Editor’s note: This column is part of a series called Name Tags, about issues related to names and naming. You can find the original Call for Submissions here. Art by Kristen Stone.
by River Encalada Bullock
River came from my Mother, Bullock came from my Father; I don’t like either name but I am keeping both. Growing up my initials were R.A.J.B. River Anna Joy Bullock. My parents named me River Joy Bullock and added Anna when they found out that I was born on my Great Grandmother Anna Augusta’s birthday. Anna has always stuck but legally my name is River Joy Bullock. My mom had a dream that I should be named River and she went with it. Then when my sister was born, we were baptized, River and Gaia, in a naming ceremony at the medicine house in Swinomish, Washington. I remember standing on the blanket while people sang and brushed water on us with cedar leaves.
People tell me my name is beautiful. I’m often impatient with this talk. Most people think I’m going to be a boy, my junk mail comes to Mr. River Bullock. I guess I like the androgyny of it, but River leads to a lot of stupid jokes, mostly from men. It seems like men always want to say something smartass about bodies of water and going with the flow. When I was little, I thought it would be cool to marry River Phoenix. Then we could be River and River Phoenix. That’s the first person I considered marrying, and the only person I considered changing my name for (at least in the marriage name change kind of way). When I was in first grade River Phoenix died on Halloween. I was sad that we wouldn’t be able to have our names together. Later, I got a step-sister Pheonx Liu (sic)—together we are River and Pheonx, only she spells it different. Joy, the name I feel decisively done with, I keep getting stuck with. Like at the DMV for my I.D. I try to use an initial on my license and they fill in the O-Y. I’m done with it, not just because I desire to be a feminist-killjoy and kill the joy, but come on, how hippy-dippy-cheese-ball can you get? River is enough. It’s cheesy as fuck.
Sometimes I wish Bullock—the term for a castrated bull—didn’t exist, or no longer existed, and in place of its annihilated figure we could form some other kind of animal. When my girlfriend asked me what kind of animal this would be, what kind of name I want, I realized that I am not sure at all. I’m not sure about any of my names, I don’t always trust them, they feel unresolved.
Recently I asked my Grandma Gloria if I could use her name: Encalada. My name would be River Anna Encalada Bullock. My Grandmother said yes when I asked for her blessing—she thought it was funny, like: ‘why would you want to use that name? Because it’s ethnic?’ There is some truth in this, a desire for increased legibility of my Latina heritage. In general, my family has sought whiteness and assimilation in ways I find shameful. Immigrating from Chile to the United States, they took the name Encalada to sound fancier, more middle class. My Grandma told me, not ironically, that Encalada means ‘whitewashed’. In many ways, that’s what my family is, or has done—whitewash. But the name is mine, just as a genealogy of Latinidad expands beyond and exists in excess of a particular story or a particular name.
Often, I am overwhelmed by self-doubt—but also desire, am I Latina ‘enough’? Should I accept light-skin privilege? And is this something that one has a choice in? Should I accept passing under the cover of lightness and an Anglo name? Grandma gave me her blessing, and then came back to me. She said, ‘if you’re going to take that name, you should know that it is ridden with unspeakable abuses, my father was a pedophile.’ In the effort to identify with my Grandma—by taking her name—I am reminded how difficult it is to escape patriarchy. You might know this, too; patriarchy is physically and psychically difficult to battle. Colonialism is physically and psychically difficult to battle.
The family name I chose inflects injury in all directions—the colonization of indigenous ancestors, the sexual abuse of my elders, and the efforts at assimilation into a ‘middle class white America.’ The name as a site of injury might also yield the name as a site with the potential for something like healing or resistance. How do I combat white supremacy and white terror from within the place of the name? What can a name do to fight for something like justice, equity, or freedom? Or is that asking too much of a name? As racist and anti-immigrant violence and discourse continue to mount in mainstream U.S. politics before and during a white-supremacist Trump administration, it becomes ever more vital to fight on every front, including the familial, and including from within the place of the name.
Choosing to use the name that might seem to only signal injury or pain alongside the ethnic complexity of lineages is to love my family in the sense of not giving up on them or giving them up, but also to more explicitly call out the internalized racism that prompted its dismissal in the first place. To begin to disentangle from the parasitic grip of whiteness might require the abandonment of personal injury, or one name for another. The name, of course, never fully disappears but haunts its incarnations in the present. José Muñoz understands the depressive position as “a tolerance of the loss and guilt that underlies the subject’s sense of self—which is to say that it does not avoid or wish away loss and guilt.” For me, this name might begin to perform as political depression—and as political failure that is also insistent on change. My name is not finished, it will change again.
José Esteban Muñoz, “Feeling Brown, Feeling Down: Latina Affect, the Performativity of Race, and the Depressive Position” in Signs, Vol. 31, No S, New Feminist Theories of Visual Culture (Spring 2006), 675-688.
River Encalada Bullock is a writer, curator, and a PhD Candidate in Art History at UW-Madison. She lives and works in Brooklyn, NY.