My son surprised me this week by telling me that he would like to change his name to something “not Spanish” in order to “avoid discrimination later in life.”I had very mixed feelings about this proclamation from my ten-year-old.
On the one hand, I’m aware—very aware—of the numerous studies out, clearly demonstrating the truth of what my son said. Employers, loan officers, educational institutions and, let’s face it, the book-buying public are all stuffed to overflowing with people who will, in fact, make instant decisions about a person’s qualifications and worth based on nothing but a name.
SE HABLA ENGLISH
Indeed, I have on more than one occasion been on the receiving end of such insanity. Take, for example, the Tempe, Arizona, bookstore manager, who asked me in too-loud English whether I would be able to address the crowd that had shown up for my book signing in that language. English is my native (and by most measures, only) language, and the one I wrote the book in question in. Nonetheless, this woman who lives in a state with a Spanish name could not believe that a woman with a Spanish name was as American as she was.
There had also once been the “small” matter of having been overcharged by a couple of percentage points in interest on my home mortgage when I lived in Arizona, for no reason but my last name; I wasn’t aware of this until I was asked to join a class-action lawsuit against the lender, who had done likewise to tens of thousands of homeowners whose names sounded Spanish to them. People who had the same credit rating as I did, but lacked a Spanish name, had gotten better deals from this same lender.
I’d also gotten, throughout my career as a writer, many emails from anonymous psychopaths, telling me to “go back to Mexico,” in spite of my Spanish name having come from Cuba. (For the record, I enjoyed my vacation in Mexico, and would be more than happy to “go back” if these kind emailers wish to pay for my next trip to Mazatlan.)
There are countless other examples, and I’m sure lots of you reading this have your own stories along these crooked lines.
Nonetheless, I was sad for my son. Sad that he lived in a world where such ideas occurred to little boys at all.
I told my boyfriend, The Cowboy, about what Alexander had said about changing his name. The Cowboy has an English surname, in spite of his being an American of mostly German and (a little) Swedish heritage. (His last name came from his stepfather.) I didn’t know what to expect by way of reaction, but, as always, I got The Cowboy’s unbridled and honest opinion of why my child had come to such a conclusion.
“This is because of you,” he said.
“What do you mean?” I answered, miffed as I so often am when The Cowboy confronts me with a mirror I’m not ready to look into.
“You talk about this stuff in front of him, and with him.”
“Yes,” I said. “I do. I don’t see any reason to sugarcoat the reality of our society for him. He has to be prepared.”
BOYS SHOULD BE BOYS
The Cowboy thought about this for a moment, then replied. “He’s a little boy, sweetheart. You’re throwing adult concepts at him. He’s not mature enough yet to deal with this, and you’re not doing him any favors by telling him about it.”
“He needs to know.”
“No,” said The Cowboy. “He needs to be allowed this short, precious time to be a little boy. Let him develop a strong sense of self as a person before telling him about these supposed differences. You’ll help him the most by just treating him like a kid, not a ‘Hispanic’ kid. Teach him to be the best person he can be, and he’ll be prepared for those fights when the time comes, because the better he feels about himself as he is, with the name he has, the less sense the prejudice will make to him when he has to deal with it.”
“You might be right,” I said, suddenly realizing that my parents had done exactly what The Cowboy described. I was not aware of being “different” or “a minority” at all, until I got to college and was told I was. It didn’t make sense to me then, and it still doesn’t make sense to me today.
“Frankly, darlin’,” The Cowboy continued, “with the pace the Hispanic population is growing, and given that we live in New Mexico, it might actually be to Alex’s advantage to have a Spanish name. By the time he’s a grownup, people with names like his will be the majority in a lot of places.”
So, another lesson learned. The best thing I can do as a mom to a boy with a Spanish surname is just treat him like a little boy, and not internalize the external discrimination to the point that he starts, as he has, to dislike his own name.
What do you moms out there think? How do you handle this stuff?