mi nombre es America
por America Vera-Zavala
“Llevar mi nombre, para mi es llevar una historia, como lo es para todas las personas con un nombre. Una historia sobre exilio.” – “Sobre buscar libertad. Sobre no ser completamente algo, y ser de todo. Sobre ser un híbrido que se siente en casa en todas partes y en ninguna.”
MI NOMBRE ES AMERICA. MI PAPÁ ES DE CHILE, MI MAMÁ DE PERU, Y YO TENGO NACIONALIDAD SUECA. NACÍ EN RUMANIA Y ALLÍ MI MAMÁ ME DIÓ EL NOMBRE DEL CONTINENTE QUE HECHABA DE MENOS…
MY NAME IS AMERICA
Publiced in the Guardian Weekend, 2003
My name is America. My father is from Chile, my mother from Peru, and I have a Swedish nationality. I was born in Rumania and there my mother named me after the continent that she missed. You see that for us Latin-Americans, America is not North America.
I feel very privileged to wear a name like mine. The name along with my background is a reflection of my political activity. For ten years – since I was seventeen – I have been involved in politics, as a member of the young left of Sweden, as one of the founders of Attac Sweden and as one of the activists of the movement for global justice – by many simply called the movement. My activism has taken me into various situations and different places and has made me passionate about participatory democracy. Maybe some day I will write a book called America and democracy, as democracy in America is already used.
To wear my name means getting into many kinds of situations. Boring jokes, unexpected reactions, startling meetings, tragicomic circumstances and moments that creates beautiful memories for me.
One, by now quite boring joke, when people answer Canada, Sweden or why not Brazil when I introduce myself. That is very often middle-aged men with lack of fantasy that stands for that one. It leaves me perplex every time that happens, it’s just that I never figured out a quick good answer to that one. Very often people just don’t get that my name actually is America and just hear Angelica or Amelia. Sometimes it can be really difficult to convince them that I’m not joking, or lying. Or when they think that I’m from America – North America – and they start talking in English with me, which happened several times during the World Social Forum in Porto Alegre.
It’s difficult for people to understand how a left-wing person can be called America. And for me it’s difficult to understand how the United States has captured the name America -–my name is the name of the backyard of that state. The continent that has been bleeding since a man named Columbus claimed to have discovered it.
Once being in the United States, my name caused a family argue. I sent a postcard from Los Angeles to a friend. Her father asked whom the postcard was from. ”America”, she answered. ”I can see that but I would like to know who it’s from”, the father answered. ” Well from America I told you”, she answered. ”Yea, for Christ sake, but who sent it?” And so the argue had started.
Another time I arrived late for a dinner and when I got there, stressed, I introduced myself to this woman that with the same evidence said ”Africa”. We stood there for a couple of seconds looking suspiciously on each other and then we burst out laughing. An America and an Africa had dinner together that night. I cannot remember if we talked about our names. There was a silent understanding between joy and us that said more than all stories about irritation we could have told each other. That evening when we had dinner we didn’t pose all the questions normally posed by others to us.
The most absurd time was when I was going to book train tickets to Stockholm, the guy that took the bookings just wouldn’t believe that my name actually was America. Finally he said: ” Ok I get it. “Get what, I asked”. I’m on the candid camera aren’t I?” He was not on the candid camera but I did get on a similar program on Swedish radio. Being one of the leaders of Attac Sweden when the war against Afghanistan broke out last year I was interviewed criticising the war on various serious programmes with low listeners ratings.
One day I was sitting stressed checking my mails and my mobile phone rings. Hello, it’s from the radio, a voice says, I would like to know what Attac thinks about the war? So I start to explain that we don’t think that terrorism can be fought with terror. I went on talking about social justice, poverty, and all of a sudden he interrupts me and asks me for my mail address. Well, it’s firstname.lastname@example.org. Aha, he says, don’t you have another one. Yes, I tell him, email@example.com (nu is now in Swedish). So he starts requesting if I don’t think that is “funny” to have a mail that is; America attack now? Humourless as I can be I said yes, yes very funny and thanked him for the interview. For some seconds I thought that it was strange that a journalist was more interested in my mail than my opinions, but I let the thought leave. Next day I received calls and mails from all over saying that they had heard me on “pippirull”, a very popular radio program were they make jokes of people.
By now I’m so used to my name that it took some time to get the joke. I have grown into my name but it has not always been like that. Even though I don’t like to recognise that now, there was a time during my childhood that I didn’t like my name. It was the first years in school and I had both a strange name and talked another language – Spanish – at home. Some kids used to tease me for that and I would get home sad because of my strange name and the doom to speak another language. My mother asked me if I wanted to be called Amy, maybe that was easier? She was not able to do much about the language thing but she told me that Queen Sylvia of Sweden spoke eight languages – to make me understand that it was educated and not unlearned to speak more than one language. It passed away – I’m happy that I could reject the Amy idea and find strength – even though I’m anti-royalist – in the Swedish immigrant queen speaking several languages.
In fact some times the name and the language is inseparable – as some people take my name as a receipt that I don’t know the language – donut understand Swedish. The most tragicomic situation was at a police station. I was 17 and it was after one of my first political activities ever. A boy at high school – in a small commune in the countryside in Sweden – had received his expulsion order. He was from Southern Lebanon and had deserted as a child soldier from the South Lebanon Army. He had been in Sweden for two years a spoke Swedish very well. He went to the science– and I went to the humaniora program. We went to French class together. At that time I was chairing the school union and we decided to make a manifestation in favour of Josef as he was called. We did, and the action received some attention. Unfortunately the police managed to find him and he was expelled.
Just some days after that I started to receive threat letters – with cut out newspaper letters glued on a sheet saying that I should stop helping refugees unless they would kill me – just as in a bad American movie. The head of the school found out and convinced me to go to make a report at the police station. There, the policeman asked me to tell the story and so I did. When I had finished he told me not to worry, probably there was just someone being jealous of me or of my boyfriend. But, he needed my name for the report. What’s you’re name? America. Yes, yes, what’s you’re name? America. I understand but what is your name? America. Finally he takes the telephone, asks me for my birth number, and I hear him say: could you please check the name of 760116-9282?
That story still makes me sad – you see that in my country many so called immigrant people change their names so that they can find work more easily. I don’t think I could part from my name. I am America Vera-Zavala. That is the only thing that is always with me, through relocations, divorces, hard times and good times. When I don´t have anywhere to live, with my books and belongings in 15 different attics all over Europe. When I lack money, when I lack strenght what always stays with me is my name. My name is my roots to who I am. Something nobody can ever take away from me.
I thought about roots when I visited Palestine. When the Israeli occupation force pull up the hundred year old olive trees with their roots and when they change the name of Palestinian villages – but the old Arab names always stay within the Palestinians.
The only time I was worried about my name was when I went with the International Solidarity Movement to Palestine. Every day Palestinian people get killed with “American” weapons and they now very well that Israel can carry on thanks to “American” support. I thought it would be uncomfortable to wear the name America. The funniest reaction I ever got I received outside a hospital in Jenin. A boy sitting outside the hospital asked me for my name. I say it and he bursts out; America? He takes his fingers between his teeth, bite; with wide-open eyes and then shakes both head and hand. Unbelievable he says; you have to change! Palestinian kids, normally easy to entertain, thought it was the funniest thing in the world. In one mukhayam, refugee camp, in the centre of Ramallah I had 10 kids waving me off after I had been into a shop. Bye America, bye, bye America I could hear them shout minutes after I had left. The day after we did a demonstration to break the curfew and we passed by that mukhayam. 20 kids were asking about the girl named America.
People wonder and I answer. I never ever get tired of answering honest and well meaning questions about my name. ” No it doesn’t refer to North America. For us Latin-Americans, America is South America”. Yes it’s spelled differently, we Swedes spell America with a K and my name is spelled with a C. And every time I answer with the same energy, as if every time was the first.
I like it because people rarely forget it. I like it because it’s not only a name but also a story. My mother thought that it was horrible to live under dictatorship in Rumania and the lack of freedom. She still has claustrophobia from that time. When we came to Sweden my sister was born and she was named Libertad – as my mother was finally in a country with freedom. When we were kids my mother used to lean out of from the window of the appartment in the suburb where we lived and shout; America y Libertad, to call us in. I wonder what people thought she was shouting for. America y Libertad.
To wear my name for me is to wear a history, as it is for all persons with a name. A history about exile. About struggling for socialism. Dictatorship that divides people, peace still not seen. And about seeking freedom – libertad. About not being entirely anything and everything. About being a hybrid that feels at home everywhere and nowhere.
But it’s also about carrying a dream. The old bolivarian dream of a strong and united Latin-America that can choose their own way of development. And nobody interferes. I want that for the world. It’s my American dream about peace, social justice and democracy. I now that you and many other persons share these dreams with me. And my name creates ties. As Neruda said, nobody calls the name of America unrequited.