Every year around this time I give more thought than usual to the first and middle names of two of my brothers – Jesús “Jesse” Manuel and Jorge “George” Valentín. As you may have guessed, they were born on Christmas and Valentine’s Day.
George’s first name would have been Valentín if it hadn’t been for his godfather who had the foresight to suggest a good Mexican name that eventually morphed into a good American name. This happened when little “Hor-hay” was asked by his third-grade teacher, now that he was living in America, if he wanted to go by George. He said “sure.”
“Hay-soos,” on the other hand, has always gone by Jesse even though sometimes when telling people that he was born on Christmas, he throws in, “and my name is Jesus!”
These were easy naming choices for my parents, whose generation routinely selected names according to the liturgical calendar that indicates the date on which festivities are held in honor of a saint (como Valentín).
All of this made me think even more about how we name ourselves as Latinos and how some of these names don’t always translate well. I’ve yet to figure out why kids in America are rarely, if ever, named Jesus or Conception. Maybe we’re just really bold in the way we name our kids Narcisco or Adoración.
Honoring relatives was another surefire way to choose funny-sounding names but that may be a thing of the past. Tía Casimira (a Slavic expression meaning “famous destroyer” and not “hardly sees” like I thought), and Tío Doroteo (“gift of God” in Greek but really Dorothy for a guy) probably should not hold their breath in the delivery rooms of today’s expectant Latinos, who, drenched in popular culture and bombarded by constant media, won’t likely be giving them any namesakes. Neither should Tío Ascensión, even though he could argue that the child might one day ascend to great heights.
Instead, we have Sofía and Santiago at the top of the 10 most popular names for Latino babies in 2008 (according to Latina.com). They are followed by Camila, Valentina, Isabella, Valeria, Daniela, Mariana, Sara, Victoria, and Gabriela for the girls; and Sebastián, Diego, Nicolás, Samuel, Alejandro, Daniel, Mateo, Ángel and Matías for the boys. Qué? Jesús has been knocked out of the top 10? Aye dios mío!
Or maybe they’ll opt for Emma or Ella? Braden or Aiden? This way, they’ll reduce the risk of having their kids’ names changed when they enter school.
All this was on my mind when I heard noted storyteller Ricardo Provencio tell a couple of “cuentos” at a recent First Friday event in the back lot of the Cuervo Gallery. He talked about how he was given a different name for each of the first three years of his grade-school experience. He went from Ricardo to Ricky, then to Dick and eventually to Richard, a name he kept until after his Vietnam experience when he returned to college and reclaimed his God-given name, well, at least the name on his birth certificate… Ricardo.
It makes you realize the power that teachers (and society in general) have in shaping the way we identify ourselves through our often-altered names. Did I mention my oldest brother Marcel? His name is really Mauricio but he once had a teacher with a thing for French mimes. And then there’s…