“Okay, start wrapping up your responses in the next few minutes. I’ll choose someone randomly to share out to the class.” These words bounced off the walls of my classroom, wrapping me up in what should be a simple task. I stared at the assignment written on the board – the prompt I was supposed to be writing about for the last ten minutes. The sound of clicking pens rang in my ear. Quiet shuffles and whispers distracted me as the teacher walked around small desks, peering at papers littered with responses from my classmates. Suddenly, the loud steps from her bright yellow high heels stopped in front of my desk…
…and I looked up to my 5th grade teacher’s disapproving glances at my paper. It was blank, except for sloppy letters spelling out my name at the top.
“We’ve had plenty of time for you to write something, Kaliana. Is something wrong? Are you feeling sick?” She looked genuinely concerned. For a moment, I considered making up a headache, or maybe pretending to pass out; anything that would make the empty paper look somewhat acceptable. However, I’ve always been a poor liar, and making up stories on the spot has never been a strong suit of mine. I shook my head and twiddled my fingers in my lap. It wasn’t that I felt like I had much better things to do rather than listen to instructions. I simply didn’t know the answer to the writing prompt.
“Kaliana,” she began. I wished she would stop saying my name. “How do you not know anything about your name? The homework assignment last night was to go home and ask your mom and dad about why they gave you the name you have. Did you not do it?” I reread the prompt on the board for what seemed like the 30th time. In the blue dry erase marker, it read “Write about what you found out from talking to your parents about your name. Why did they decide on your name?” I winced at it and shook my head. She didn’t know I had lost both my parents years ago. It was only the beginning of the year, after all. She would find out eventually, then proceed to do what most adults do when they find out about “such a tragedy” – The look of shock, initially, then turned into a sympathetic glance: the pity they threw down at me like food to a stray dog- I knew it by heart.
“Ms. Whittier,” I whispered softly, trying to hide the cracks in my voice, “I can’t ask my mom or dad. I don’t know why they named me Kaliana.”
I watched her face as she connected the figurative dots, and the look of utter sympathy commenced. I felt ashamed, but I wasn’t sure why. I guess I could have used my imagination, and pretended I had done the project, but it was too late for that now. I knew she wasn’t just pitying my grade, but rather something larger. I will never know the meaning behind my name. I will never know how I became Kaliana. So, I kept my mouth shut as the sound of her heels faded, and I was left to pity myself as well.
To this day, I always like to believe my parents named me after something beautiful. Something worth a name, worth anything for that matter; Maybe a prepossessing silhouette painting they saw at a museum, or a symphony with the melodies they believed would suit the little girl growing inside. I always like to imagine they gave me a name that had a meaning
behind the 7 letters. As the saying goes, a rose by any other name would smell just as sweet, yet I spent years of my life looking for the meaning behind my own “rose.” “Maybe,” I used to say to myself, “that saying only goes with pretty things, like roses or sunsets. Maybe I’m not pretty enough for the rose’s petals to represent me.”
It’s been 8 years since that day. It took 8 years of searching for a meaning until I realized, there was none. I am no rose. My identity falls so much further than a missing assignment from the 5th grade. I’ve grown to accept there’s a part of me that’s “missing.” The part a 23 and Me ancestry check can’t fill. The part that’s buried under adoption papers and lawsuits. The part stained with questions left unanswered, and a vague memory of my immigrant mother. Her culture she tried to teach me was overshadowed by my grandma teaching me Italian words. A 15th birthday left absent of a Quinceanera, although my mom had plans for mine as early as age 3. As the Spanish from my mother’s native tongue got quieter, English became easier. The aftertaste of tamales on Christmas night became faded as I grew into adulthood. I’ve accepted that this is okay. I no longer feel grief over that missing part of me. I no longer wince at the idea of my name.
I am a mix of two beautiful cultures, regardless of my ability to fully experience both. I look in the mirror and see my mother’s curly hair and light brown irises staring back. I see my father’s European nose and deep-set eyes. I have the story of an immigrant who came to America with nothing, and the story of a man who fell in love with her. I carry their stories with me- the stories that remind me where I came from. It’s an origin story that’s mine to tell. I believe cultural identity is less of something that’s learned, but rather something one is born with. I am no less Mexican than I would be if I had my Quinceanera. I was born with Mexican blood, and it did not leave with my mother. It’s still here along with the Italian culture gifted to me by my father. As my friends’ joke, I’m a spaghetti-taco, and I’m a damn proud one too.