My Oaxaca Nickname is Juana Fernandez

Before I started working as a lawyer, I spent a good chunk of the year in South America. There, I learned that my short name was ripe for Spanish speakers to pronounce differently. In both Argentina and Uruguay, Jodi became a raspy, slightly phlegmy “ho-dee”. Unsurprisingly this did not work for me.

When I wrote it out on paper for new friends, often a hard “J” resulted. But since I couldn’t yet speak any Spanish, spelling out the name was an awkward mess of an exercise. Instead, I fell back on my full name, Jennifer. I had not gone by Jennifer since I was a kid but it seemed like a better option since everyone was able to pronounce it without fail. Close to a year went by and I got used to answering to “Jennifer,” much to the confusion of my parents who hadn’t called me that since I was 3.

I’ve now been in Oaxaca since mid-January. As I mentioned in my 8 years of travel post, it’s been a delight to communicate with people more fully than I could in Southeast Asia. The change is my own doing, of course. Had I learned more Vietnamese, I would have been able to inquire about the “why” for the many vendors I met. What led you to this stall, and this dish? What makes your recipe different? Occasionally, I could get my point across sufficiently. Never with eloquence, though. My incredibly food-centric Vietnamese is limited, and let’s not even get into the tonal aspects of the language.

In contrast, I ended up learning quite a bit of Spanish during those months in South America, writing down words at night and feverishly trying to memorize them. Every evening I would pull out my pocket Spanish-English dictionary and open it at random to jot down 5 new words. I found this far more rewarding than the searches I do now using Google Translate. It was 2003 then, and there was no smartphone to help me out. But it feels like accomplishment to work your way through a dictionary in a new language, word by word, instead of typing out a list in your phone.

Later in that year, through hitchhiking and attending quite a few football matches, my language levels improved. Or, some might say devolved, because it was through these two activities that I picked up quite a colorful list of swear words and colloquialisms. While I could not conjugate verbs, I sure as hell could tell someone to get lost in a variety of blistering ways.

Eventually, my Uruguayan friends took pity upon my strange cobbled-together Spanish and gently guided me through some more relevant and civil dialogue. By the time I left South America, I could converse in Spanish, though not so much with the conjugating. I haven’t practiced over the years but being bilingual in French (thank you Montreal!) meant that I didn’t lose too much of it.

xochimilco street art in oaxaca
A colorful street corner in my neighborhood of Xochimilco, in Oaxaca de Juarex

So here I am in Oaxaca, taking Spanish lessons for two hours a week that focus on grammar, and reveling in the joy of being able to ask questions and understand the answers. When people ask for my name I start out with Jennifer. Though no one in Argentina or Uruguay shortened it further here Jennifer is truncated to Yeni. Without fail, it’s the same routine: “como te llamas” – what’s your name? I answer Jennifer. The person exclaims “YENI!”  I hated the name Jenny as a kid, but Yeni? I can get behind Yeni.

Last weekend, however, I was given an even better option for my name here in Mexico.

On Saturday, I visited Soledad Etla to make tamales with my Spanish teacher and several friends. This field trip comprised a day-long extravaganza that included lots of assembly-line tamale folding, an old archeological site in San Jose Mogote, and a chance to see her village outside the city.

tamale lessons in oaxaca
My “I’m concentrating on making tamales” face.

Given that we were set to meet at 9am, I grabbed a taxi from my place to the collectivo (shared taxi) stop in town. The driver was an older man in what looked to be his 70s, deeply weathered and jovial. As we rolled out of my area, Xochimilco, he shot me a glance in the rearview mirror.

Como te llamas?” he asked

“Jennifer!” I replied brightly.

His brow furrowed. He asked me to repeat myself, which I was happy to do. Then he wanted to know if Jennifer was one word or two words. A series of questions and some additional confusion followed. It turns out that he thought Yeni was the first name, with my last name Fer, short for Fernandez. Yeni Fernandez, he repeated. Es tu nombre? It’s your name?

Not so much, but it was hilarious. Giggling, I asked him what “Yeni” would be in Spanish. He thought for a second, and then brightly announced, “Juana!”

And thus I would henceforth be known as Juana Fernandez.

* * *

It’s been a great winter here thus far, and I’m very glad I’m returning here in the autumn months again. I’ll be heading to Belize and Guatemala on Friday, then back here for one more month before setting out for Denver  at the end of May.

More soon from Oaxaca!


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