Identity without erasure?
May 4, 2015 12:26 PM   Subscribe

I'm planning to change my name, but I'm a little uncomfortable with removing the clear marker of latina identity that my surname provided in the past. How do I still represent my Mexican heritage and avoiding unintended erasure of ethnicity, as a white-passing individual?

I'm a trans woman and started my social transition about six months ago, in the fall of 2014. Growing up, I've had my father's last name, which is a generic Hispanic name (he's Mexican and grew up in the borderlands of Texas). In 2013, I started casually using my mother's maiden name (with British heritage) as a middle name. I was close with my maternal grandparents (both of whom have passed) and several aunts and cousins, some of whom still have this surname. In contrast, while I've gotten to know some of my Mexican cousins and consider them lovely people, we grew up estranged from them (due to my father moving north and trying to erase this part of himself), and I've only met them three or four times in my life. My father is definitively a fair-skinned Mexican fella, whereas I am very white-passing with perhaps some latina features. In 2014, I started using my new given name along with my mother's maiden name still as middle name and my father's surname. While I like this okay, it doesn't feel great, especially having my father's name still there. Also it just so happens I have the first and last name of a famous actress, which is also okay but can attract unwanted attention (though some pretty hilarious interactions too.)

So unequivocally, I'm going to stop using my father's last name as my last name and use my mother's family's name. Really excited about this. The issue I'm running into is how to go about the middle name. I was thinking for a time that it would be nice to somehow use a Mexican name in here -- but every name I've tried out feels forced and inauthentic. My mother recently shared with me the name she would have given me (first and middle) if I had been assigned female at birth, and it actually sounds really lovely when paired with my first and last name. This would give me two middle names, which is kind of silly but rad too! So the names would go: [first name I've chosen] [name mother chose which is also my aunt's middle name] [middle name my mother had chosen which I also really like] [maternal family surname]. It's musical, it makes me feel happy. I like this setup.

Except this means my Mexican identity won't really be expressed in any part of my name. I struggle with erasure a ton already -- as I said, I'm white passing. I didn't grow up with strong family or cultural ties, and so my surname always gave me a kind of anchor which I appreciated. I know that lots of Mexican and latina folks have fairly white-sounding names. I also am kind of hoping my longer-than-usual full name might sort of evoke the hispanic naming convention of having lots of names, which I like. I know I could throw my father's surname back into my middle name somewhere, but this ends up sounding pretty choppy and I'm kind of over it, to be honest. There's one other surname that's Spanish-sounding that I would consider using, perhaps as a middle name, but I'm already becoming attached to this musicality of my four-part name.

What are your thoughts? Are my fears of erasure legitimate? Should I continue trying to think through some kind of compromise that involves adding a more Mexican name somewhere within my full name, or should I accept the pretty name that I've found and pursue that sense of Mexican identity elsewhere? It would be great to hear from folks who have had any aspect of this experience in the past, especially white-passing folks of color who struggle with erasure. Thank you!
posted by elephantsvanish to Human Relations (17 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
You can just used a hyphenated last name. ex: Jane Marie Barber-Smith.

That way you can keep both your mom's name and add a mexican one too. The only issue will be if you get married and want to add their name to yours. You can't hyphenate 3 times. So you'll have to change your name again. Either by dropping yours entirely or by dropping one of the names and attaching theirs.
posted by manderin at 12:41 PM on May 4, 2015

I can't offer any specific insight as I don't tick any of the above boxes, but it may be helpful to do a bit of research on the vast number of famous people in the entertainment business who have changed their names and obscured their ethnicity.
posted by Klaxon Aoooogah at 12:42 PM on May 4, 2015

I don't fall into your ideal respondent categories, but an idea that struck me reading your question was to maybe latinize one of the names your mother chose? Say it's Charlotte, you could make it Carlotta (of course that won't work with all names).
posted by ClarissaWAM at 12:44 PM on May 4, 2015

Check your mefi mailbox.
posted by jquinby at 12:45 PM on May 4, 2015

Best answer: If you've found a combination of names that make you happy and, most importantly, resonate in you as yours, I'd take the "accept the pretty name that I've found and pursue that sense of Mexican identity elsewhere" route. Name is not the only signifier of origins and ancestry.

