When I was growing up, my grandmother used to call me “Mary” to get a rise out of me. “My name’s not Mary, it’s Maria!” I would insist, and she’d smile, agree that it was, and we’d move on. Later, I learned that she regularly did this so that I would never be afraid to correct someone, to tell them what my name was and how to pronounce it, if and when they got my name wrong.
I am not my name, but I am. I still smile whenever someone introduces me as “Dr. Maria Montalvo”— not just because, in some ways, I’m still in that post-defense haze, where anyone who calls me “Dr.” also reminds me that’s part of who I am now too, and I’m both relieved and happy that it is.
At the start of every semester, I begin by introducing myself to my students: “My name is Dr. Maria Montalvo. You may call me Professor Montalvo or Dr. Montalvo. For those of you who stick around, I’m excited to learn your names and to get to learn with you. If I ever mispronounce your name or get it wrong, please don’t hesitate to correct me, I promise I want to get it right.”
Whenever I say those words, I think of my grandmother, and sometimes I wish I only thought of her. But inevitably, I realize that my reasons for giving that speech begin and don’t end with her. Because I also think of a professor at the University of Texas at Austin who, as we went around the seminar table introducing ourselves to the rest of the class, asked me to repeat my name four times—not because he had misheard me or because he was doing the work of trying to pronounce it himself, but because I had pronounced it in the correct Spanish, and he wanted me to say it again and again until I pronounced it the way he wanted to hear it.
I am not offended when people try and fail to pronounce my name. I do not need everyone to develop a perfect Spanish accent to address me. I need them to try to get it right for me to feel valued. I’ll begin every class I ever teach with that speech because I want to convince my students that I value who they are and what they have to say. They are not their name, but they are. And I am invested in trying to get it right.