From Highwayman to Henry

Both my birth and baptismal certificates read: Enrique Cecilio Fernández de Llano. I am not the POTUS nor, born in Cuba, could I be, nor ever dreamt of such a thing – a cowboy is another matter. But like the Man, I have a story of foreignness, immigration and Otherness that accounts for such a mouthful.

A gravestone in Roberts Cemetery, a short walk from where I now live in a rural corner of the Florida Panhandle, bears the flamboyantly Spanish name Enrique Arturo Fernandez, among the rather reserved Roberts and Smiths and Williams. But even that is not my father’s full name, for he was Fernández Borges, following the Hispanic custom of using both the paternal and maternal patronymics, which turns the all-too-common Fernández into something grander.

It helps, if one is a Fernández or Pérez or García, to have a mom with a more interesting surname. Thus, the Spanish poet with the totally banal name García is known as García Lorca, or more commonly, Lorca. Even with two boring patronymics the trick works. There are almost as many Márquez as there are Garcías, but put them together and, voilá, Nobel winner García Márquez. My dad’s maternal patronymic is also the name of a writer, Borges, who never felt a need to add another patronymic, though he is known by both first and middle names, Jorge Luis. I’m sure the cacophony of Jorge Borges disturbed his finely tuned – he was blind, after all – ear.

So here are the whys of my name. Enrique is my dad’s name and my family is not very inventive, or maybe they just wanted to perpetuate themselves – I gave two of my sons the middle name Enrique, but would never dream of saddling them with being yet one more Enrique Fernández, one of me is perhaps one too many.

Cecilio, because I was born on the day of St. Cecilia. Love the saint, patron saint of music. Hate the middle name, never use it.

Fernández is my father’s paternal patronymic – wow, that’s repetitive. And de Llano, my mom’s. Here it gets complicated. Many of my uncles and even my mom dropped the “de” and just called themselves Llano. I never knew exactly why. A “de” signals a noble title, and indeed, it was so at some point, though not in the proper Middle Ages, where one earned it by being a ruthless warlord, but in the 18th century, where, according to my mom, our forebear was a common highwayman. Certainly there’s a story there I must learn.

However, I suspect the pretentiousness of de Llano did not sit well with my Spanish immigrant family, leftists all of them, nor in the Cuban working-class environment in which they lived – we Cubans have all kinds of flaws, but we detest pretentiousness. And, I also suspect, the “de” brought them revoltingly close to Franco’s most notorious general, Queipo de Llano, supposedly the man who gave the order of execution of that poet called García, Spain’s and arguably the world’s most beloved. To be identified with a Fascist must have been anathema; one of my uncles went back to Spain to fight – and die – in the Spanish Civil War, precisely against Franco.

Still, highwaymen and Fascists aside, I like de Llano, regardless of provenance, for it is one of my family names. But when we migrated to the States, I dropped it. Simple reason: American public schools required the endless filling of forms, and there was no place for a second surname. Then I dropped Enrique and became Henry.

My family moved from Havana to Tampa in the late ‘50s. Tampa was the South, and Southerners, in my experience, have trouble with foreign pronunciation. I’m sure a linguist could give an explanation; my data is purely anecdotal. In Tampa I did meet good old boys and girls who could speak some Spanish and do so properly, having learned it in Florida’s most Hispanic city – until the Cuban Revolution sent waves of us north to Miami. But, for the most part, there was a pronunciation block.

A trilled “r” after an “n” is hard to pull off, even if one is a native Spanish-speaker. If you are one, try it now, try saying my name slowly and pay attention to the convulsions of your tongue. Not easy. For your average Florida cracker tongue-tied in foreign tongues, it’s pretty much impossible. So here I was, a 13-year old kid seeing folk grimace with pain every time they tried to speak my name. So I’d say, just call me Henry.

Grandfather Estanislao de Llano is one of the men doing military service in this faded photograph.

Grandfather Estanislao de Llano is one of the men doing military service in this faded photograph.

When it came time to get naturalized – what an odd verb, does that mean I was until that moment unnatural? – I used my name in English, as I had been doing for years. And so, Henry became my legal name. Little did I know of the henpecked connotation of the name, since the only Henry I knew about was the one whose second name was VIII, and he was known to enforce his macho ways with the edge of an axe.

A number of my Cuban friends still called me Enrique, though many called me Henry because the English equivalent is a common nickname among Latin Americans, like, say, Colombians, who also add “old man” to the nickname, thus, I can be viejo Henry. So once, when I left the college where I was teaching to take on a year-long job elsewhere, the Cuban friend I was replacing introduced me as Enrique, which is what he had always called me. After a year, I got used to it again and it stuck.

Trouble was my papers still read Henry. Eventually, after using the name in Spanish most of the time, even my driver’s license and voter’s registration read Enrique. Until 9/11. When I had to renew my license, it reverted back to my legal name, Henry. With that, I could only get a plane ticket under Henry. Finally, other bureaucratic demands pushed me into being Henry, at least officially. And then I moved to the Florida Panhandle, where the locals could no more pronounce Enrique than their Tampa counterparts back in the day. So now I was Henry. Again.

Except to my mom and some other family members, to whom I was Enriquito, as my own father had been as a young man. Now and then some Latin American would call me Quique, the usual nickname for Enrique. Professionally, though, I was and am still Enrique. After all, it’s my birth name.

Well, not quite. My name is Enrique Fernández de Llano. I think of using it again; after all, it’s mine. Some of my Florida cracker buddies long ago would call me Hank to rile me. Hank Fernandez sounds like a baseball player, though I would rather think of myself as a country singer. And if I were a writer in Colombia, I know I’d call myself Viejo Henry. Here in the States, all those surnames seem pretentious, and a Spanish name, no matter how common, is less so in an English-speaking country. Yeah, for how long? I already know of other Enrique Fernández whose world overlaps mine – a salsa musician, a Dominican radio DJ, and so on.

It’s a quandary. Enough to drive one into forgetting the writer’s life and becoming a highwayman. Asaltador de Caminos. Maybe that’d be my name. Stand and deliver!