Multi-American | How immigrants are redefining 'American' in Southern California

Dropping the 'Americanized' nickname

Photo by broken thoughts/Flickr (Creative Commons)

I've been catching up on my reading after a few busy days in Florida spent at the National Association of Hispanic Journalists convention, and among the great items I've sifted through is an interesting post on WAMU’s DCentric blog about ‘Americanized’ nicknames.

These are the first names that some immigrants and children of immigrants adopt, at least temporarily, to help them navigate mainstream America, the Henrys that take the place of Enrique, the Marys that replace Maria, the Western first names that replace Asian ones.

As adults, some people drop these and reclaim their given names - and DCentric blogger Elahe Izadi is among those who has done it.

In the post, she mentions the story of Fawaz Ismail, a Palestinian American recently featured in a Washington Post series on American Muslims enduring the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. Growing up in Texas, Ismail was known to his friends as Tony. But in the wake of the anti-Muslim backlash that followed the attacks, he went back to Fawaz.

Izadi, an Iranian American, began life as Elahe. Growing in up in Maryland, though, it became easier to go with a more American-sounding nickname. She wrote:

Many immigrants and second-generation Americans go by nicknames rather than their legal names for a number of reasons. I’m one such example. I grew up up in a small, rural and mostly-white Maryland town, and my parents decided I should go by the nickname Ele rather than my real, very Persian name: Elahe, the Arabic word for goddess (pronounced Eh-la-heh). They went by “Americanized” names themselves in an effort to make life easier, to assimilate as quickly as possible in a foreign land. And for 21 years, I was Ele (pronounced Elie). It wasn’t until after college  that I decided to make the switch to my real name, both in my personal and professional worlds.

My decision was like Ismail’s; why must I accommodate or change my identity to convenience others or make them feel more comfortable?

Even in L.A., where no one seemingly bats an eye at foreign-sounding names, I recall how some of my childhood classmates’ Spanish names were Americanized. Later on in life, like Izadi, some friends went back to the names they were given.

This phenomenon is not so much the norm any more with Latinos, the majority-minority, but it remains relatively commonplace with other groups.

Some young Asian Americans with traditional names continue to replace them with Western names in hopes of being spared teasing from classmates and struggling with others' mispronunciation, among other things.

For some, it’s even more loaded than that. Fawaz Ismail, the man formerly known as Tony, went back to his given name to make a statement: In an era in which people of his faith and background have been demonized by many, he is proudly and unapologetically a Muslim.

From the Post story:

Now, a decade later, his name is a daily message to his fellow Americans: They must deal with him for who he is — a Muslim who loves his country and proudly sells its banner.

“A lot of people use a nickname to make it easier for Americans to pronounce,” he says, “but now, I don’t care. They’re going to have to pronounce my name. It’s not that hard — Fah-wahz.”