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Personal Essays

Pause, Panic, Gringo

When your name prompts questions in several continents, how you answer—and whether or not you stick an accent above the “a”—says a lot about who you are.

Mathew Puckett, Green Velvet, 2012. Courtesy the artist and David Lusk Gallery.

“How do you say angry?” This was the kind of question that rattled me as a bilingual kid growing up in Toronto. “How do you say angry in Spanish?” my grade-school friends would ask, and my nerves would jump as if this request for exoticism were actually a test.

“Enojado,” I would reply.

“What about annoyed?”

Pause. Panic.

“There’s no word for that in Spanish.”

My outright lies in matters of vocabulary weren’t the result of ignorance. I spoke Spanish at home and knew most of the simple words people threw at me. But speaking Spanish at school put me out of my element, in the same misplaced state as I was when talking in English to my parents, which I could do for all of five minutes before automatically and quite unconsciously switching back to Spanish. My life in two languages was full of such compartmentalizing. Fruits and vegetables lived at home in Spanish, so I knew what a remolacha was but not a beet. Pop culture was a schoolyard, English thing. Even today, if a Spanish-language ad or song plays while I’m conversing in English, it sounds like gibberish until I flip my brain into the appropriate mode. My family moved from Buenos Aires to Toronto when I was four and I quickly created such a wall between my Argentinean and Canadian halves that, for most of my life, I thought I had succeeded at becoming two people at once, each of whom pronounced his name differently: Tomás in Spanish, Thomas in English.

If ever there were a situation where a child who left his home country when he was four could stay in touch with his heritage, mine was it.

I didn’t actually use different spellings and, for the most part, I dutifully corrected anyone who included an “h,” although even that seemed an unnecessary hassle at times. It didn’t change who I was. I was human. I contained fragmented, multicultural multitudes. And so on. I wasn’t much concerned with how my name was pronounced or how it was spelled, and I shrugged off the complaints of the one person for whom it really mattered: my mother, who could not understand why I would defile my beautiful Spanish name by letting people call me Thomas and sometimes, even worse, Tom. (I did her a favor and saved her the ultimate pain of letting anyone call me Tommy, even at the height of my Power Rangers fandom.)

The source of her distaste has never been entirely clear. I wasn’t allowed to speak English at home, but the reasons were practical, not sentimental: Being bilingual would be a benefit in the future, and in any case it was the only way to communicate with my grandparents. I’m pretty sure what got to her is the irrationality. My name was not up for debate. It was written a certain way and therefore pronounced a certain way, and my decision to subvert such a thing only exemplified the kind of dismissal of common sense and reason that she has never been able to witness without complete irritation. Eventually she became so frustrated by my decision that she started offering to buy my college roommates beer for a month if they got all my friends to start calling me Tomás. It took about two hours for my roommates to decide it wasn’t worth the effort.

Then, two years ago at the University of Toronto, during my first stint at graduate school, my mother’s wish came true without any bribery or effort. Practically the same thing would happen a year later in my first weeks of journalism school at New York University. About a week after we all first met, my classmates started getting confused. Someone noticed that Thomas is spelled Tomás and asked, “Have we been pronouncing your name wrong?”

“It’s a Spanish name,” I began. “I was born in Argentina. Technically, it’s pronounced Tomás.”

Keep in mind that, as I had introduced myself as Thomas for my whole English-speaking life, it would have required a serious adjustment of mental wiring for me to be able to introduce myself as Tomás.

I proceeded to waver. “But I started calling myself Thomas when I was younger. It was easier that way.”

This was true. As far as I can remember—this happened shortly after my family moved so the details are fuzzy—my desire to stop repeating my name to everyone convinced me to make the change. But as a 23-year-old, I should have been able to ask that they call me Thomas without casting it as a sacrifice to the altar of kids who couldn’t be bothered to try and pronounce my name right.

Then the kicker. “So how should we pronounce it?” my new friends asked.

Pause. Panic.

“Whichever way you’d like.”

