What’s in a name? Angélica María Aguilera hosts writing workshop on language and identity
The Chicana poet was welcomed by a number of collaborating departments and programs on Friday. In a spoken word presentation and subsequent poetry workshop, Aguilera and attendees honed in on the relationship between language, culture, and identity.
POETRY: Students pose for a group photo with copies of Aguilera's book "They Call Me".
On Jan. 27, Brandeis welcomed poet, artist, and educator Angélica María Aguilera for the “Say My Name Poetry Workshop” held in Ridgewood Commons. Aguilera is a Chicana poet and musician originally from Los Angeles. A finalist of the National Poetry Slam, the Women of the World Poetry Slam and the author of “They Call Me,” her work has been featured by organizations such as TEDx, Puma, and the United Soccer League’s Women’s League. Attendees listened in on Aguilera’s spoken word performance, whose themes included Latinidad machismo, womanhood, culture, and immigration. All present were then invited to write their own poetry — the prompt being an ode to their name — with tips and assistance from Aguilera. Throughout the two-hour event, conversations about identity, European colonialism, heritage, and cultural roots were fostered, and poetry on all these topics and more was shared and workshopped.
The event was co-sponsored by the Latin American, Caribbean and Latinx Studies program; the Hispanic Studies Department, the Creativity, the Arts, and Social Transformation program; the Brandeis Library; the Creative Writing program; and the Brandeis Latinx Student Organization. Members of BLSO — Daphne Ballesteros ’24, Jose Gonzalez ’26, Anthony Andino ’24, and Ana Loza Pérez ’25 — aided in seating and tech preparation. Upcoming events such as a Feb. 13 general meeting for all interested, a soccer tournament, and a “represent the flag” party sets the BLSO’s intention to “provide spaces for Latinxs to feel welcome while engaging in conversations about our identities and experiences,” according to their site.
Ballesteros opened the event by introducing attendees to Angélica María Aguilera. Aguilera kicked off the spoken word session with a reading of her poem, “La Exótica.” The poem tackled Aguilera’s experience of the word “exotic” being used as a “compliment,” and her experiences on the receiving end of it: “to him, I’m a white tiger / an amazonian snake / you know, something people love to try / to own / before it turns them into a meal / he says I look exotic, I say he looks like an easy dinner / like a tooth to add to my necklace of teeth. I mean, / doesn’t he know the rules of the jungle?”
“Assimilation robs us of our magic … What do we lose when we assimilate?” Aguilera said, before her second reading of her poem “For The Girls with Long Names.” In this poem, Aguilera writes, “esperanza-milagro aguilera, lina maría cañon, gladys teresa hidalgo / I like the names that introduce themselves / I like the names that wrap their lengthy letters around your strong hand / and shake like they mean business / I like the names that get all dressed up to attend a party in their best friend’s kitchen / I like the names that bust open the door, bring their own music, and demand the DJ play the song that sings to them / that even with their pushy insistance, their urgency to salsa everywhere / somehow they remind you / every floor is waiting to be made a stage, / why stay seated when you can fly? / why have a body if not to turn it into an instrument?”
After a few more readings, Aguilera and the attendees transitioned into a workshop. Aguilera stressed the importance of language in the context of culture and identity, and why it is so crucial to protect and celebrate. Language, she emphasized, could function as a double-edged sword: a secret weapon of colonization, but also a representation of culture, ancestry, beliefs, and history.
Prompted by a Maya Angelou quote — “I will write on the pages of history what I want them to say. I will be myself. I will speak my own name” — Aguilera instructed the attendees to write an ode to their own name. “How do we say our names, or better yet, what do our names say about us?” Aguilera asked. “Throughout our lives, our names are our primary identifiers. In the United States, in classrooms and the workplace, names with accents and non-English pronunciations are often stigmatized and shortened or changed into a more American nickname. As we head into this workshop I want you to reflect on your name … what is your relationship to your name?”
Following 15 minutes of individual work, Aguilera brought the group back and encouraged them to read their poems out loud. The first volunteer was Jose Gonzalez, who described his family’s history and his pride in his identity in his poem, “I am Jose.” “I, unlike my parents, am blessed to be living in a country of opportunities. I am proud to be Mexican. I am proud to be me,” his poem concluded.
Ballesteros followed Gonzalez with a reading of her poem. It centered around her middle name, which is also her grandfathers’ first: “The source of my power, the source of my strength, the energy of a man who was only four foot eleven yet still moved mountains.”
Vaishnavi Bulusu ’24 also shared her poem. “I catered to my white counterparts rather than embracing my beautiful name and culture. I even started to question and feel almost embarrassed of my Indian identity and culture,” she said. “Was embracing the mispronunciation necessary for validation in this country? I then realized that I didn’t need anyone’s validation … I’ve come to accept and love the uniqueness of my name and pronunciation. I don’t feel ashamed. My name comes from Hindu origin and literally represents a goddess of wisdom, prosperity, and power. Why would I not want to embrace that?”
One of the last poems of the night came from Susana Bulnes Rodriguez ’24, who described her struggles with heritage connected to her name. “I haven’t been able to identify with my full name. Because I feel like a Susana but I don't feel like a Bulnes or a Rodriguez, since I have never heard or experienced the stories of my heritage,” she said. “I am writing this to uplift myself, because I am the reason my parents have faced comments and violence in order to give me the American dream. I love my name because it shows that although they can take away my country and family, they can’t take away my will to live and my will to fight.”
After the open mic was concluded, Aguilera stayed behind to autograph her books for attendees to purchase, answer some questions, and request that those who were interested in her work sign up for her newsletter.
“Poetry is important because it allows us to rewrite our narratives in a way that empowers us,” Aguilera said. “It lets us imagine a world that honors our truth and the truth of who we are.”