring. My name, Aizita, appears prominently in a large yellow font and all in caps.
I revel in the fact that I share the name of such a revolutionary and pioneering woman known for elevating women of color in Brazil. When people ask me about my name, I now have a story.
I recount the scene where the audience chants support for Aizita in unison at the beauty pageant, and it always makes me emotional. I like to imagine that kind of crowd seated in my first-grade class, there to champion me. When the teacher becomes annoyed and dismissive of me and my name that she can’t pronounce, my 6-year-old self hears them cheering, “We want the brown girl. We want Aizita.”
Learning to say my name is respect, affirmation and acknowledgement of me and my identity. It makes space for me, but also the possibility of connection. If you want people of color to be included, believe they deserve to be seen, then you can say so by correctly pronouncing their name.
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