How to Name a City

“[Miami] is a profoundly American city – a place that reminds us that ideals matter more
than the color of our skin, or the circumstances of our birth…”

—Barack Obama


You waver in the face of the word journey. This could mean more loss, but all the not-belonging has metabolized into longing, so you walk. You walk past the clump of fried dough huddled on the roof of your mouth. Past the fallen arch in your right foot and the hyperextended elbow that arches when you point. You walk past the dead poet’s grave and the deaf gardener who tends it. You nod in agreement when the gardener smiles and shakes his head “no” at your request for directions. You walk past an old woman wrapping bruised mangoes in newspapers and past ancient, onion-skinned women who haul small houses and big-boned grandkids on their backs. You walk as far as you can and farther still. Cars race by, exhaust scorches your shins. Miniature flags from thirteen different islands wave at you from rearview mirrors. Wherever you stand, a new accent washes up from a far shore. Castilian, Creole, Patois, and Portuñol lap at your ankles. In this city, anyone claiming to be a native is laughed at or promptly interrogated. People put a hand on a stranger’s shoulder. He thinks he’s from here, they chuckle, offering a shot of strong, sweet coffee in a tiny medicinal cup. A woman wearing a neon bikini sells foot-long hot dogs from the median of a busy street. Your clothes have not yet unpeeled from the northern bitter. The long sheaths of your hippie skirts hover at your waist like attendant women preening and adjusting them against the city’s prying winds. You’ve arrived. You don’t realize it yet. You won’t for weeks.

People stare at your hyperextended elbow when you point to “over there.” You can’t understand their directions anyway. Street names are carved into curbstones. Each street has an official name, a baptismal name, a nickname, and a number accompanied by court, place, terrace, and drive.

At night, you sleep through your own dreams. During the day, you listen. You stand up straight and crack open your sternum as if it were an ear probing a chest for a murmur. You cock your head forward. You listen with antlers and hooves, pawing at a flint of moon-colored bone in the ground. Idiomatic expressions flip from one language to the next like reversible gloves. Even university professors catch themselves saying, “Put attention” and “Te llamo pa’tras.” In this city, one word multiplies like the word “carne” becomes meat, flesh, fruit, and sin.

You start varnishing yourself into this unfinished language, and after a few years, you’re attuned to its subtleties. At the grocery store or the movies, you observe how this city’s citizens elevate each other on a step ladder of ch words and cooing diminutives – oye chuchi, mi chinitia, cholita mía, chocherito de mi vida, only to be blunted by the augmentative insult – soplón, mamón, maricón. The speed with which the diminutive may be felled by the augmentative in no way negates its sincerity. In fact, the short-term memory of this city’s inhabitants is virtually non-existent, which roller-coasters them into endless cycles of flirtation and bickering. They bark in media interviews. They grunt and hurl in post-election polling. The simple act of dropping a child off at school elicits a frenzy of prayers and blessings, shrieks and reproaches. You would think this speaks to their passion for family and community if it weren’t for the pushy elbows and indiscriminate shopping cart wheels, the horn blaring and fist raising of daily life. They have vanished before. They have fled their country or they’ve been kicked out. You suspect that they fear starting over again in a strange place where their right to belong is challenged.

Other notes on language: you nibble on the word for the crust of dried rice that sticks to the bottom of the pan (this word can be reshaped to compliment the sway of a woman’s hips when she walks). There’s a word for the last slosh of wine at the bottom of the bottle, a word for the little puddle of mamey milkshake left in the blender, a word for the few remaining drops of chicken broth. A word exists for precipitation that is neither shower, nor drizzle, nor mist. You sip from these words. You bathe in their non-rain.

Even after several years, you teeter on this city’s skyscraper heels trying to fit in. You might even consider botoxing the worried furrows and under-eye angst from your face, but the duck-billed smile of this city’s upper class frightens you. Instead, you tweeze your way past billboards for years without noticing they are human – unemployed men of all ages dressed up like Superman on Halloween and the Statue of Liberty at tax time. Hollow-eyed Tarzans and jittery life-size smart phones hop from one leg to the next and point arrow signs at the nearest strip mall without the slightest glance from you and other drivers. In bumper to bumper traffic, you don’t notice the six men who meld into the rusted lattice of the enclosed truck bed in front of you. You don’t see their glassy eyes staring at you among the machetes and leaf blowers. You do notice a woman who waits at the same bus stop bench at the same intersection every day, but by the time you realize that bench was her home, she’s disappeared.

