Early on November 5, the morning after the election, I lay in bed wondering to myself if we had really just elected a man named Barack Hussein Obama to be president of the United States. Would the country’s forty-fourth chief executive actually be a “skinny black guy with a funny name,” as he often described himself during his two-year campaign? Maybe I had dreamed the whole thing. From my pillow I could see it was still dark outside; it seemed much too early to make any sense of this. I turned over and tried to fall back asleep.
But what if Obama had been elected? What if he had won by a commanding margin, the largest of any Democratic candidate in years? What if we had really gotten beyond the obvious differences and come together this one time? It seemed like something worth celebrating in a big way. I lay there for a moment with my eyes closed, letting myself be lulled by the idea of flying out to attend his inauguration (that is, of course, if he had won). I imagined trying to find a good spot to witness the swearing-in ceremony at the steps of the Capitol but the area being so crowded that I had to keep walking all the way to the other end of the National Mall toward the Reflecting Pool, where 45 years earlier Martin Luther King Jr. had delivered his famous speech from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.
Not that I know D.C. very well: I’ve been there only a handful of times, the last being eleven years ago, when I still worked in advertising. My agency was in town to present the initial phase of what was projected to be a $125 million ad campaign for our newest client, the Steel Alliance, made up of various steel manufacturers looking to retool their image. Some of us flew out a day early to rehearse the presentation, which would be held at the Mayflower Hotel, just down the street from the White House. After checking into our rooms, we met our client liaison and headed to the banquet room, where the hotel staff was already setting up the tables and another worker was up on a ladder, dusting the chandelier. The liaison was a slightly balding guy in his late thirties named Mike. His main role during the presentation would be to welcome the thirty or so clients and introduce the agency. We were going through our first dry run, with everyone sitting or standing in his or her appropriate place, when Mike asked if I minded too much if he introduced me just as “Oscar.”
It was a simple enough request. Only no one else was just “Matt” or just “Rick” or just “Allie.” Everyone else had a first and last name. Was it too much to want all of me included?
“I’d hate to trip over your last name,” Mike explained. Then he tried it and, as promised, skated past what should have been a hard c, then corrected himself with the first s, but finally stumbled when he tried to roll the r.
There had been other times when one of our account people had presented the rest of the team with first and last names but introduced me only as “Oscar.” Once or twice I had stepped forward and reintroduced myself, but this always led to the client’s asking me to repeat my last name. Then spell my name. Then say it again, slower this time. Then ask where I was placing the accent. On and on, while everyone else waited for me to untangle all those consonants and vowels.
And while Mike’s question that day in the Mayflower Hotel seemed innocent enough, it did feel as though one part of my name was more easily accepted than the other, foreign-sounding part. This was further complicated by the fact that because of my height and skin tone, I looked anything but foreign.
“Funny, you don’t look Mexican-American,” people would say, as if it had never occurred to me that there weren’t too many six-foot-five Mexican-Americans with light complexions. It might have been easier to explain, I suppose, if I were half Mexican. In a way, I guess it wasn’t so difficult to accept the idea that Mexican-Americans were usually shorter and darker—more like the woman using a hand steamer to remove the wrinkles from the table linens at the other end of the banquet room. The troubling part wasn’t that there was some truth to the stereotype but that somehow there didn’t seem to be much room for anything beyond the stereotype. And in this very real way, a part of me ceased to exist.
While someone else with my background might have been happy to blend in and go undetected, I felt the need to present a case for my last name. What I didn’t tell these clients was that my first name is not “Ah-sker” but “Oh-skar,” also in Spanish, and that my middle name is Homero. I normally don’t use my middle name, and my first name happens to look English to most people. So as it turns out, the only thing noticeably different about me is my last name, and now this was the part being turned away.
And here’s where it gets complicated: In trying to explain “what” I was exactly, I wanted first to be thought of as just me. I happened to have a particular heritage as a Mexican-American, and I was proud of that heritage, but I preferred not to be defined solely by it. I wanted people to look at me as an individual and not as an us or a they, as someone who was only part of a larger group. I wanted to blend in and stand out at the same time. I wanted it both ways: for people to notice that my name was different, as was my background, but not to think that I was different.
Because the core of