I have a more ethnic/non-white ancestry and name than my very white appearance would indicate. Even having the more ethnic name there doesn't override that I'm read by most people as very white. It's almost like people assume that I got the name by accident? Interestingly, the people who don't read me as 100% white (so far, they've all been POC themselves) don't ask me about my family background because of my name, they pick up on some of the features I have that they recognize as not-quite-white.

Find parts of your Mexican heritage that feel like home to you. Integrate those into your life in a way that feels authentic to you. Name isn't the only way to retain that link. And, I think it's absolutely wonderful how your current name choices are a blend of you asserting your own true identity as well as being given the names that your mother chose for you before your were born. That's a very special thing.
posted by quince at 12:51 PM on May 4, 2015 [13 favorites]

Intent matters. You're not doing this to erase part of yourself; you're doing it to embrace your whole self. You have this Internet stranger's permission to do what makes you happy.
posted by sockermom at 12:57 PM on May 4, 2015 [3 favorites]

What about a modified (maybe shorter, if it's long?) version of your father's surname, for a middle name? Or, did he have an affectionate nickname for you that might fit the bill, either as it is or with some minor change? Your particular name has a specific resonance - you've lived with those syllables all your life, and they're connected to particular memories of your experience of your family and your own history. I think grounding your new name in something familiar - in sounds you've worn, in some way - might feel more right than ones you discover by looking outward for a link to a generic ethnic identity.
posted by cotton dress sock at 12:58 PM on May 4, 2015

Best answer: I'm part Irish, part German, part Cherokee. My maiden name was Irish. My married name is an Anglicized French name that everyone misspells/misunderstands because of it being Anglicized French. My mother did not want to teach me German growing up, waving me off with "It's not like you live there." and, so, I moved to Germany for a while in my twenties. I spent much of my life feeling estranged from my family history and culturally orphaned. Living in Germany and meeting more of my German relatives helped me get over that.

Also, for various reasons, I stopped using my first name and began going by my middle name some years ago, but recently I have found myself registering online accounts (reward accounts or social accounts) with my first name and when I changed banks I forgot to make sure both first and middle name were fully spelled out on my debit card. So, after years of struggling with whether or not to legally change my name, how to get everyone to call me by my middle name, etc, I am finding I care a lot less about that and my first name is coming back into more use without me particularly planning it that way.

Based on my experiences, I will suggest that if you can spend some time in Mexico and maybe visit some of your relatives, that may help you make your peace with this. I will also suggest that you can use your white-passing status as a means to sometimes remind folks that not everything is as it seems. Opportunities will arise where you can let folks know you are actually Latina and it can be very satisfying to do that as a means to push back against people being unthinkingly racist.

In short, I would just go with the four names that sound so good to your ear and use other tactics to affirm your ethnic identity and take a stand for multiculturalism and so on.
Rita Hayworth
born Margarita Carmen Cansino...Her father was from Spain. Her mother, Volga Hayworth, was an American of Irish-English descent ..
In short, she eventually began going by her mother's maiden name and dyed her hair in order to broaden her opportunities in film. You could read up a bit on that and compare yourself to Rita Hayworth when the issue comes up -- "Yup, like Rita Hayworth, I gave up my father's Latino surname and began using my mother's anglo name and blah blah blah." It is always nice to remind people that some famous "white" stars were really white-passing.
posted by Michele in California at 1:00 PM on May 4, 2015 [2 favorites]

Best answer: My full given name has six parts -- a first name and its "ethnic" variant, a middle name and its "ethnic" variant, a vaguely ethnic last name (my mother's) as a second middle name, and a blatantly Anglo last name. The ethnic versions are difficult for English speakers to pronounce. I like all of my names, but they represent very different things. For a variety of reasons, it is sometimes dangerous to use the ethnic names.