At lunch counters and sidewalk parks, you listen to exiles and immigrants shuffle the dominoes of their suffering. Exiles argue that immigrants don’t suffer in the same way because exiles can’t go back. Immigrants claim that without a path to citizenship, they can never go back or forward. You’ve listened for so long that one day you overhear yourself exclaim a Latinate “Ay!” instead of the Anglo Saxon “Oh” of your birth. When at a loss for words, you begin to emit an “Em” instead of “Um.”

As your vowels ascend, so follows your solar plexus. Tuned to this multi-lingual frequency, something in you begins to open. A man speaks to you with a soft ch and a hard one, informing you that this “something” could be called unseen, vital points of energy (shakras) or small plots of hidden, fertile land (chakras). He calls himself zonzo alegre. He attracts iguanas, snakes, cats, rats, dogs, pigeons, and you. He rescues raspy flute breaths from a hundred year old Andean reed. The soft place perpendicular to your hipbone quivers in this city’s smallest room. Your ovaries throb in traffic. You wear down the cotton heel of many socks, dancing this city’s guaguancós and cumbias in your kitchen where you germinate, stew, and chop. You give birth to a girl of guava-sticky, croqueta-salted fingers, and panetón-pinched belly. You produce a susto water bearer and industrial grade manufacturer of mocos. In this city it’s acceptable to call children creatures. Creatures of God that is. Fellow shoppers who previously pretended not to see you as they rushed to the front of the line now bestow your child with blessings: Que díos me la bendiga. You would have once received such an affirmation with wry stoicism; however, the sweet heft on your hip drains you of all irony. You are grateful for any blessings that come your way.

This city lavishes its children with artificial snow in December, café con leche made with thick, steamed condensed milk, and thumb-shaped crosses pressed into foreheads daily. Your child will hurl her first curse word in this city, and you will be simultaneously tickled and horrified by the wriggling finger sound the word makes. She will learn to greet everyone with a kiss on the cheek. She will know how to dance, joke, and listen up and down the generational ladder.

On a day like any other, it happens. You overhear a tourist berate your city’s lack of “real” English. She calls your city “not really part of America.” To your surprise, you’re offended. You want to name this place for all of its intricacies, roll it into a spikey, multi-colored ball and hurl it at the tourist like your child’s curse word. You want to blurt out a name for your city, a name that means “here” and “there,” “them” and “us,” but it occurs to you that all names are forgotten or never forgiven. The land you stand on was once named for its natives, but the steady dorsal fin of road rage has plowed over the low-lying anthropology of the Allapatah, Okeechobee, and Mayaimi peoples. You yourself have globbed on sunscreen at the downtown red light that sits over a five hundred year old Tequesta well. You’ve sped past the surnames of landowners and developers on the very streets named after them. A baby’s scream at the Shwarma Mediterranean Grill on Kendall Drive could pierce deeper than the arrowhead from one of these lost tribes.

In ancient times, every city was named after God or a Godlike trait. Rome from the Greek word for strength. Jerusalem comes from Yeru (settlement) and Shalem (God). Perhaps a name like God would suffuse this city with reverence. It has taken so long to feel part of it. You don’t want this city to be called by a nickname or slogan. Dueling pronunciations carved from socio-economic class will not do either. No grunting uh at the end of the city’s name for those who eat dirt. No long eee for those who shop organic. No names of saints or industry, no etymologies or exegesis. You want a name pronounceable by hoodlum, hairstylist, hookah smoker, and hedge fund manager alike. You try it out. God, Florida; God, New Hampshire; God, Minnesota. When buttressed by a state, God sounds surprisingly ecumenical, atheistic, even.

If God is the name of your city, then silence is its gate. Belonging means you no longer think of it. You must know this city and forget it, breathe in its swells and digressions. This you have learned from your city and its inhabitants, who are named for no one and after whom no one is named.

Mia Leonin is the author of two poetry collections, Braid and Unraveling the Bed, (Anhinga Press), and a memoir, Havana and Other Missing Fathers (University of Arizona Press). In 2016, BkMk Press will publish Leonin’s novella, The Fable of the Paddle Sack Child. A third book of poems, Chance Born, will be published by Anhinga Press. Leonin has published poetry and creative nonfiction in New Letters, Prairie Schooner, Alaska Quarterly Review, Indiana Review, Witness, North American Review, River Styx, Chelsea, and others.