Javier Avila, the 2015 Pennsylvania Professor of the Year who brought his one-man show to Delaware County Community College recently, and I have a problem. Our names.
My maiden name was Katie Bambi which led me to be mercilessly teased with such taunts like, “where’s Thumper” and “Hey, did they ever find the guy who shot your mother?”
Avila grew up in Puerto Rico where he also had a common name. There were four “Javiers” in his class and two “Javys.”
Marriage resolved my issue. Moving to Pennsylvania resolved Avila’s who, all of a sudden, had an exotic name that, he says dryly, many people tried to teach him proper pronunciation of.
“The Trouble with My Name” is about the American-Latino experience which blends Avila’s satire, poetry and theatrical classroom experience. Avila’s passion permeates his personal stories and there are laugh out loud moments as he dispels misconceptions and the cultural clash.
Ávila’s career began in the Caribbean, where he taught English at the University of Puerto Rico for eight years. When he was 31, he moved to Pennsylvania and currently teaches creative writing, modern poetry, and Intro to Literature at Northampton Community College.
He is also a poet and novelist whose literary prowess propelled him to international recognition. His bestselling novel, “Different,” became an award-winning motion picture titled, “Miente,” which was screened in over a dozen countries.
Teaching on the community college level has given Avila an appreciation for diversity, racial and intellectual.
“It makes for a really interesting community,” said Avila. “Many of these kids are in a classroom with people they would have otherwise never met. I learn how diversity enriches all of us and I think I inject that into the message of the show. Education is the antidote to bigotry.”
Although there are moments of levity, Avila candidly discusses issues of language, race, social justice and identity. When asked about travel bans, and building a wall, Avila believes it is redirecting blame on people who are not to blame.
“The main problem is a conglomerate of rich corporations who have decided that it’s better to have the majority blame Black and brown people instead of the people who are really taking their money and their opportunity which are not the Black and brown people,” explained Avila.
He has been aware of misconceptions, but one of the most comical and misinformed is when he asks what a Puerto Rican has to do to become an American citizen.
Answers have included: take a test, get a Green Card, or jump a fence. Wait. What?
“It demonstrates the abysmal lack of understanding of not just geography, but of who Puerto Ricans are,” said Avila.
Avila aims for audiences of all backgrounds to enjoy the show and, like any teacher, he hopes they learn something new.
“The more we understand how similar we are, despite all our differences, the better we are. The joy of discovery is what learning is all about,” he explained.
During his show, Avila says, “Your every newcomer who changes his name to assimilate….waited for the warmth of equal treatment…”
I learn Avila and I have something else in common. My great-grandfather, Ignatsio Barbera, immigrated from Sciacca, Italy. Since they could not pronounce his last him name at Ellis Island, they called him Harry Bambi.
“When you see me, you see yourself,” Avila says in closing.