So, I think of each of my names as a building block -- I construct a name out of the pieces that fit the context and my instincts. Is it possible that you could do something similar? This may not ease your (very legitimate) concerns about erasure, but you get to choose which names are "in the mix" so to speak, and could perhaps add an "ethnic" variant for one of the names you've already chosen, and use it selectively.

At various times in my life, I have used the following names:

Anglofirstname Anglolastname (good for job applications)

Anglofirstname Anglo1stmiddlename Ethnic2ndmiddlename Anglolastname (my legal name, which I don't use because of privacy concerns)

Anglofirstname Ethnicsecondmiddlename Anglolastname (It's important to me to honor my mother's last name in my name, so I use this whenever possible)

Ethnicfirstname Ethnic1stmiddlename (how I'm known in religious community)

Ethnicfirstname Mom's2ndmiddlename (I use this with specific ethnic communities)

Anglofirstname Ethnic1stmiddlename (facebook name)

Good luck! Realizing that I could tell people that my name was whatever I wanted and they would use that forever was a really liberating moment.
posted by femmegrrr at 1:12 PM on May 4, 2015 [3 favorites]

posted by feral_goldfish at 1:32 PM on May 4, 2015

Do you know your father's mother's maiden name? You could consider adding that; maybe it wouldn't have the connotations for you that your previous name had.

(We have a lot of similarities! I do kind of regret having changed my last name to something very Anglo, since I pass for white and I do feel that side of me gets erased easily. I kept the Hispanic surname as a middle name.)
posted by fiercecupcake at 1:43 PM on May 4, 2015 [2 favorites]

Would you feel comfortable switching to the Spanish naming convention, with paternal last name maternal last name? Or perhaps even using your paternal grandmother's name if you want to fully divorce from your father, but not his heritage.

I struggle with Hispanic erasure a lot. Jokingly, I refer to myself as Secret Mexican, to the tune of Secret Agent Man. And I'm pretty open about my family history as a way of keeping my heritage. I have a hankering for tamales because my great grandmother would make them every christmas, not just because tamales are delicious.

I also try to be equally honest that I've always been perceived as white. Mostly because I've gotten pushback from POC who perceive I'm trying to co-opt their experience of racism. I can't understand what it's like. Growing up with stories of the discrimination my mother and her side of the family is more personal than most white folks, but it's still a long way from actually experiencing that discrimination.

But I can bring awareness to the fact that society brands me as white because they want the power to define others as not white. Reminding people how irrational the definition of white is is always important.
posted by politikitty at 1:49 PM on May 4, 2015 [1 favorite]

From reading your question it seems as if your Mexican identity resides mostly in the name, since neither you nor your father "look mexican" or stayed in touch with the mexican side of the family. If that's the case, then well, I think trying to keep something mexican in your name but not in your life is a bit like me trying to keep my size 4 (pre-babies) pants in my closet. They're never going to fit again, but in my head I used to be a size 4 so I feel like it's part of who I am (was), yet no one gets to see it anymore.
...not sure where I was going with this but my point is, if the only mexican left in you was your name, let it go. If there's something else that you identify with (for example the food, history, Christmas traditions, etc.), embrace it and try to make it part of your life. And enjoy your new name.
posted by CrazyLemonade at 3:37 PM on May 4, 2015

You can always go by different names in different situations. I use my great grandmother's Chinese surname when I speak Chinese, for example. It's like my Chinese nickname, but it honors a part of my ancestry. So, you could have a Spanish "variant" of your name you could use as a nickname.
posted by chainsofreedom at 3:42 PM on May 4, 2015

Response by poster: Ahh what insightful answers! They really helped clarify for me what felt right -- in this case, I am going to follow my instincts and go with [my chosen name] [mother's chosen first] [mother's chosen middle] [maternal family surname].

I do feel a scattering of significant connections to Mexican culture -- absolutely the food, but also an appreciation for the generosity and spirit of my uncles and aunts and cousins (when the hosted me in Texas, and when we interact on social media), an affinity for Mexican writing and music -- and I think that's where I need to follow up and build, rather than trying to make a name do the heavy lifting. I appreciate the framework that some of you have helped sketch out for moving beyond this narrative of "yes I pass and yes I have sidestepped discrimination and other societal BS and I'm just not sure how I embody POC-ness if at all?" and instead be like "hey this is this unique position I've had in society, here's my excitement to learn about x, here's where I can sit back and learn from other folks in the same situation." That dovetails nicely with this broader moment of identity exploration and transition that I'm going through. So, cool, thank you!
posted by elephantsvanish at 10:02 PM on May 4, 2015 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I'm a white Puerto Rican with an anglo name and not much of an accent. I can pass till the cows come home.

Growing up in Puerto Rico, it was kind of weird having a name that was 0% in Spanish, but there wasn't much of an identity issue because I was at home. But living here in the States, I definitely struggled with erasure. I felt almost guilty, like I was actively trying to pass when it really took no effort on my part.

In the years I've been here I've looked for other ways to assert my background and bring it forward. I make sure to observe traditions from home. I speak in Spanish anywhere I can, even if it's something simple like saying "gracias" to someone I know speaks the language. I have a son and I'm working hard to teach him Spanish and all about Puerto Rico. Random people walking down the street won't be likely to describe me as a latina woman if asked, but that's not within my control. How I maintain my ties to home is, and in reading your question it made me realize that not having that link in my name has probably made me work harder to maintain them. I'm glad you're picking the name that makes your happy, because as important as cultural ties are, they're not the whole story.

"yes I pass and yes I have sidestepped discrimination and other societal BS...."

This is definitely a thing with me, one that really hit home when I moved stateside. I find that there aren't a lot of people who acknowledge or even understand the double-whammy of privilege that comes with being a latin@ who passes. It's definitely tricky to navigate, but being aware of it in the first place is a big first step.

Best of luck! :)
posted by DrGirlfriend at 10:52 PM on May 4, 2015

Best answer: I grew up in a niche subculture of German-American-Military families in Columbus, Georgia. I was in my 30s before I understood why I seem to have so much trouble getting along with White Middle Class Americans when I am white, was middle class most of my life and am definitely American. Because I have no foreign accent and do not look ethnic, the fact that I am really a Third Culture Kid gets me into all kinds of hot water. I do not have enough Cherokee blood for anyone of color to ID me as a Person of Color. I am ever so white, and yet in spite of being white and middle class for most of my life and American, I am not culturally White Middle Class American and it causes substantial friction and misunderstanding. In fact, I tend to get along better with Hispanic Americans, immigrants and Third Culture Kids than I do White Middle Class Americans.

This has made me acutely aware of a deeper level of mental bias and assumption than just the one about skin color or obvious otherness. That sometimes puts me in an excellent position to question and take a stand against subtler forms of bias that seem to go unnoticed by most people. No, I am not a person of color because I am mostly Irish-German -- though my mother is olive skinned and a sun worshipper and her skin color is not terribly different from that of some light skinned blacks, but I inherited my father's Irish complexion and for most of my life was incapable of tanning -- I was ever so porcelain white. That, too, has been food for thought with regards to the fact that all this talk of "people of color" is really about ethnicity, not skin color per se, and really about mental models about who people are that has nothing to do with skin color per se.

It was a pain to deal with when I was younger, but I have come to appreciate the value in those experiences and I find myself liking my odd-man-out-no-matter-the-group position. It has inoculated me against a certain mental laziness and prevented me from making some of the kinds of assumptions that people are talking about when they say things like "institutionalized racism." I have been forced to set a higher standard because I am just not in a position to make lazy assumptions. And I am very okay with that at this point in my life.

Best of luck.
posted by Michele in California at 10:24 AM on May 5, 2015 [1 favorite]

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