By Maria Fernanda Benavides
“Mayfier? Marfir?” the tournament judge called squinting her eyes, trying to find the spelling error, although there was no error.
“It’s Mafer. It’s a nickname for my full name, Maria Fernanda.”
She stared at me blankly.
“My parents are creative,” I lied, and she laughed.
“O.K., Mahfeer, you’re up!”
I walk to the center and scanned the room before starting as instructed. I took a deep breath.
I reminded myself, “Use your voice.”
I spoke loudly at first, trying to hide the fact that I was overthinking every single word that came out of my mouth. As my performance continued, the artificial confidence became natural, and I started speaking from my heart as I told the story of my experience as an immigrant woman, and I described how much I missed my father who had to travel back and forth every weekend to see my mom and me, and how disconnected I felt from my family, and how I longed to have a place I could call home.
My performance came to an end, and I made my way back to my seat with newly found optimism as I reflected on how performing had consumed me.
I used my voice. Finally. I had found my home in the speech program.
Waiting for the speech tournament to post the names of the finalists was excruciating. I jumped off my seat every time a staff member passed by. I didn’t care about accumulating state points or individual recognition. I wanted the chance to speak again.
Finally, a girl walked up to the oratory postings with a paper on her hand, and the entire cafeteria surrounded her, impatiently waiting to see who the finalists were. Then, I saw it.
My name. Written in dense, black letters.
I smiled to myself.
This time, as I walked to the oratory final, I did so by myself, as I had finally acquired self-assurance needed to navigate the quiet hallways of the high school. I could only hear the heels of the two girls behind me.
“I heard that Saint Mary’s Hall freshman made it to oratory finals,” one of them said, obviously speaking about me. “She broke over me. I didn’t see her performance. Did you? Did you see her performance? What is her speech about?” she questioned the other one.
“It’s about being a Mexican immigrant.”
“Oh, so that’s why she broke.”
“It’s the same pity narrative, there’s nothing different about it.”
Suddenly, the confidence that I had acquired from the previous rounds vanished, and I found myself wishing that I had my older, more experienced teammates by my side to help me block the girls’ words. But no one was there.
I thought my narrative was what made my words matter, what made me matter.
But they didn’t matter. Not anymore. From that moment on, I knew I would be recognized around the circuit as the Mexican girl whose name no one knows how to pronounce. I didn’t even need to speak about my identity to be identified. Everyone would recognize me not for my achievement or my being, but by the peculiar way I pronounce words. I could speak about different topics, but it felt like it wouldn’t make a difference. It felt like my voice didn’t make a difference.
“Mafer, how did it feel?” my coach asked me after the round. “It felt amazing!” I lied.
I didn’t feel anything. Not anymore. Speech gave me a voice, but it also took it away.