“My name is Lilvia. El - i - el - ve - i - a,” I say when making a reservation or ordering something on the phone. Face to face, when someone expresses difficulty with the pronunciation, I explain, “The ve is pronounced be because Spanish has no ve sound.” If he says he likes it or comments on how unusual it is, I add, “My mother made it up.” If he asks, is it O.K. to shorten it to Lil because it’s too hard to pronounce? I refuse. I like my name and will be glad to teach him how to pronounce it: “It’s Silvia but with an L.” When he has time to chatter and is interested
in the origin, I tell him the story.
When my mother was pregnant with me, she was reading a novel whose main character
was Silvia. On one page, there was a typo--instead of S, it had L. Mother liked it and
decided that if her baby was a girl (this was in the days before sonograms), she would
give her that name. Unfortunately for me, Mother was neither materialistic nor sentimental. She
spent her life giving away everything she owned. The result: no book, and by the time she told me
the story, she had forgotten both the title and the author.
On October 2, 1954, in preparation for our move to the United States, Mother, who had gone from Mexico City to Chihuahua for her brother’s funeral, obtained a copy of my birth certificate from the Registro Civil (Department of Vital Statistics) in Nuevo Casas Grandes, my birthplace. This was a typed facsimile of the original. Its accuracy was certified by J. Rosario Luján, Municipal President and Judge of the Civil Court. This signed, sealed, and certified document of the State of Chihuahua states that my name is Livia, that I am the legitimate first offspring of Alberto and Lilia, that I was born at 2:35 p.m. on November 25th, and that on December 11th, at 2:00 p.m., my father registered my birth in the office of the Registro Civil.
The first time I had occasion to read my birth certificate was sometime in the '70s when I filled out the paperwork to make my derivative U.S. citizenship official. I did the translation myself and asked Luisa, my linguistics professor from Stony Brook University, to certify it. I translated Livia as Lilvia, for I knew my name. Luisa accepted the translation. She was a Hungarian refugee and understood about governments, tired, hard-of-hearing bureaucrats, and rickety old typewriters. As a medievalist and a linguist, she also understood about the different versions of a document and the constant evolution of language. The U.S. bureaucrats in the State Department also accepted my translation. They understood that immigrants sometimes deserve a new name.
In July of 2000, in preparation for relocating to the border state of Arizona, I thought it might be nice, even useful, to reclaim my Mexican citizenship, given that the Mexican government had at last caught up with the concept of dual citizenship. I went to the Mexican Consulate in Philadelphia to apply. The Vice Consul examined my birth certificate and agreed that I was entitled to my Mexican citizenship, but only under the name that appears on the certificate. I explained the obvious--the small l in the old typewriter was broken, the typist was hard-of-hearing, he had never heard Lilvia and couldn’t believe it, if he did hear it. It was so long ago, maybe that particular official book was archived in some dusty cellar and that particular page was smudged or there was a mouse dropping right on the l. Maybe the 1939 scribe was doing a little celebrating of his own and had a sotol or two for lunch, or the 1954 scribe did. The handsome young man in the dark Brooks Brothers suit looked me straight in the eye and informed me that my birth certificate said Livia and therefore my name was Livia. I pleaded that I knew what my name was, had known it for over half a century, everybody knew me by that name, all my documents--U.S. citizenship, college degrees, marriage and divorce decrees, daughters’ birth certificates, driver’s license, passport, poetry, academic publications, social security--said Lilvia. He said I must be mistaken. I told him my mother knew what name she had given me, and she had called me Lilvia all my life. He informed me that my mother had been mistaken--it was clear that she had not known what my name was. At that moment, the Consul intervened and offered to send away for an “official” copy of my birth certificate to settle the matter. Since I had never seen the original, I gave him a check for $25.00, thinking it would be worth it to satisfy my curiosity.
Five months later, already living in Arizona, I received a letter from the Consul with the 2000 version of my birth certificate and a $2.00 refund (the certified document cost only $23.00). Bureaucracy has progressed since 1954. Modern-day scribes need only fill in the blanks of the printed form. There are some discrepancies between the two documents as to the number of the book in which the original appears and the number of the certificate itself. Beyond that, they both have my name as Livia. They also have my Scottish grandfather’s name as Fhayne instead of Thayne. My father’s mother’s Irish last name Mc Nerny transforms itself from Mcnery to Nerny in the 1954 document and is finally reduced to N. in the 2000 version.
There are other typos and spelling mistakes in the 1954 document (and perhaps in the original), but, being a daughter of literature, I much prefer the first version, for its language has a rhythm, and it tells a story: “In Nuevo Casas Grandes, District of Galeana, State of Chihuahua, on the 14th hour of the 11th day of December, there appeared before me, Fernando Flores, Judge of the Registro Civil of this place, Señor Alberto Soto McNery [sic] of Mexican nationality, 26 years of age, married, born in Ciudad Camargo, Chihuahua, Catholic, in the military, and a neighbor of this place...” Father was 23 when I was born; Mother, 27. He lied to protect her, for it embarrassed her to be older.
The scribe is entitled to err, the university-educated bureaucrat certifies reality, I choose my name and my citizenships. For my first one, I elect to go back to my 10th grade-educated mother’s sense of poetry and possibility.