The first trailer for Netflix’s animated series Maya and the Three, which features Saldaña in the role of Maya, a “Mesoamerican-inspired warrior princess who embarks on a quest to fulfill an ancient prophecy and save humanity from the vengeful gods of the underworld” was particularly emotional not just because of the subject matter, or because it’s the brainchild of Jorge R. Gutierrez, but because the trailer featured Zoe Saldaña’s real name. For most of her career, the actress has been credited as Zoe Saldana in projects, foregoing the ñ in her name.
In fact, for a moment, as I watched the name appear in the trailer, my train of thought went from “Who?” to “Ooooh!” straight to a rather stunned, “Wow, that’s her real name!” Because I hadn’t even realized that she’d spent all this time writing her name in a way that made it easier for people in Hollywood to pronounce it. I hadn’t even thought about the fact that she renounced part of her identity to make it easier for others.
Even though I’ve done it too; for my entire life of existing in and around the United States, I’ve told people to call me Lizzie. My birthname of Lissete seemed just too much of a complication, and people were always getting it wrong, so why try? Even though Lissete is my name I made the decision to default to what was easier for others. Just as Zoe Saldaña did.
This is a very common decision made for the sake of making others feel comfortable, and it typically has nothing to do with lack of pride or to imply any kind of rebuffing of our heritage. In fact, it’s done in the same spirit that has made so many second-generation Latines forego learning Spanish. When you’re mocked in school because of your accent, you default to trying to hide that accent. And when your name makes people pause, you allow them to say it whatever way they can.
Because it’s not worth the fight. Or at least, that’s what you tell yourself.
Zoe Saldaña became Zoe Saldana. Oscar Isaac Hernández Estrada became Oscar Isaac. Peter Gene Hernandez became Bruno Mars. And long before them, Jo Raquel Tejada became Raquel Welch and Manuel Antonio Rodolfo Quinn Oaxaca became Anthony Quinn. It’s been the same game for a while, the same decision made for the very same reasons. It’s just that, before Saldaña, no one was really breaking out of it.
If Zoe Saldaña was ever going to reclaim her name, it makes sense that it would come in a project like Maya and the Three. One where she’s surrounded by people from her community, and one where she presumably feels comfortable enough to use her real name without having people mispronounce it left and right.
This is one of the little-mentioned benefits of true diversity, not just in front of the camera, but behind it. Lived-in cultural experiences cannot be replicated by great writing or sound instincts, no matter how many good intentions they carry. And there’s a difference between telling a story about something close to you, while surrounded by people who claim ownership of that story too, and telling a story about something you researched – or sometimes, sadly, didn’t even care to – but that you have never, and could never experience.
Zoe Saldaña reclaimed her name in the trailer for Maya and the Three. She stopped conforming to the standards of others, and she did it because she was allowed to exist in a place that made her feel safe about that choice. Every person should be allowed the experience that allowed Zoe to get to that point.
And it matters because, in reclaiming her name, Zoe made me realize that I should do the same. I should exist in my name and make no apologies for it. It’s about time we stopped thinking about how we can make things easier for others and started thinking about how we could make things simpler for ourselves. And if that means an extra ñ or a tilde that some people don’t know how to pronounce, so be it.