My parents were on the verge of concluding a 9-month argument when my mom started having some labor pains late in the summer of 1978. My dad, a laidback sort with lounge singer dreams, was adamant that their son was going to be named Justo, after him and the long line of masochistic men in his family who also gave their sons that name. My mom rightly argued that no one has ever met another Justo and her son was going to have a normal name like Luis Enrique. She liked Luis Enrique. It was the name of her favorite cousin and most people could spell and say it unlike that weird name which was surely going to curse her son with endless confused looks and unwanted nicknames. The argument continued all the way to the hospital and I know that my mom, a teacher loved by all and feared by unjust fools everywhere, did not care about offending ancestors–especially ones she didn’t know or like–and would not be moved from the one certainty of this momentous day: his name was going to be Luis Enrique.
The argument had to be put on hold when they got to the hospital as there were some complications. An emergency C-section was needed and the doctor’s quickly learned the inconvenient fact that my mom is incapable of being sedated. I’m sure they were patient and did their best but they needed some heavy anesthesia if they were ever going to get Luis Enrique delivered. I’m told she was raced down the hallways to the delivery room, my dad holding her hand the whole time, as the doctors plotted the necessary dosage. They finally administered the anesthesia and told my mom to start counting down. She doesn’t remember where she stopped counting but she felt the cut before she was finally knocked unconscious, which must be a delightful feeling to go down to. A healthy 7-pound pound baby boy with a thick head of hair was soon delivered and my dad, being the only conscious parent of the newborn, was accosted by a nurse for information.
“What’s his name? We gotta fill out the paper work!”
My dad, annoyed by the nurse’s persistence, had only one response.
“His name,” my father said, “is Justo.”
I share this because I hated my name most of my life and I’ve sometimes wondered how different my life would be if I was Luis and not “Gusto,” or “Fausto,” or “Ooogsto.” I’m a natural introvert so imagine the attention, perceived and imagined, that having an unusual name brings to someone who is often comfortable being invisible. Luckily, I generally shrug off the single-serving interactions of daily life where my name is just another to be forgotten the instant I get my coffee or am seated but the decades do take their toll. For all of you customer service folks out there, you know how to make someone smile and get your interaction started positively? Take the time to ask how to say their name and then pronounce it correctly. We’ll love you forever.
This is why I was always confused by colleagues who had multiple or unusual names and would let me choose the one I liked best, despite pressing them for their preferred name. I know they thought they were making me feel comfortable but I always felt like an asshole when I’d say their name and then their boss called them something else. The pressure to please or conform should not be powerful enough to put yourself or others through that. Pronouncing someone’s name correctly makes people feel, “honored, valued and respected” as Gerardo Ochoa, of Linfield University, said in his insightful TED Talk that I encourage you all to watch. Why would you deny yourself that?
I succumbed to those pressures too at various points in my life. I allowed different pronunciations, people to give me nicknames, or allow someone to choose between Justo and Justin, which is the English translation. I don’t anymore and haven’t for years. I don’t know if it was a reaction to the political climate or if I finally got tired of not being given some basic respect, but if I’m going to disappear it’ll be my choice and not because someone, disabilities aside, doesn’t want to make the minimum effort to see me.
I understand why my mom didn’t want me to have the name. She wanted to protect me from the kids and adults who aren’t always kind to those who deviate from their comfortable norms. She also really, really liked the name Luis Enrique. There was no need to worry though and nobody be mad at my dad. I love my name.
It’s Justo, pronounced HOOS-toh. The J sounds like an H. It’s not a weird name and if you think yours is unusual, don’t. Make them say it right. You’re not invisible.