“George?” Mrs. Ross, the teacher, called on the first day of school fifty-five years ago. When she got no answer, she peered from behind the roll book through her horn-rimmed glasses and called again. “George?” Still no answer. Her eyes scanned a classroom of bewildered children and alighted on mine. You see, the name was spelled J-O-R-G-E and pronounced HOR-HEH. “From now it’s George,” she looked at me sternly. Eisenhower sat in the White House, God was still in his heaven, and between 8am and 3pm, the teacher reigned in the classroom, His representative on earth.
My mother told me of the teacher’s infallibility and the consequences of disobedience. Student protest and ethnic consciousness was still eight years away after another young boy who also passed through Bronx schools ended the next president’s life in Dallas, Texas on November 22nd, 1963. After Kennedy’s assassination, society began heaping blame for its ills on teachers while divesting them of respect. Conversely, it stacked rights on student’s plates like so many pancakes at IHOP while freeing them of responsibilities.
I’ve debated whether to call myself “George” or “Jorge” ever since. The “George” won out. What is a “George Colón?” An incongruous compound of Anglo-Saxon and Latino. Three syllables accented at the end. Who is George? The Anglo-side. The rational, common sense me. Practical, money-valuing, efficient George. And the Colón? That’s the Hispanic. The emotional, religious, romantic me. Not that these traits form valid stereotypes of two people, just two sides of me.
I’m very proud of the Colón part. It’s a magnificent name—the greatest name in the history of Latino people. I share it with the Admiral of the Ocean Seas, Cristobal Colón, and it comes from the glory of the Spanish Conquest that spread a language and a culture. It all began with one man, Cristoforo Colombo, who, many historical accounts indicate, renamed himself Colón—not Columbus, after he sailed under the Spanish flag, a lot of Italians marching up and down Fifth Avenue on October 12th notwithstanding. While he’s said to have been born in Genoa, Italy, it’s not a hard, incontrovertible fact and a case has been made he was really Catalan, Polish, Portuguese, and even Jewish.
But let’s assume for a minute he was in fact Italian and that his genius stems from the Italian maritime genius and the glory of the Renaissance. Still, he was no Italian patriot, as he warred against the Italians on more than one occasion. And, ironically, with his voyages, he ended Italian cultural and political mastery of the European world, as the center of influence shifted to the western powers of Spain, France, Portugal, Holland and England. Many revisionist historians now cast aspersions on his character, and though some of the criticism is valid, still, his persistence and his bravery did unite three continents. Standing before his tomb at the Seville cathedral, I toyed with the idea of a DNA test to prove we’re related, or maybe not.
But I digress.
And unfortunately, the Spanish considered the newly discovered lands in America gifts from God and in that God’s name they plundered those lands, killed Indians, enslaved Africans, and spread a culture, a religion, and a way of life—and a lot of names.
Why then carry the shame of that conquest? Jorge is certainly the label of an imposition as much as George—an imposition obvious in my curly hair and high cheekbones, features not at all like white Spaniards, but like the Taíno Indians of Puerto Rico. So maybe I should call myself Agueybaná Colón, after the heroic Agueybaná who fell in a glorious stand against the Spaniards. Agueybaná Colon. Hell of a name in an age of anti-heroes.
But what about the other features? The flattened nose, the curly hair I’d brush fifty times and straighten with hair relaxers before I went natural? Where do they come from? They come from Africa, where calabazas and congas and the color of a lot my skin comes from. They don’t come from Agueybaná’s people and no Spaniard I ever knew had a nose as flat. So maybe I should call myself Jomo Colón or Ashanti Colon.
But like Agueybaná that too would erase the George. And I like George. I’ve liked George ever since that September morning Mrs. Ross told me I was George. I liked how it sounded and at the age of five didn’t fully understand the implications of being called George. Jorge is a beautiful, poetic name, but so is George. It belonged to six kings and a father of his country.
The Colón I insist be pronounced properly. Mellifluous Colón. I compromise. I’ll accept from non-speakers of English a pronunciation approximating the perfume and German city. But Colon is not part of the intestines, nor a punctuation mark. It’s a heritage I give my daughter, not my semi-colon, but a full Colón, and now a Rivera. And my grandchildren who look like me? Not clones, but Rivera Colóns..
I’ve often wondered where exactly the Colón’s come from. My father, Tomás Colón Alcón didn’t tell me anything about the Colón’s of Mayaguez. In fact, he didn’t do much else either—except give me a name. 31 years old when discharged at Fort Buchanan in San Juan after returning from the Pacific in 1945. He’d already fathered another son I’ve never met with another woman before meeting my 16-year-old mother after the war. I once pictured him charge heroically—no Homeric like—the Japanese armies, John Wayne at his side. Later, I learned he’d been but a cook. Not quite John Wayne, but as Napoleon insists an army marches on its stomach, I take pride in my father’s part in beating fascism. He thus left me a better world.
After my mother Felicita Correa, ready settled in New York sent for me, my grandmother and young aunts, I left Tomás Colón behind. Age two, I don’t remember him and I don’t remember Puerto Rico, except for later visits. Memory begins on that eight hour journey on that propeller plane in 1951. My father reported for duty after Pearl Harbor, but not for paternal duties. Went AWOL on me. Don’t know much else about him after vain searches. Like Telemachus, son of Odysseus in Homer’s work, I searched for Tomás Colón through the years. But I gave up long ago and my memory buried him with full military honors.
My mother Doña Felicita Correa told me a little and made ends meet, helping me survive my childhood in the South Bronx, New York. That’s why I’m also a Correa – a Jorge Luis Colón Correa, on my maternal Arcadio Correa’s side, I may descend from Captain Antonio de los Reyes Correa, Spanish war hero, one of Puerto Rico’s greatest. On August 5th, 1702, British warships landed troops on the coast of Arecibo, armed with muskets. El Capitán Correa, leading 30 men armed with spears and machetes, drove them back, killing twenty-two and wounding several. “Captain Correa’s descendants migrated from Mayaguez to Rio Grande, near Carolina, early in the 19th century,” a Puerto Rican genealogist told me. I’m going to look into it one day.
Except for a brief period when in a native Spanish class in high school, I’ve dropped my maternal name and my middle name Luis Nobody calls me Jorge Luis except my mother—when she’s angry at me.
So I render to George the things that are George‘s and to Colon the things that are Colon’s. I cherish the past, live the contradictions of the present and provide my own answers – for the future. As Puerto Rican and Latino people, we are the result of an historic past and must deal with the contradictions of the present. We must make a future – by assuming responsibilities for our institutions and our lives. We must have orgullo, or pride, for what we are and what we can be: a strong, united people, a force to be dealt with in sharing the political, economic and cultural life of the nation. We must do it by hard work.
For it is not by our names that we will be known—but by our deeds.
*A version of this essay appeared in Nuestro magazine in 1978. Reprinted with permission from the author.