 

If ever there were a situation where a child who left his home country when he was four could stay in touch with his heritage, mine was it. Up until I left for college, I visited Argentina once a year, staying with my grandparents in a neighborhood that, even after significant efforts to raise its profile, still had plenty of squatters living in its abandoned houses.

It was on one of the streets near my grandparents’ place, when I was about 12, that a teenager much taller and probably five years older than me walked up mid-stride and demanded all my money.

I was not a very good target. I only had about 10 pesos on me. When he demanded my shoes, they didn’t fit him. He looked at my watch. Keep it, he said. Seems the digital monstrosity, practically the size of my hand, was not my robber’s style.

People watched from down the block, confused perhaps by the robbery that looked a little too much like one kid showing off his latest kicks to a friend, though I must have looked absolutely terrified up close, because suddenly my robber got a sympathetic and almost guilty look on his face.

I couldn’t even get robbed right. Sometimes a gringo just can’t catch a break.

“Where you from?” he asked.

Until that point, I had been bewildered, mindlessly doing exactly as my assailant said. Now street smarts kicked in, and through my head ran images of the robber and his friends marching to my grandparents’ place that night for some real bounty. So, although he clearly had some idea already or else he wouldn’t have asked, I thought I was being savvy when I replied, sheepishly no doubt, “I’m from Canada.”

“Tell them I treated you well,” he said.

I’m not sure exactly how I responded. It’s possible that, kind Canadian that I am, I reassured him that I would report back as ordered and begin a PR campaign to rehabilitate the beleaguered reputation of the Argentinean street thief. What I do know is that when I got home, after everyone had made sure I was OK and my grandmother had impressed upon everyone how her instincts were still better than my mother’s and that it wasn’t safe for me to walk around alone, there wasn’t much sympathy for me. My ordeal quickly became an amusing dinnertime story. Did you hear the one about Tomás and the good-natured robber?

At the time, when people got robbed in Buenos Aires, they were often left standing on street corners wearing nothing but their underwear. Or the robber would slide into a man’s car when he pulled out of the garage, force him to take cash out from a series of ATM machines, then make off with the vehicle, too. Or old ladies would walk out of the bank and immediately have their money stolen. Which is to say that my situation was, in fact, a bit of a joke. And certainly my family’s laughter was at least somewhat born from relief.

But in my mind I was the victim of a great disservice, a lack of recognition of what was, to me, an extraordinary experience. And part of me was also, I regret to admit, disappointed at what had happened. I couldn’t even get robbed right. Sometimes a gringo just can’t catch a break.

 

Last summer, my family took a vacation to Salvador, Brazil, where one night, as we walked up to the city’s lighthouse to watch the sunset, a gust of wind sent my mother’s hat tumbling over the edge of the hill on which the lighthouse stood, toward the ocean, before getting caught on some grass.

The hat, though somewhat perilously placed, was definitely within reach, but my mom yelled at me to stop when I reached for it. And as I stood debating the situation, a young Brazilian ran over, took two steps down the bank, grabbed the hat and swiftly stepped back up. My mom thanked him, and he replied, with a wide smirk, “No problem, gringa.”

You can probably cut the precise definition many ways, but there is no way to be cool and be a gringo. The gringo is complacent, stiff, cautious, boring, and the first to die when—well when anything remotely out of the ordinary happens. So although my mother has no desire of returning to Argentina and has even dropped many of the anti-American attitudes so prevalent in Latin America, she naturally chased after the young Brazilian to explain that she was from Buenos Aires and most definitely was not a gringa.

The gringo is complacent, stiff, cautious, boring, and the first to die when—well when anything remotely out of the ordinary happens.

Growing up, I thought I could have it both ways, too. Argentina was home, theoretically, so I believed that as I seamlessly fit in to my Canadian surroundings, the Latin American in me was ready to come out whenever I needed him. And with that came the expectation that returning to Argentina should feel natural.

The reality is always quite different, and it goes beyond the teasing I used to suffer from my relatives for having an accent in Spanish, or realizing that being a slightly above average Canadian soccer player makes me a fairly cruddy Argentinean one. My discomfort in Argentina would be recognizable to anyone who has traveled away from home.

