We proudly publish the “Afterword” that James D. Fernández wrote for the pamphlet Apodos de Tampa/Nicknames of Tampa, a publication which will be launched at the January 15, 2017 world premiere of our documentary, “The Weight of Remembering.” (Tampa Theatre, 3:00 pm). This unique pamphlet, in addition to a preface by the legendary EJ Salcines, features the list of more than 1,000 nicknames from Tampa’s Spanish colony, compiled over many years by José Ramón Oural and Ángel Rañón. The publication also includes annotations, translations, and cultural footnotes; it can be searched alphabetically by nickname or by given name.
As a young boy, whenever I would get caught doing something mischievous or naughty, my mother would reprimand me simply by pronouncing the three most terrifying words of the English language: “James Daniel Fernández!”
Like most parents, my mom understood that addressing me with my full name was a most effective reprimand; any shred of intimacy or tenderness disappears when mothers or fathers address their offspring in the same stark terms that might be used by a school principal or an emergency room attendant.
Kids know intuitively that “legal” names taste on the tongue like school lunches and hospital food; that they belong in brown folders in green file cabinets in grey government offices; that the people who pronounce them are usually strangers, and that when they do, it’s almost always when we’re “in trouble.” That is why those names, when pronounced by mom with each one of their lashing syllables, can sting much more than any form of corporal punishment.
Deep down, adults know this too. That’s why, no sooner than we’ve filled out a birth certificate, we find ourselves, often against our own will, whispering new names to our newborns. It’s why new lovers will always rechristen each other with secret names, as befits such a rebirth. And it is why communities develop nicknames.
The massive list of nicknames compiled over many years by José Oural and Ángel Rañón, is an extraordinary act of love, and it is also an invaluable portrait and evocation of a community.
The tens of thousands of Spaniards who emigrated to Cuba and Tampa in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century most often came from small villages, where “proper” names may have been carefully guarded by the priest, the Civil Registry and the Civil Guard, but were rarely if ever on the lips of the people.
The tens of thousands of Spaniards who emigrated to Cuba and Tampa in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century most often came from small villages, where “proper” names may have been carefully guarded by the priest, the Civil Registry and the Civil Guard, but were rarely if ever on the lips of the people. It’s fascinating to realize how so many of our most common surnames today –which may seem like cold, administrative abstractions– actually carry within them traces of that remote time when they too were nicknames: Miller, Baker, Smith, Carpenter, Cooper. For our immigrants, though, that time when small communities named people, and when names actually carried meanings, was not at all remote.
Even the immigrants’ “handle” on their own proper names may have often been tenuous at best. Most had not had much schooling, and the mangling of names we see on immigration or census forms may be a product not only of the incompetence of bureaucrats, but also of uncertainty on the part of the immigrants regarding spelling conventions. It is not at all uncommon to see “errors” even on the tombstones of Spanish immigrants in Tampa and elsewhere.
Ángel Rañón and José Oural have given us an extraordinary portrait of a once vibrant community. Of course it is by no means a complete portrait –women are drastically under-represented on the list, in part because they were assigned nicknames less often than men. And the community chronicled by the list is in no way perfect or idyllic; the nick-names are often cruel and demeaning, often rooted in generalizations and prejudice.
And yet, more than any kind of list I could think of, Rañón and Oural’s eccentric inventory brings to life a diasporic community. Because as we listen to this encyclopedia of apodos, we can easily visualize a community that shared, in most cases, village life in Spain, followed by a stint in Cuba; a community that in Tampa, would huddle around radios to hear the serials and soap operas, the latest rumba or foxtrot, the fights, ball games and bolita numbers, and eventually, the ever worsening updates on that damn war in Spain. A community that ate and drank together — ¡a lot!–and that together read the funnies and went to the movies, rolled cigars and went on strike. A diasporic community of individuals who in Tampa re-invented themselves, and then, as is only fitting, renamed themselves, not with given, proper names, but rather with the earned and improper nicknames so lovingly and irreverently catalogued here.
New York, December, 2016
The pamphlet can be ordered on-line here: