I was eight years old and it was the first day of school in America. I had only landed in the states two months before, on the Fourth of July, 1998. So here I was – the new kid in school, not only new to the school but also new to a foreign land, whose language I didn’t know. That first day of school I found myself sitting quietly at my desk. Roll call began, “John, Susan, Tiffany, Jacob.” The teacher called out names and one after the other, the students said, “Present, here, present, here.” Then called another name and no one answered. She kept repeating the name, twice then three times, and no one raised his or her hand. I figured this student must be absent. Suddenly, I heard her say my last name, “Santos,” and I looked up and said, “Yes?” She then connected my last name with my first name, and everyone stared at me for what seemed like forever.
My name is Anibal Santos (Hannibal is the English translation), not Franco. If you are from an Anglo-speaking country, pronouncing my name will be difficult for you. Go ahead. Try it now.
In Peru, though, everyone could pronounce my name and I seldom gave it a second thought. That morning when my 3rd-grade teacher called me by my name, it didn’t sound anything like what I had been used to hearing before (Ah-nee-Bahl). She instead butchered it all kind of ways and beat it to death before resorting to calling me by my last name.
By that point, all the students were already staring at me and whispering under their breaths. “Why does he have a girl’s name?” one student asked. “I wonder if he eats humans,” said another. Of course, thanks to the movie Silence of the Lambs my name was infamous. I went home that day confused as to why they had pronounced my name wrong, but I guessed they just didn’t know better. The following days, I tried to correct my teacher but to no avail. She would still butcher it. Week after week she kept at it and I even remember her saying under her breath once, “what a strange name.” That moment hurt and I just put my head down until it was time to go home.
The remainder of the year didn’t change much when it came to pronouncing my name. Kids would bully me and I wouldn’t say anything back. It sucks not knowing a language. Since my knowledge of English was rudimentary, it was hard to defend myself or speak back. So I just stayed in silence. I guessed this was just part of the school system in America.
That first year, I hated living in the United States. I missed Peru, my family, and my school friends. The ones that could actually say my name right and didn’t bully me. I also hated not being able to speak the language, but most of all I hated being bullied for something I couldn’t change: my name.
Elementary school came and went. The following year we moved out of our first home, which was an extra bedroom in my uncle’s house. We didn’t upgrade by much, just to an extra bedroom in someone else’s apartment. With that move came a new school. Things didn’t change all too much in this school either. Teachers still pronounced my name wrong and kids still chuckled once I introduced myself. I made friends and tried to let comments slide off my back.
A few years later we moved again. It was now time for high school and I had two choices. A school a few towns away or a school that was notoriously known for having gang activity. In the end, I went to the school a few towns away. How did I end up in this high school you ask? Well, my mom worked in the school’s cafeteria and she knew the principal. She spoke to him and he let me come to the school even though I did not live in the designated school district. So here I was, about to embark and enter the doors of James Madison High School in Vienna, Virginia.
I knew that I would be the new kid, but this time I didn’t want to be called by my name and have all the teachers and students butcher it and tease me for it. So one day in 8th-grade Spanish class, I tried looking for the easiest Spanish-sounding name I could find in our workbook. I came across “Franco” and thought, “Ok, this one is easy. It’s like Frank with just an O at the end.” So I chose it and decided that once summer was over and school would begin, I would go by a new alias.
I woke up at 5 AM for the first day of school. Mom drove, and we must have been the first two at school that day. Mom started prepping for her shift and I sat in the cafeteria until the school lights came on. 30 minutes before the first bell would ring I made my way to class with a mission. I introduced myself to my new teacher and after small talk; I asked her if she could call me by my middle name “Franco” because it was easier to pronounce than my first name “Anibal.” She replied, “Sure, not a problem,” and crossed out Anibal and wrote Franco instead. I thanked her and left the classroom. In case you are wondering, I have no middle name. It was all a lie, but it worked.
I walked back into class when the first bell rang. Roll call began. “John, Brittany, Jared, Franco…” I replied, “Present.” And no one looked at me. For the first time, I didn’t get any weird looks or gazes. What a nice feeling it was to have zero eyes staring. I would go and ask the same of all my teachers for the remainder of my classes. They all happily obliged.
This continued every year until I graduated high school. Having a new name didn’t suddenly make me popular, but I felt that I could fit in and at times go under the radar as just another kid.
During college, I repeated the same story and fooled everyone about my name. It became my new identity and my old name got left in the dust just like the city of Carthage, where my name originates.
Ten years after I first changed my name I got on a plane bound for Spain. I left my old life behind and embarked on a new one. Full of people I’d never met and cities I’d never seen. I was excited, nervous and anxious to discover a new continent. The only difference was that I was moving to a city where its citizens could actually pronounce my name. Not Franco, but Anibal. So I decided to try a new experiment.
I started introducing myself as Anibal to Spaniards. As soon as I did, no one thought of it as weird. Some would say “que guay,” which means, “cool” and then we would go on and talk about tapas and cervezas.
Neither Spaniards nor anybody at the high school that I worked had any difficulty pronouncing my name. It was nice to finally hear someone pronounce my name correctly. It was nice to not have to correct someone on the proper pronunciation of it. As time went on I started to lose the liking for the name Franco. I would use it at times when introducing myself to English speakers, but deep down inside I knew that that wasn’t really me.
In 2018 I knew something had to change. The day before I took a flight destined for London, I decided that I would introduce myself as “Anibal” to everyone I met at the conference I was attending that weekend. Yes, I would finally introduce myself to Anglo-speaking people as Anibal. So it began. That Thursday morning, a Danish guy staying in the same hostel as me asked me for my name and I said “Anibal,” he said “cool,” and then we continued on with our conversation. Another time when someone at the conference asked for my name and I said “Anibal,” they replied, “Oh, just like the great general from Carthage!” I said “Yes! You actually know your history.” Those of you who love history may recognize his name, but with the English translation of “Hannibal.” I felt relieved and had zero anxiety anymore. So what if people think my name is hard? Their comments won’t change the way I live my life. I didn’t want the experiment to die so I decided to carry it on when I returned to Madrid.
Once I landed I knew what I had to do. It was time for Franco to die and for Anibal to be reborn. So I did just that and started to introduce myself as the name I was given on August 18th, 1990. It was scary at first. It felt strange letting go of the name Franco and programming myself back to my original name. But after I did it enough times, it felt liberating and authentic. No more hiding, no more making up a fake story about how Franco was my middle name, etc. This time I was just myself.
When I look back at why I changed my name in the first place, I understand it was to placate those that couldn’t pronounce it. It was to fit in and to not get bullied. 20 years later, I realized I’m not here to please people or make their life easier because I have a hard name to pronounce. Changing my name back to Anibal made me realize that I don’t have to change who I am. People in life will either accept you or reject for whatever reason. Weird name or not, we can’t please everyone. If we change who we truly are for others then we end up losing ourselves. It took me a long time to realize this, but I can finally say I’m no longer ashamed of my name and the history that it brings. RIP Franco.
Originally published at thoughtsafter3.com