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!

-Juana

28 thoughts on “My Oaxaca Nickname is Juana Fernandez”

  1. Ho-dee,
    I like that better! :)
    I’ve had a little experience south of the US boarder over the years; Sixteen different trips. The last was driving my pickup with a camper on it from California to Costa Rica and back, taking a year to do it. Of all the countries on that trip, Guatemala was the most dangerous, but also the most interesting culturally. I was stabbed in the chest by an unknown robber in the dark in Guat City’s UN park. It was my own fault as we were staying the night in an unlit area with nobody else around. Bad choice and we knew better. Won’t ever do that again! Ten days of penicillin shots was not fun.
    On another 4 month trip with my brother through Mexico, Belize and Guatemala, our car was broken into while we were shopping at the main Mercado in downtown Guat City. Right in broad daylight, they got my backpack and our tool box. Just things, but all my travel stuff in my pack.
    All this is only to warn you to be very very careful. Watch your stuff and always be around people. Never be alone at night out and about. Just common sense stuff, but in Guatemala you have to be extra careful. Maybe Belize has changed, but you should be on your guard there too.
    This is not to scare you. Just one traveler’s tale and advice to another. I will certainly return some day as Guatemala is one of the best third-world countries for traveling in the whole world. I’ve been to 60 over the years. The sign goes up on my house next month signaling the start of another, this time, never ending (I’m retired), journey of world travel. Older and wiser, I don’t take as many risks now as I did when I was younger, but I won’t let it keep me from adventure either.
    Happy trails and stay safe!
    Steve C

    1. Thanks Steve! I appreciate your advice and best of luck to you in your new travels! I’m on a G Adventures trip as part of my brand ambassadorship with them (almost 6 years now!) and so I’ll be travelling in quite a different way than you did but I do realize that Belize City and a good part of Central America has its troubles, to say the least. Hope you are well!

  2. My youngest sister is a Jennifer. We call her Jenny. We lived in Mexico (San Miguel de Allende) for a year when she was 4 (1963-64). I have no recollection of what Mexicans called her, but I bet it was something like “Blondie” because she had a head full of sun bleached blonde curls. My name, Suzanne, is easily translated to Susana in Spanish, but Spanish speakers in all the Spanish speaking countries where I’ve lived or visited, invariably call me Súzan. My former law partner, Sanjuanita González, is called Jenny or Jane by English speakers, except for judges who try some version of San- ju-an-ita. PS: I was wondering how you ended up as a Jodi too. Did you demand that your patents call you by your middle name? Our younger son, Jeremy, went through a stage of wanting us to call him Ben. When we pointed out that that would be confusing because his older brother is actually named Ben, he suggested, “Ben 2”. Fortunately, it was only a phase. ;-)

  3. Hi, Loved your little name story. But you just gave me a neat trick to help me with my learning Greek.
    I’ll open a dictionary and jot down 5 words an evening. Thanks.

  4. In the US, I knew a woman named Aurea who just hated what the American accent did with the R in her name, so she had English speakers call her Audea, which let her take control, at least, of how her name would be mispronounced. A stroke of genius.

  5. I always find it fascinating how other cultures interpret your name and what nickname they’ll give you to make it easier for them. Fun travels:)

  6. Thank you for sharing stories. It gives me hope that stories are still read and enjoyed in the blogging world! Congrats on finding a new name and I’m sure a new piece of you on your travels!

  7. I’m teaching English in Spain right now and the difference in name pronunciation can be ridiculous. I’m reading Harry Potter in spanish and told my students – expecting them to be excited about my stab into the Spanish literary world – but was met with blank stares. So then I go “You know, Harry Potter, the wizard?” and give a little wand flourish motion with my hand. Again, nada. After about two minutes, I finally get across what book I’m reading. The problem lay in the pronunciation of Harry. They go H(PHLEGM)a(crazy rolling of the r’s)y

  8. Hi Jodi,
    Your story about your life in Oaxaca was pure joy to read. My only complaint is that it ended too quickly!… You see, I have just come back from 3 months in Mexico, with one of those months being in Oaxaca, and miss it horribly. Your stories feed my Mexico-starved soul. Please write more…

    1. Hi Sylvia, what a lovely comment thank you! You left just before the rains began. Today I came home running, stuffed with memelas, as the storm approached quickly. Thunder and lightning and crazy dark clouds. As I ran up the street toward Xochimilco, this young Mexican guy next to me yelled every time the thunder rumbled. But of course he STILL managed to as “de donde viene …… AHHHHHHH…..(insert thunder). Then me, running up the street to try and avoid the rain “Canadaaaaaaaa!”

      Huge storm, still ongoing – no idea how I have wifi still!

      Glad you enjoyed your time here!

  9. Jamie Mickelson

    Hi Jodi! I’m a big fan and a long time reader. I am moving to Guatemala the first week of May and would love to meet up with you while you’re in town if you have time! I am still learning my way around but i can show you what I know so far! Guatemala is beautiful, you’ll love it!

    1. Hi Jamie, thank you for the note! I’m actually leaving on 1 May to return to Mexico – this is a shorter trip under my G Adventures contract, so I won’t be there very long. I hope you have a great time during your Guatemala return. Thank you for reading!

  10. I didn’t even realize you weren’t fluent in Vietnamese because your food stories are so comprehensive!! But I suppose I’m getting to be that way with my Turkish as well. I’ve been living here now for 15 months and can tell you all about a variety of ingredients and recipes here but beyond that I’m barely conversational. In contrast, five months spent in South America and I could have a 30 minute conversation with my cab driver. Also all about food, now that I think about it! I guess that’s just the way the queso crumbles.

    Here in Turkey, the name Malia is next to impossible for people to remember and I answer to just about anything similar – Melissa, Melanie, etc. It’s a similar story in much of the world and I just get tired of correcting people. My boyfriend has decided to use my middle name which is Japanese, Emiko. I don’t mind that one so much and answer to that as well. His elderly grandmother, however, has decided to give me a Turkish name instead. So in addition to Malia, Melissa, Melanie and Emiko, I now go by… wait for it… Ilknor. Ha!

    Love your stories, as always. Please keep them coming! :)

    1. Thanks Malia! I am glad you enjoyed the post. DEFINITELY not fluent in Vietanamese — I just speak ‘food’ ;)

      Emiko is a lovely name, but you’re liable to get an identity crisis with all of these! What does Ilknor mean?

      Have a wonderful weekend!

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