Friday, June 27, 2008

Mala no es mala

Many people are fascinated with word origins – how time, movement, and trade have shaped our modern lexicon. I, however, am not. Most word origin speak ranks about as highly as grass fertilizer does on my list of desirable subjects. It’s ironic then that my name has several meanings around the world: “small” in many Slavic languages, “holy garland” in Sanskrit, and best of all, “bad” in Spanish.

Somehow the last meaning evaded my parents in the naming process of their first child. Despite the fact that I was born just south of Los Angeles, one of the ‘80s Meccas of all things Spanish, “Mala,” a seemingly simple, nondescript Indian name popped up, and thus, I was forever branded “bad” for the rest of my life.

Even more astonishing is the fact that I escaped realization of this meaning until I moved to Florida my second semester of college to work at Disney World, another Mecca of all things Spanish. Little known fact, but every Disney character walking around one of the burning hells of corporate America is either a gay man trying to start his theater career, or a gentile Spanish-speaking woman who speaks no English, therefore finds convenience in fake smiles and lots of waving.

The makeup of workers at my Disney job consisted of disgruntled children stuck in adult bodies, former trailer park live-ins turned lower managers, a handful of burnt-out students on the college program (myself included, high school was hard), and a ton of Latin American immigrants. Between the most common first language of half my coworkers and the gossipy nature of the other half, the news that one of the new employees had “Bad” as a name spread like wildfire. Within three hours, I sent in a petition to change my nametag to read “Buena.” Unfortunately, Disney has an annoying policy of requiring only real names be used to address their “Cast Members.”[1]

To my great hope, this tricky little name did not prevent me from befriending the sane half of my coworkers – the Spanish half, and l left Florida with a number of Puerto Rican friends. Eight months later, and I decided to visit my closest Puerto Rican friend, Barbara, in Caguas and San Juan. I was accompanied with another guy from Florida; a week later, Barbara and I realized that neither of us really knew the guy, but he managed to sneak in like that weird kid at the party who no one knows but anyone refuses to question.

On day five of our little excursion, we took a battered SUV up to the top of a mountain for a traditional festival celebrating Three Kings Day, which apparently has something to do with the Virgin Mary and cooking an intact pig. I had scored my way into one of the most traditional and hard-to-access-as-a-tourist festivals, because the national news crew was on hand. As soon as they spotted me and my other friend, a tall, obviously out-of-place, Georgia-bred black man, they were on us.

Through a series of hand gestures and eye-narrowing, we deduced they wanted our take on this festival, to which I said, “Uh…bueno! Hablo Inglés y French.” That, apparently, was enough, so to wrap up the interview came the question I had been dreading all trip long, “What is your name?” Shit. I decided to go for the plunge, and gave them my real name, but all I got back was, “No! Your NAME! Nom! Namen!” “MALA! My name is MALA!” “NOOOO! YOUR NAME!” “MALA!”

After 15 minutes, the reporter finally got what I was saying, and left with a sinister smile on her face. Barbara’s entire family consisting of cousins, great aunts, grandparents, step-children, in-laws, and that kid that kind of dated her sister decided to stay that night in the house to continue the Three Kings day celebration. Later that night, while the entire family was gather 'round, in a national synchronized broadcast of the interview, my broken Spanish was featured beneath the blazing caption, “MALA MALA MALA MALA.” My humiliation was followed the loudest roar of laughter I have ever heard, and as it erupted, so did my brain. Or at least I wish it had; anything to get me out of that god-forsaken house.

The taunting caption followed me around for the next few days; I could barely set foot outside of the house before I was tackled down for an autograph and a request to reenact my Puerto Rican doom. Needless to say, I laid low as much as possible the rest of the trip, but for fear of syndication, I have requested a face transplant before I go back to the country. That, or a new nametag.

[1] As if a whopping $6 an hour wasn’t enough to entice you to come work for the Mouse, Disney employees are referred to as “Cast Members,” and customers are called “Guests.” I call it a headache.

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