It’s the way before getting in a cab I practice saying my destination address so that it sounds like I travel in the city all the time. And the way I also double- and triple-check directions because the driver probably won’t buy my routine and will try to get a few bucks off me by taking a longer route. It’s the way I try to look casual on the bus while anxiously checking the name of each passing street to make sure I don’t miss my stop. Or the way I never sound convincing using slang.

It’s how, when I was walking on the street one day with a significant amount of money stored in my underwear (to best prevent robbery), I felt the wad of bills begin to slip, placed my side bag conspicuously over my groin, and waddled ten blocks to the bus stop fearing that at any step the cash would fall down my pant leg. This could have happened to anyone, of course, but when it happened to me it only added to my expanding mental list of markers signaling me out as a foreigner.

There isn’t one trip to Argentina where I don’t feel out of place and there isn’t one trip where I don’t pretend to feel right at home. I am, in the end, like any tourist trying to look like a local. But when a tourist fails to do so, he’s only bungling a game of pretend. When I don’t blend in, I feel as if am failing to be what I should be by blood and birthright. I am Tomás. But Tomás has never really been Tomás at all. Or he’s been a very bad version of him.

 

My full name is Tomás Martín Hachard. The accents were the first thing to go, followed by my full middle name, so that my Canadian passport has me as Tomas M Hachard. Eventually the middle initial got dropped and the last name, though consistently written, started to transform on the tongue: the silent ‘h’ of the original French came back to life, the “ch,” once soft like a “sh,” hardened, and Hachard took the sound of “Hatchard,” most frequently confused with Hatcher.

There isn’t one trip to Argentina where I don’t feel out of place and there isn’t one trip where I don’t pretend to feel right at home. I am, in the end, like any tourist trying to look like a local.

Thomas Hatcher. That’s what my name would be right now if one those swift-penned Ellis Island immigration officers from the early 20th century had gotten his way with it.

By now, determining what will come out of my mouth when someone asks my name requires a fairly complex algorithm: If in English, then Thomas, but not if at NYU, or if proper spelling is of the essence. And if I’m at a party with people from high school who call me Thomas and friends from grad school who call me Tomás, then… well then you might as well toss a coin.

The confusion of it all raises the question of why I wasn’t more assertive when my friends began questioning my own name. By that point I’d long been comfortable with telling people my name was Thomas, but apparently I was not prepared to say that my name was not Tomás.

Part of me certainly feared that if I explicitly renounced Tomás I would, if I survived my mother’s wrath, have to contend with the possibility that I did it all to myself. That a pronunciation choice thoughtlessly made when I was four or five years old might have pushed me pretty far toward abandoning all the cultural links that came with my name, my Spanish name, my Argentinean name, which is not the same as that of Aquinas or Jefferson.

Another part of me just knew it would be absurd to deny a thing so easily proved by several pieces of ID in my own pocket.

Still, if we’re going to take seriously the notion that names matters, that they have meaning, that they do more than just distinguish you from others (and this, if anything, is the lesson I’ve drawn from years of other people’s confusion over my predicament: Most humans think names are important), then we ought to accept that the name we’re born with may not remain the most suitable one forever.

 

It’s common for children, when they first learn to write, to spend hours considering and practicing their signatures. I remember filling up several sheets of paper before selecting mine, a process that Paul Auster has suggested symbolizes an attempt “to convince ourselves that we and our names are one, to take on an identity in the eyes of the world.”

One night last summer, I was at a barbecue with my cousin, who was born and raised in Buenos Aires and now lives in New York. Introducing me to his Latino co-workers and friends, he referred to me as a “fake Argentinean”—a harmless joke but one that also served a great practical purpose. That night I saw confusion evaporate as his friends grasped why one of us talks, looks, and acts like an Argentinean while the other does anything but. Maybe my identity requires a name found somewhere in the gulf between Thomas and Tomás, but after encounters like that, for a brief period, the confused combination of the two seems suited to me. I was born Argentinean, I was raised into a gringo, and I carry names to prove each step.