What’s in a Name?

Carson & HughesMr. Carson and Mrs. Hughes are finally wed, as those addicted to the PBS blockbuster Downton Abby very well know. But the Crawleys, the Lords of the manor, are in a quandary. They are struggling to remember to refer to Mrs. Hughes as Mrs. Carson. Upon the return of the newlyweds from their honeymoon, the ever-observant Mr. Carson notices the difficulties the Crawleys are having in recalling what name to use.  Wishing to alleviate his employer’s distress, Mr. Carson offers a solution: continue to call his bride Mrs. Hughes. Upon hearing this, Lord Crawley shouts out a Halleluiah, relieved for being spared the challenge of having to remember the new name of an old servant.

As the men decide what to name the woman, Mrs. Carson stands silently between them. She has no say as to what she wants to be called, whether it be Mrs. Hughes, or Mrs. Carson, or maybe even Ms. Hughes-Carson. Sexism provides her new husband the power to name her, and classism trumps her husband’s sexism. She simply awaits to be named, a process that gives power to the one privileged in doing the naming.

Naming establishes conceptual order to human reality.  Only a superior names those of lower status. Whoever gets to do the naming, gets to reinforce a power relationship that locates the one being named to the one doing the naming. To be named is to be subordinated to the name giver. For this reason, parents give names to children, slave masters would name their human possessions, and in the Genesis story, Adam gets to name the animals (and his helpmate).  The one named is objectified by the subject who names.

To be named by an(other) becomes so normalized, that all too often, even the one named will continue to insist on the name given rather than claim their own identity. For many, our minds remain so colonized, that we find it strange, if not downright weird, to use our own given name, rather than the name given by those with power over us.

An example of the pervasiveness of this subordination can be noticed by how I spell my surname. Those who have read any of my works might have noticed that I spell my last name as “D-e – L-a – T-o-r-r-e.” That is, with a capital “D”, a capital “L”, and a capital “T”. However, as any Latino/a familiar with our culture knows, the correct spelling of my surname should be “d-e – l-a – T-o-r-r-e;” with a lower case “d” and “l”, along with an upper case “T”. If I know this, why do I insist on the incorrect spelling?

My parents were among the first Hispanics to move into Jackson Heights, New York. I was the first Latino to attend Blessed Sacrament, the Catholic school a block away from where my father worked as the stereotypical superintendent. I attended first grade without the ability of speaking English, nor the ability to read in any language. Not surprisingly, I flunked first grade and was forced to repeat it. And though I did not advance to the next grade with my classmates (providing them with an excuse to taunt me as stupid throughout my entire elementary school education), I did, at least, learn how to spell (incorrectly) my name.

The nuns made a paper plaque with the correct spelling of my name for my desk that I had to write on any paper I turned in. You guessed it: my name was spelled “De La Torre”.  My parents told me it was wrong, a concern I attempted to raise with my teachers (but remember, I barely spoke English). My teachers told me that my parents were mistaken because all surnames had to be capitalized, and unless I wrote my name “correctly” I would be punished (usually with a swift whack with the ruler across my knuckles). I became so conditioned to write my name with upper case letters that it simply looked wrong to me to spell it as my parents did. My mind became so colonized, supplanting the truth of my illiterate parents with the superior ignorance of the nuns, that to this day, I continue to write my surname wrong, even though I know better. But not just me, so too my wife and my children.

The imposition of the European way of seeing me created a false-consciousness that has been so legitimized and normalized in my young mind that to spell my name differently simply seems “wrong.”  I have learned to see my identity through the eyes of those who would have me believe that my own parents’ knowledge as to how their own names should be spelled is the product of backward Hispanics.

Being named was not limited to my childhood. When I was called to pastor Goshen Baptist Church in my mid-thirties, the parishioners had difficulty enunciating “Miguel.” At best, they would articulate my name as “Mequel.” After a while, folks found it easier to just call me “Brother Mike.” Why didn’t I object? Because the parsonage and salary provided to Brother Mike allowed Miguel to finish his Masters of Divinity studies. The disenfranchised find it difficult to challenge when their livelihoods are at stake.

Today, no one calls me Brother Mike. Nonetheless, if the first act of liberation is self naming, why do I still insist on spelling my surname the way those who had power over me taught me? I have no doubt the reader is probably wondering what’s the big deal? Just spell my name correctly. What they fail to recognize is the power of the colonizing process, and the difficulty to reclaim identity. So as I tag my name to my liberationist works I am reminded with each upper case letter how far I still need to go to claim my own liberation. The struggle, la lucha, continues, even in the letters of my name.

– Miguel A. De La Torre

One thought on “What’s in a Name?

  1. What’s in a Name? Does this mean all Christians, Jews, Moslems and all other Religions around the world are colonizing a culture, tribe and people. Christians have the Name of Christ, Jews the chosen people, etc. How small our individual names are compared to those Religion gives us. I remember being raised by nuns and there was no birthday celebration for me, only Namenstag, Name of a holy person similar to my name. Talking about stripping ones identity, I was asked when becoming a US citizen if I wanted to change my name. I did not, but it did not even register to me something like this was possible. More like an absurd question. If you strip me of all names, given or self given, then WHO AM I ?

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