Sunday, May 4, 2014

Why I love/hate my name (and therefore Audrey Hepburn)

My Aunt Norma tells the story that when they were teenagers in Mexico City, she and my mother went to see the movie Sabrina, with Audrey Hepburn. As they came out of the movie theater, my mother turned to her and said: "When I have a daughter, I'm going to name her Sabrina."

Norma, some years younger than my mother and not a sister but what in Latin America is known as a "prima-hermana" (sister-cousin), was both impressed and doubtful. There was not a whit of vacillation in my mother's voice and a teenager who doesn't doubt is an awe-inspiring thing. But they were both crazy about movies —golden age Hollywood and golden age Mexican cinema — so Norma reasonably figured some other movie role (and star) would depose Audrey's Sabrina in my mother's affections in the years remaining before either of them contemplated marriage, no less children.

As you know if you're reading this, my mother wasn't fooling around when she made that proclamation.

I can't help wondering, sometimes, why my mother couldn't fall in love with Dolores del Rio instead, or María Félix, or even Silvia Pinal — or any of their characters with culturally appropriate names.

But no. My mother had to name me something so culturally foreign (in those days) that most of the people I grew up with in Guatemala thought the name was "Sobrina," the word for niece.

In those days, even in Anglo culture Sabrina was a bit of a rarity. I searched far and wide for Sabrinas in my English-language childhood reading, and came up with two: John Milton's poem Sabrina Fair; and a character in the Archie comic books, Sabrina the Teenage Witch — a character so white they didn't ink any color in her hair or the freckles over her nose.

Just  as I have a love/hate relationship with my name, I have a love/hate relationship with the actress who embodied the person of Sabrina. Audrey was a quite capable actor with surprisingly good comedic timing; she projected charm, style and intelligence in a distinctive and particular way, impossible for any actor then, or now, to emulate.

For my mother — a born artist whose mother had made her decline a scholarship to study with the great Mexican muralist Diego Rivera and instead forced her to attend secretarial school — Audrey was a gently subversive role model. Many of her roles carried the whiff of the artist even within narratives of ultimate respectability.

And her look: one part student of Allen Ginsburg and Jean-Paul Sartre; three parts consumer of Givenchy and Mary Quant ....

My mother found her irresistible. She watched — and loved — every movie Hepburn ever made.

I, on the other hand, fixated on Hepburn's tiny 22-inch waist and her gloriously willowy dancer's body, and despaired of ever living up to what my mother had, in my name, wished me to be.

I suppose I might have been equally unhappy if my mother named me Jo (after Hepburn's initially bookish character in Funny Face) or Holly (the definition of whimsical in Breakfast at Tiffany's) — also cultural mismatches from roles with equally impossible style standards — but Sabrina is undeniably the worst. And as a movie? Anything that misuses Humphrey Bogart's talents so egregiously doesn't deserve tribute, much less naming after.

So what was it about the movie Sabrina that made it resonate so deeply with my mother?

Oddly, I think it's a cultural thing — tied essentially to the time period when my mother lived in Mexico City (her family split her childhood and adolescent years between Mexico City; Boca del Rio, Veracruz; and Guatemala City).

My mother's Mexico City was a heady, exciting place. It drew world artists like Luis Buñuel, Remedios Varo and Leonora Carrington, and had its own well-known radical aesthetes in Rivera, Frida Kahlo, José Clemente Orozco and David Alfaro Siqueiros. Churubusco studios produced both beloved populist films starring Cantinflas and more sophisticated fare starring María Félix. Octavio Paz, Juan Rulfo, Carlos Fuentes and Elena Poniatowska were all developing their writing voices in the same Mexican crucible of class, race/ethnicity, gender/sexuality, politics and religion as my mother.

Sabrina is, for all intents and purposes, a Hollywood rendition of a beloved and enduring Mexican melodrama and telenovela trope: the daughter of the serving class who falls in love with the master's son, is done wrong, proves her worthiness in some way or another, and ends up in an improbable happily ever after with him (or his better, but also ruling class, brother).

Some of Sabrina's narrative choices had elements that would particularly appeal to my mother: the fact that Sabrina finds her voice and style in Paris — where Mexican artists from Kahlo to Paz found validation for their very Mexican but also iconoclastic artistic visions.

And it was set in New York, the most dynamic of U.S. cities for both artist and social climber alike.

Like all rom-coms, Sabrina is a fantasy of desire and idealized circumstance. For my mother, I think the hope it best spoke to was that someday she'd be able to shake-off the yoke of middle class, Latin American convention, and that she'd create a style — and a life — of her own choosing.

And she did.

My mother became the artist my grandmother never wanted her to be. She developed her unique style in a different way than the character Sabrina did — for one thing, she was already married and a mother — but with the same single-minded focus.

When my mother wanted to produce her sculptures in reflective metal, for example, she went to work as an unpaid employee at a bicycle factory in Guatemala in exchange for unlimited use of the facility's chroming vats after hours. She learned to weld at that factory, and she learned how to survive as the only woman on the production line.

She didn't get a moment of double take, like Hepburn's character does when she comes back from Paris and the William Holden character she's been infatuated with since adolescence spots the newly glamorous and sophisticated Sabrina waiting at the train station. Instead, the many moments of double take my mother experienced were from Guatemala's ruling and middle class art patrons and gallery habitués, stunned when her exhibit openings would fill with her working class factory coworkers, there to support her. 

When my mother left Guatemala, it was with a "sculpture" her coworkers had proudly produced for her — a chromed bicycle wheel mounted upright on a base and signed by every member of the factory's production line.

But, back to Sabrina.

I still sometimes wish I had a name better suited to my ethnic and cultural identity. The other day at a journalism workshop someone jumped to the conclusion — and then tried to argue with me — that no real Latina bears my name.


But I have grown fonder of my name.

It defies expectation, just like the woman who gave it to me.

And maybe, just maybe, that's the point.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Comment on this post: