“Mey-feer? Mahr-fahyër?” the tournament judge called squinting her eyes, trying to find the spelling error, even though 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.
“Okay, Mahfeer, you’re up!”
I walk to the center of the classroom and scanned it 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. I told the story of my experience as an immigrant woman. I described how much I missed my father, 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. Delivering my speech was the only moment that I didn’t feel as if I was representing anything else but myself. I wasn’t the new girl or the immigrant. I was merely another person with the desire to find herself through her words.
Standing at the center of the classroom, speaking from my heart, it was the first time I used my voice. Finally. I had found my home in the speech program.
When I was asked to select an art elective before my first year at my American school, I instinctively decided on speech, as it seemed to be like theatre, only competitive. You are given ten and a half minutes to captivate your audience with an original speech or a monologue, and the purpose is to make yourself and the audience feel something.
“Finding your voice is what this activity is all about,” everyone says. However, there can only be one champion.
Waiting for the speech tournament to post the names of the finalists was excruciating. I jumped out of my seat every time a staff member passed by. I didn’t care about accumulating points to qualify for the state tournament or individual recognition. I wanted the chance to speak again.
Finally, a girl walked up to the oratory postings with a paper in her hand, and waves of contestants surrounded her, impatiently waiting to see who the six finalists were. Then, I saw it.
My name. Written in dense, black letters.
I smiled to myself.
I proudly walked to the room where the final round was happening, by myself. For the first time, I did not need my older teammates to protect me, for I had finally acquired the self-assurance I 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 a Saint Mary’s Hall freshman made it to oratory finals,” one of them said, obviously speaking about me. “She was in my round and I didn’t make it to the final, but she did. 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 beat me.”
“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
“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. I still lose myself in the ideas I am conveying, and I still uncover a purpose in the stories I am recounting, but they are no longer my own. My voice is not defined by me, but it is a reflection of what everyone else believes it should be. I naively thought I would find a home in the speech program the moment I joined, but what I uncovered was that much like my voice, I didn’t have a definition for home either. In my head, I had always imagined that I would uncover my home the minute I was surrounded by people who loved me for who I am and not only for my background. In speech, however, I realized that if I wanted to keep conveying messages that meant something to me, I would inevitably appear one-dimensional to the people around me. The sacrifice I would have to make for belonging would be to reject a part of myself.
Ultimately, I have created two Mafers. The one who assimilated perfectly in the United States and has built a home for herself, and the other one deep inside of me who is too afraid her peers won’t be able to see past her surface and will be unable to love.
I cried on the way back to my house from the tournament as I held the first place trophy in my hands. “Why are you crying?” my mother asks. “You did it, you won!”
I received the judge’s approval that day, but I lost the sensation of ignition that I used to possess when I performed. I would give back the cheap plastic trophy in a heartbeat if it meant that I could feel the electricity run through my veins when I act again; even if it is just for one more performance.