My name is Awilda Jiménez but people have called everything from AJ to Jimmy, Jim, Pepper, Eve, and Willow over the years.
When I first started my career, I never corrected their pronunciation of Awilda, their reinterpretations of my name, nor the missing accent mark on the é in my last name. I wanted to fit in, not offend, or draw attention to how I was different. I wanted to be either accepted, mainstream, or more palatable. I even believed for a time that Awilda, my actual first name, was just too difficult for non-Latinos to say or even write.
Then one day, while I waited to be called in to an interview, a tall, older man walked into the room, looked at the resume in his hand, and gave a confused look—the same look schoolteachers gave during rollcall before butchering my name and laughing.
“A-Wanda?” he called. As I stood up, I heard the familiar, “Let’s just call you AJ.”
After the interview, just as I was walking out the door, certain that I wouldn’t get the job (even though I didn’t want it anymore), a woman called out to me.
“Hey Awilda, wait a moment,” she said, pronouncing my name perfectly for the first time in years in a corporate setting.
Over the course of the next thirty minutes in a small side office, she shared the best unsolicited advice I ever received. The most important was that I begin to correct people when they said my name incorrectly. To not accept new names or variations of it, even if they were close enough. To not let anyone make me smaller so I could fit into a mold that was never built for someone like me. She taught me that our names have power, an important history, and tell a story about our community and where we come from. She encouraged me to not be embarrassed of who I was.
Her conviction piqued my interest in my own name and led me to doing some research.
Fun Fact: Awilda dates back to the Scandinavian settlers who came to Puerto Rico.
My favorite Awilda was, purportedly, a princess who decided that instead of getting married, she would bravely run away and capture a pirate ship. In my research, I learned about Awilda, pirates, warriors, artists, singers, and princesses, fearless women from long ago that refused to live by rules that weren’t made for them.
For the first time in my life, I was excited about my name and its rich history. My name had traveled the world and seen many adventurous lifetimes. While it took me some time after that lesson to fully own my name, every time I was silent or allowed for a new nickname to be used, I felt like I was betraying myself. I heard the voice of the woman from the interview encouraging me to find my voice.
While there were some people who refused to even try to use my actual name, most appreciated learning my name and I enthusiastically gave its origin anytime someone asked.
Now that I am an executive and a leader, when I see that familiar look on someone’s face as they struggle to read my name out loud, I jump in and ask, “Are you looking for Awilda Jiménez?” I don’t wait for them to struggle through it or create their own version. And most seem relieved and even thank me for not letting them make a mistake.
I see it as my calling to share the advice that I was given with those who I help to train and develop. Whether they worry about their accents when speaking English at work, or they believe they should simplify their names because they’re anticipating their colleagues’ discomfort, my message is the same: Remember your history, bring it into your future, and make a new mold that fits you as you are. Our stories start with our names.
Awilda Jiménez is a Human Resources expert with nearly 10 years working in the building materials industry. Originally from El Paso, Texas, Awilda moved to Florida to attend the University of Central Florida to obtain her bachelor’s degree in Psychology with a focus in Industrial and Organizational Psychology. She then went on to earn her master’s degree from Nova Southeastern University in Human Resource Management. She is a member of the Society for Human Resource Management Executive Network, the National Association for Women in Construction, and operates HR Psych, a consulting firm dedicated to Human Resources, Mental Wellness, and Organizational Health.