Written by: Nia Ita
My father loves to tell the story of how I got my name. Convinced I was going to be a boy because of how low I sat in my mother’s belly and inspired by his favorite biblical figure, my father prepared with the name Jonathan.
Jonathan. Meaning, God is given. It was a strong, masculine, meaningful name. Thirty plus years and two daughters later, he still hopes that one of us will give him a Jonathan.
In Mami’s version of the story, she recalls every detail leading up to the delivery. She speaks about the contractions she didn’t mention to Papi before he left for work, believing that when it was time the pain would be relentless, as opposed to the waves it came in that Wednesday morning. “El dolor iba y regresaba negra. Yo no sabía.”
She talks about the sancocho she was making and how she turned it on and off with the pain of the contractions, unsure if she should eat or shower or just try to go to sleep. “Yo me estaba encojonando con esos dolores,” she laughs. She thought if she pushed, the pain would go away. “Si tu no te hubiera sentado en el último momento, hubiera nacido ahí en el toilet.”
She tells me how Mama Nurys arrived with intuition around 11:30 in the morning and asked the driver of that 777-7777 car service to wait because there was a sick woman inside. She remembers her mother-in-law, screaming, “mujer, tu ta pariendo!” and rushing her into the car to get to the hospital. I was born at Elmhurst Hospital in Queens, NY at 3:08pm. I know because every year Mami has a running joke that she cannot wish me a happy birthday until the afternoon.
Papi remembers none of these details. When he tries to add to the story, Mami cuts him off, sucks her teeth in jest and lets him know in her sing-song Spanish, “Gino, tu no sabe na.” She dismisses him with one flick of her right hand in the air. In Papi’s version of the story, nothing matters up until the moment the nurse approached him with my newborn body held out to him like a fresh offering.
I imagine Papi pacing up and down the narrow hospital hallway, striding his long legs in between the rows of chairs arranged on either side of the once-white walls. He stops in his tracks when he sees the nurse and beams a crooked smile so wide that it threatens to wrap around his head. He uses his tongue to sweep a mentica to the side of his mouth so he can talk. He is ready to crown the Jonathan of his dreams when he asks the nurse if his newborn is a boy or a girl.
I have heard the story so many times that I can hear my father’s words echoing in the memory as though it were my own. As if my infant ears can recall the first time they heard his voice. “She didn’t answer me negra. She just opened your tiny little legs and said ‘look for yourself.’ And I did. Then I looked back at her and laughed. I told her, ‘this name does not go with that.” He always uses his finger to point to my invisible body.
Papi scrambled for a new name and settled on Jennifer, feeling it was the closest female match to Jonathan. And so, Jennifer Sanchez made her way into the world.
Over the years, I collected nicknames like state quarters arranged and displayed on a map. Yenny stuck around for a few years until my little sister became more English dominant. Jenny made appearances too, which made for a lot of Forest Gump jokes.
When Jennifer Lopez released her debut album, the tigueres from the block started calling me J.Lo in an attempt to let me know they noticed I was growing up and growing big in all the right places. Some of my family echoed the nickname as well, usually at parties right after the women told everyone how they used to look just like me and right before making me twirl around for the entire room to see. “Mira esa es J.Lo” they would chorus.
There was that one cousin who would invert my name just to irritate me. And it worked. Every single time, I’d huff and puff, grunting through my teeth and enunciating, “It’s JEN-NIH-FUR” as if the breakdown would help him correct an error he was intentionally making. He would always just grin and respond, “OK Jeffiner.” In high school and through most of undergrad, people started calling me JennSanchez, just like that, as though it were one name.
At home though. At home, I was always negra.
When I was seventeen years old, all I wanted was freedom. To escape my dead end block and my strict Dominican Evangelical household. To get away. I left for college at SUNY New Paltz in upstate NY. My parents gave in because it was an hour and a half drive from home and that was doable in case of emergencies.
On orientation day, I sat on the floor of a narrow hallway, in a line of students, arranging my class choices by most preferred to least preferred on a sheet of paper. I didn’t need the general recommendations they gave all freshmen because I was confident about declaring my major in Communication Disorders.
It was during that orientation that I met my first roommate. A girl from Watertown, NY with cocoa brown hair and cotton white skin. She seemed nice enough, but I probably should have known when she told me there were only three black kids in her high school and no Spanish ones.
I should have known. But I was still surprised when she made jokes about my Dominican boyfriend being Puerto Rican and how all Puerto Ricans carry knives. I was still shocked when she asked if I was listening to Tupac and I told her it was Nas. She shrugged her shoulders, responding, “Same thing. Don’t they all kill each other anyways?” And despite all this, I still respected her request that I stop watching Family Guy dubbed in Spanish on my side of the room on my laptop because it made her uncomfortable.
I moved out after one semester.
It was also during that orientation that the late Dr. Margaret Wade-Lewis cornered me and insisted I join the Scholar’s Mentorship Program, an initiative created to help students of color succeed in higher education. Initially, I didn’t want to join because it meant adding a class that wasn’t in my original plan.
Maybe it was her graying hair styled in perfect, wavy locks accented by sea shells that reminded me of mother’s island. Maybe it was the way her voice had a soft finish that matched the pearls around her neck. She was equal parts gentle and strong and it felt like I had come across the grandmother I never got to have in this country, so I enrolled and added the mandatory first year seminar to my schedule.
During that first year seminar, Dr. Karanja Keita Carroll walked in for a guest lecture wearing glasses, a traditional dashiki and a newsboy cap that crowned his growing natural hair. I remember the shock, more so over how many times he cursed than over what he was wearing, and thinking Mami wouldn’t believe me if I told her this Black man was a doctor. I also remember how electric I felt after hearing him speak.
Dr. Carroll explained how Africans were enslaved and transported to the Americas through the Transatlantic Slave trade. He talked about Afrolatinidad, colorism, and racism. This was the first time I had ever heard of the African diaspora.
I thought about my black grandfather in the Dominican Republic. I thought about the way my cousin almost came to blows with another man in the marketplace the last time I was there because someone called me an Haitianita. I thought about how I was one of a handful of kids from my dead end block to finish high school, let alone go away to college. I thought about how they might never learn about their blackness.
A few email exchanges later with Dr. Carroll, I decided to register for his “Race and Racism in US history” class because it fulfilled a history general education requirement. Then, I took a hip-hop culture class with Theory Thompson and a Rap and Spoken Word class with Dr. Wade-Lewis. Without ever intending, I realized I was almost halfway through the requirements for a major in Black Studies and so I decided to take on a second major.
My senior year of undergrad, I didn’t have a roommate. I spent a lot of time reading and researching for my Black Studies seminar final thesis. I was writing a dissertation on the tension between Blacks and Latinos with a focus on the island of Hispaniola. On the two beds pushed together as one, I planted myself right between what would have been the divide and sat criss-cross. Caped in a soft, heather-gray jersey blanket, I hunched over the book I was reading, Na’im Akbar’s Know Thyself.
This is what I remember most: In many African cultures, children are given an earth name and a heaven name. A child’s earth name was given to them upon being born. Their heaven name was given to them after the family and the elders of the community had had time to observe their growth.
I started to think about my name. Jennifer. Meaning, the fair one. Pale. Fair-skinned. Jennifer. It was the last puzzle piece mixed in from the wrong box.
I was not raised to embrace my blackness. Despite my nickname, I have vivid memories of the “te vas a ver muy negra” warnings family members gave me when advising me about the colors I chose to wear or taking too much sun. My first boyfriend in college, a Dominican Bronx boy who Mami nicknamed poca vida, had black friends, but his crew was all Dominican. And I learned there was a sharp difference the night he told me how some cocolos tried to start a fight with his crew at a party.
That afternoon in my room, hunched over, my face illuminated blue by the bright light of my laptop screen, I explored the idea of a new name. I read the names out loud, Abibi-Binty- Chinaka, sitting with the aftertaste of their syllables on my tongue and on the fleshy inside of my cheeks. Efia-Fatuma-Haji. I wrinkled my nose as the names echoed off the four walls.
I tried each name on by myself, reminiscent of all those back to school shopping trips I ended up crying after because dressing room after dressing room I was looking for the perfect fit on jeans that were not made with my shape in mind. Small waist. Wide hips. Fat ass. Most of the names felt foreign and uncomfortable like I was reaching into something that did not belong to me.
Until I found Nia. Swahili for purpose. The two syllables left sweetness on my lips and soul. Nia. And then I found Ita. Taino for “don’t know” and I heard Erykah Badu’s honey voice singing “the man that knows something knows he knows nothing at all.”
I was twenty-one years old when I chose my new name and I had fairytale expectations about where I was going and who would be coming with me. But even when those expectations were shattered, the sweet taste of my new name helped me rise above the debris.
Months later when I started graduate school, I slipped into my new name with caution. When professors called attendance, I asked them to call me Nia in place of Jennifer. It was not as difficult as I thought it would be, reinventing myself.
I told my friends next. They fell into two categories. The first set of friends stumbled as they became accustomed but continued to try. The second set never tried.
I told my boyfriend, a Haitian Brooklyn boy who Mami never cared for enough to nickname, while standing in the small kitchenette of my graduate assistantship apartment. I faced him as he stood by the doorway and I can still remember how he laughed with his entire body before asking me if I thought I was Malcolm X. For the few months that remained of our relationship, he refused to call me by my new name. After I read him the Dear John letter I typed on my computer, he paced and collected his belongings from my apartment, muttering the entire time about how things had been perfect before I decided to change my name and my attitude.
I told my family last. Mami and Papi didn’t mind Nia as a nickname. Papi went as far as referencing the story of Jacob wrestling with God and being given a new name in the process. Right before graduating with my Master’s, I decided I wanted to make the name change legal. I wanted my degree to have my heaven name printed on the certificate when my parents framed and mounted it over the one from New Paltz.
The day I called my mother to tell her I was going to change my name legally, I was met with a pregnant pause followed by an exaggerated deep sigh. “Perdoname. I guess the name I gave you wasn’t good enough,” she said in trembling Spanglish that revealed the tears I could not see.
A thick silence of insecurities fell on both ends of the line. I mumbled an excuse to end the call and sat alone. The heat started at my nose, turning it a crimson red, and spread to my eyes, which soon reflected my mother’s tears. It started to feel like the walls were closing in on me, like the air in the room was in short supply. I had to remind myself that Mami came to this country because she wanted me to have a better life, one with more access to education. She didn’t realize how that access might challenge and disrupt the order she expected.
I wanted my mother’s support. I wanted her affirmation and encouragement; her cosign dried in permanent ink. And though I did not have it, I moved forward with the name change process.
I rode a crowded one train all the way downtown. I clenched the paperwork in my hand instead of placing it in my bookbag where it could have avoided the creases. I waited in all kinds of lines: security lines, registration lines, court lines, payment lines. There were bodies in front of me and bodies behind me but I didn’t see their faces.
I kept my attention on the face of the forms in my grasp. I stared at the a’s in my new name and noticed, for the first time, how much my penmanship mirrored my father’s.
Name changes are a common traditional practice for Indigenous Americans and people of the African diaspora. In the Sioux nation, a change in name meant a new beginning for a child that was not doing well. It is also common for people to have more than one name. In Ghana, children are often given a “day name” that corresponds with the day of the week they were born. In the Dominican Republic, people are more often associated with apodos or nicknames than they are with their actual legal names.
The year I was born, Jennifer was the 7th most popular baby name for girls in the country. 7 is a holy number. A number of spiritual perfection. Every seven years the body completes a physical and spiritual cycle. On my third completion of a cycle, I started to take ownership of my identity on my own terms. I changed my first name to Nia and went with two middle names.
Ita, a choice that I made, and Jennifer, the earth name my parents gave me because you really can’t move forward without first looking back.
When I was twenty-one years old, I chose a name that was more consistent with who I was becoming, an Afroindigena woman who pays tribute to both the cultures that have been either whitewashed or completely erased from the written records of her mother’s land.
Don’t get it twisted. I’m still Dominican. I still collect nicknames like novelty coins from tourist attractions. My grandfather thing it’s cute and rhyme-y to call me “Nia Mia.” My sister intentionally calls me “stister” even with her full command of the English language. I have a writer friend who calls me Sunflower. But my favorite nickname remains the same.
You want to see me grin an orthodontically engineered smile so wide it damn near could wrap around the back of my head? Call me negra. That’s where my heart is.
Nia Ita is a bilingual speech-language pathologist who works in the NYC public school system. A Queen from Queens, she is also a speaker, avid reader and a writer who has been published via Blavity, Thought Catalog, Fierce by Mitu and other online publications. You can access more of her work by following her across social media (@_niaita) and stay up to date on her current reading by following #niaitabookclub on Instagram.