My name is Sujeiry and I am Dominican. Contrary to popular belief, Sujeiry (pronounced Su-Haiti) isn’t a Dominican, Haitian, or Indian name. In 1978, my Dominican mother named me after a character from a Venezuelan novela. I happily share my name’s origin story with anyone who asks, which is quite a lot of people. I’ve also lost count of how often non-Spanish speaking folks mispronounce my name. The most common mispronunciation is Su-Jerry. (What a whack job, right?) So, to teach non-Spanish speakers how to pronounce my name correctly, I had to create a loophole of sorts. This is how that conversation goes:
Them: (Seeing my name on paper or Zoom.) Su-Jerry? Oh, I’m sure I didn’t say that right. So sorry!
Me: It’s okay, it happens all of the time. It’s actually pronounced Su-Haiti. LIke Su and the country Haiti. Put it together.
Them (slowly): Su-Haiti.
Me: Yes, that’s it. You got it the first time!
Them: Oh, that was easy.
Actually, it’s never easy. Like a public school teacher, I have to teach this same lesson multiple times a week. I should just slap my name on a Google Slide and email it to all the non-Spanish speakers I will encounter. Anything to ensure they’re not calling me “Su-Jerry,” which grates my nerves and crawls under my skin. Because I’ve been called Su-Jerry since 5th grade.
The culprit was my 5th grade teacher, Ms. Grace. Mid year, I transferred into her classroom. Per “new kid in class” custom, Ms. Grace asked that I stand in front of the classroom.
“This is our new student, Su-Jerry,” she said.
I stood there, frozen and confused. That isn’t my name, I thought, but she’s the teacher. I can’t correct her. And I didn’t. From 10 years old onward, I began introducing myself as “Su-Jerry,” it’s the American version of my name, I rationalized. Everyone around me, including my cousins, friends, and my own brother and sister, stopped calling me Sujeiry and began calling me Su-Jerry. Because we live in America and we are American. This is how it had to be, right? I believed this wholeheartedly.
I believed I had to carry two names and two identities as a Dominican American. That only my mom, dad, and my Spanish-speaking relatives that came straight from DR could call me by my given name. That this is the way it had to go down when you’re ni de aquí, ni de allá. So I sucked it up although I hated my American name. That is until summer of 1993 when I read Julia Alvarez’s acclaimed novel How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accent (1991). Although I am a born and bred New Yorker, I saw myself in these characters. They were Dominican, just like me. They had to assimilate, just like I did. They were proud of their culture, just like me. That book made me realize that the Americanization of my name disregarded my family, my culture, and my identity and I had had enough.
That school year, fresh off of reading Alvarez’s work, I brought all of my friends and family together and demanded that they call me Sujeiry. I corrected mispronunciations and refused to entertain the classmates that asked, “Why are you changing your name?” I refused to coddle them when they expressed their confusion. I didn’t care that I attended Phillips Academy Andover, a prep school in Massachusetts, full of rich, white kids. I wasn’t there to change myself or my name for them or anyone. I didn’t owe them an explanation or have to entertain them when they wondered if I was going through an identity crisis.
I know exactly who I am. Sujeiry, not Su-jerry. And I will correct anyone that calls me otherwise.