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Beautiful-but-Spiny Latin Names

Submitted by on June 29, 2009 – 5:00 am8 Comments

namesWhen I lived in Madrid, my name was even longer than it is now- my mother’s last name tacked on the back. Every child’s name a miniature family tree. Roll call took much longer there. Every morning, I’d listen to the names of the thirty nine other girls in my class and each one seemed like part inheritance, part invocation for the future.

After I moved to the US, roll call became a little more tramautic as I had the only unusual name in my class. My first name, which I love in its entirety, got shortened to Vi (sometimes pronounced “Vee” other times “Vye”). Sometimes, I wanted to not come when I was called, because I didn’t feel they were calling me.

Then, and still now, sometimes, it can be awkward teaching people to say my name.  After two failed attempts it’s usually a sign of further trouble.  Either they really want to get it but can’t hear the right pronounciation… or they could care less. I actually had someone (a customer service person, no less!), when she finally got my name right, grumble, “I’m sorry I asked!”

Another woman, a neighbor, upon the 8th different occassion she asked for my name, finally shook her head and said, “Sorry, I just can’t remember foreign names.  I’ll just yell ‘Hey!’ if I need to get your attention.”  I wanted to think she was rude, or a ditz, but she could have been just being honest.  Though names in general don’t give me trouble, it’s true that I can remember Spanish-sounding names much better.  Maybe it’s just what you grow up with.

I could have made it easier on those around me- one of the benefits of marrying my American-born husband. But by the time we married, my beautiful-but-spiny name was something I’d grown inextricably attached to. It was slightly controversial that I didn’t- refused- to change my name when I got married. Not with my husband, but with a few other, and mostly older relatives. The jangle of el qué dirán: Don’t you want people to know that you’re together? What about your children? You won’t have the same last name as them!  

Writer Barbara Kingsolver has a poem called “Naming Myself” in her bilingual poetry collection Another America/Otra America (not a recent release, but I highly recommend it) that I thought of a lot when this kept coming up. In it, she writes:

I have guarded my name as people

in other times kept their own clipped hair, 

believing the soul could be scattered

if they were careless…

I could shed my name in the middle of life,

the ordinary thing, and it would flee

along with childhood and dead grandmothers

to that Limbo for discontinued maiden names.

But it would grow restless there.

I know this.  It would ride over leaf smoke mountains

and steal horses.

My name is as it’s always been, independent of who I love, though I love these others very much.  Whether people can say it, or not, it’s a vital essence of me. 

And as it turns out, I am sometimes that mami that likes to torment her children with traditions. All three of our kids legally have both my last name and my husband’s, placed in the traditional father’s first-mother’s second order. They have it all there because I think that name-as-mini family tree- thing is pretty great…although in school, they go by their dad’s last name (I am not so mired in Spanish tradition that I’ve forgotten the value of ease and brevity for a kid in school situations).

Y tu, que opinas?  Have you had trouble with your “foreign-sounding” name?  Did you change your name when you got married?  Was it difficult to agree on names for your kids with your spouse and other relatives?  Leave us a comment with how you handle the beautiful-but-spiny Latin names?


*photo by ClavonClavito

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  • Juju says:

    I changed my name when I got married and while I don’t regret the decision I do miss my Latino last name from time to time.
    Shoot! I wore it for 30 years. It’s easy to get attached to something you walk around with for 30 years ya know?

  • Silvia says:

    Hello Violeta, I like the way you say that our names are like a mini family tree! I never thought about saying it like that.

    I didn’t change my name when I got married, my american husband was the first one to agree with that, he says that he loves my latino name! So I do not have his name and he doesn’t have mine, but WE belong to each other, it doesn’t matter to us what other people think. Our children have two last names (with hyphen in the middle) in the way latin families do. Some times I get frustrated when people don’t recognize me as a part of my husband family because I do not have his last name, or when the teachers keep using my last name (instead to my husband’s last name) first on my child’s school materials or when the doctor asked me why I put such a long name on my child!! But I guess is something that I need to live with. I usually smile and explain why and people are generally understanding. I hope some day we are enough of us (using two last names) so I do not have to make explanations anymore :)

  • Carla says:

    I love this! And the poem is so perfect. I am lucky because my husband took my last name when we married so our girlsm our family name is my last name followed by his. I come from a small family and I am it. After me there is no one to carry the family name and it really hurt my heart to think the rich history my parents had worked so hard to build would be lost with the simple change of a name that I couldn’t bare to let go of it. It also killed me to think no one would carry the name on…almost like my family would cease to exist if no one carried the name. I can’t control what my daughter’s do once they get older & if they decide to marry but I hope to goodness they keep their full family name =) Thanks for sharing this!

  • Monica says:

    I did not take my husband’s name when we married. Mainly because I got a lot of pressure from my mother (who is a bit crazy about stuff like that.) It was very difficult for my American husband to understand. The whole thing was exacerbated by his family, as they certainly didn’t like it – too much silly “feminism” or something like that.
    Either way, I was unhappy. It wasn’t until I added his to mine about 5 years ago or so, that I finally felt better inside. I didn’t like losing my last name – it felt like I would be betraying or denying part of myself- but I also didn’t like not acknowledging the significant impact and change that being married had upon me.
    This whole experience has taught me that eveyone should choose their own path and do what makes them feel right inside. And it is wrong for a family to force you to do what they want you to do
    Gracias for the post.

  • Carrie says:

    And then there is me, with the totally Anglo name and the loca spirit…

  • Marta says:

    I have light skin and blue eyes and my husband’s Anglo last name. I get a kick out of explaining that yes, I’m Cuban and yes, Spanish is my first language and no, I don’t have an accent in either language.

    But then again, I’m just easily amused…. =D

  • Lou says:

    I know this story all too well. Even though I grew up in Miami, 95% of the teachers I had in school were Anglo. As were most of my coworkers when I entered the real world. I often wanted to change my name to something less complicated, as it felt that the only people that could pronounce “Lourdes” (my given name) were my relatives!

    I started going by “Lou” at a previous call center job where we had to introduce ourselves to the caller by name. After months of being mistakenly called Dolores, Doris, Meredith, Susan (?), and – wait for it – Hortense (!!) by callers, I finally got fed up and started introducing myself as Lou. That nickname has stuck for almost 20 years, to the point where I never use Lourdes anymore. All my friends and coworkers know me as Lou. Now, even I feel weird pronouncing “Lourdes.”

  • Angela says:

    My situation is a bit different. When I was 9 months old, my parents emigrated from the Dominican Republic to Baltimore so that my father could finish his pediatric training. My father’s last name is McFarlane (a roving irishman, we liked to say), my Mom’s was Gomez. So as a child, it was kind of fun proving to the kids in school that I was, in fact, latina. “Say something in Spanish” they’d say, and be shocked when I was able to recite the Hail Mary (catholic school, what can I say) lickety-split.
    We stayed in the states until I graduated from high school (we moved to South Florida when I started 9th grade) and then returned to Santo Domingo. My parents were against leaving me all alone in the US to go to college, so I was enrolled in La Universidad Nacional Pedro Henriquez Urena. Suddenly, I was thrust into a world of long last names. “Mac-farrr-la-ne Gomez was suddenly my name at roll call, and the funny looks started all over again. My classmates would ask “Tu eres Dominicana? No puede ser, pareces una gringita!” I certainly didn’t, with my green eyes and long, straight black hair. Funny thing, I grew up to marry my handsome Cubano Bill (Guillermo) Garcia, and we are known as just “The Garcias”. What a relief!

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