Jesus, Mary-Joseph, and Marco Polo: The Name Game

18 Oct

I’d already taught several Michael Angelos and Julius Caesars when Marco Polo appeared on my roster. Thanks to that silly tag game kids play in the pool, I pretty much had to bite my tongue to keep from giggling every time I took attendance. At least my Miguel Angels and Julio Cesars mostly go by just Miguel or just Julio, but Marco Polo wanted me to use his first and middle name, the whole Marco Polo shebang. The worst part is that I don’t even think there’s anything wrong with his name- I just can’t help but picture a kid in a pool with his eyes closed calling out Marco! while the other kids flee and yell Polo! (Sometimes it’s a struggle to buck up and act like a grown up at work.)

In case you hadn’t figured it out from the whole people-from-Mexico-named-Jesus* thing, naming your kid after somebody famous is a really popular phenomenon here. If it can be somebody famous and religious, all the better. I’m particularly fond of Maria José for a girl, or José Maria for a boy; I’m impressed by people’s ability to give their kid an opposite sex middle name for the sake of the holy couple.

Also for the sake of the Catholic faith (or maybe a lack of inspiration back when folks had 10 kids), people used to have “calendar names”- they’d name their child whatever saint was designated for that day. People still sometimes say it’s your “saint’s day” instead of your birthday, because every day of the year has a saint for it. And lemme tell you, some of those saint names are kind of awful-sounding. Names like Filemon and Onofre (Sorry if this is your name, dear reader). My mother in law told me that once she complained to her mother that she didn’t like the name Paulina, and her mom told her, “Well, I could have named you Pánfila instead.” Paulina says she learned to like her name after that.

People also love creative and unique names. Granted, there are names that I originally thought were unique, invented names but which are actually traditional indigenous names (like Shunashi, a Zapotec name). Conan’s grandmother was named Godeleva, which sounds harsh to my ears, but I hear she loved it because no one else had her name. Conan’s parents, unfamiliar with all things Irish, thought they were giving their son a unique name, slightly changing the spelling and pronunciation of the biblical place Canaan (stress on the Nan, not the Co). There are names like Inedit, Esdras, Gamaliel. To me, the coolest part about new and unique names is that they’re more or less easy to pronounce, thanks to Spanish being totally phonetic. Sure, Maydelith looks a bit tricky, but once you wrap your head around it, it’s not bad. Because of this, I’m a little bit baffled when people tell us that Khalil is a difficult name. True, it is not a common name around here, but it is completely phonetic- it totally follows Spanish pronunciation of letters. The upside is that people are used to unique names, so nobody makes a big deal out of it once we say it a couple times.

Of course, there are also names borrowed from the U.S., usually with a slightly different pronunciation. Like Edith is pronounced eh-deet, accent on the deet. Conan always giggles about super Mexican-gringo combos like Brittany Guadalupe. I like it when they change the spelling to match the pronunciation, like changing Michael to Maikal.

But is naming your kid Rambo taking it too far with the famous people thing? Are there names that are just a bit too creative? Who gets to decide? I think names are, in part, an intimate part of family life, as well as a reflection and expression of culture. As such, I don’t think anybody has the right to decide what you, the parents, can name your child. Sure, I may giggle about names like Marco Polo for a second because, well, I’m giggly and immature some of the time. But I don’t think there’s anything wrong with the name, and perhaps in Mexico people learn enough world history to know who he was and not just have a kid’s game named for him.

Furthermore, it’s quite a slippery slope when government intervenes in what people can name their kids. Researching this, for example, I learned that in Germany it’s prohibited to give your kid sex-neutral names.** That seems a bit sad and excessive to me.

But names are also a part of public life, and unfortunately, discrimination based on names exists. While I’m against doing so, part of me understands wanting to restrict some names when it can cause so much grief for a kid, even into adulthood. I mean, it’s one thing if people give you a hard time because you have an indigenous name; that’s ignorance on the part of folks making fun of you or discriminating against you, but at least you’ve got a good name and were named that for a reason. But what if you suffer your whole life for what seems like a needless cause- like getting named Escroto (Scrotum, in English- and yes this is a registered name in Oaxaca). Is there any potential reason for that to be your name, besides parental cruelty?

During Conan’s very brief stint as a schoolteacher, he had a student named Cesarea, which is the word for a C-section. Conan has always wondered, did the doctor tell them, “well, it’s gonna be a Cesarean,” and the family understood that as the doctor deciding her name? Was it just an attempt to make a female version of Cesar? What are parents thinking when they name their kid Facebook or Hitler? I almost died laughing at this list of prohibited names in the Mexican state of Sonora: http://www.latintimes.com/baby-names-banned-mexico-facebook-harry-potter-terminator-make-list-prohibited-names-sonora-153487. (Cesarea made the list.) Then I realized that most, if not all of these, were on this list because someone named their kid that. Circuncisión (Circumcision), for example. Terminator. It’s worth clicking on. But there are some on the list whose prohibition I don’t get. Harry Potter? I mean, at least he’s a cool character from a really awesome series of books. What wrong with that? And Cheyenne? That’s a beautiful name. So we’re back to the slippery slope situation.

In Oaxaca, they’ve decided not to ban names. Instead, the folks at the Civil Registry are supposed to “counsel” parents when they come in to register their kids. If it seems to be an odd name, they ask what it means to the parents or why they want to name their kid that. Maybe it’s a good enough compromise. Meanwhile, I’m two weeks in to a new academic semester and I’ve learned the names of all 90 of my students, AND managed to act like a grown up and not giggle once- well, not about anybody’s name. Go me!

*Jesus is pronounced more like hey-zeus than anything, which also makes me giggle occasionally, because apparently I am secretly still about 8 years old in maturity / humor. Also, people named Jesus mostly get the nickname Chuy (pronounced like Chewy) or Chucho (choo-choh, like a chu chu train except oh on the second syllable. FYI.

**from this article- an interesting read http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/04/24/banned-baby-names_n_5134075.html

4 Responses to “Jesus, Mary-Joseph, and Marco Polo: The Name Game”

  1. Jan Boyd October 18, 2015 at 4:42 pm #

    Julia, I was born on Mary Magdalene’s feast day. I can only imagine what having that name would be like! 🙂

    • exiletomexico October 19, 2015 at 8:30 am #

      But you could always have ended up with a fun nickname anyway- Maggie or something. But yeah, I hear you- I’m glad and relieved I got Julia, too. ; )

  2. Lee October 19, 2015 at 10:00 am #

    I kept chuckling about poor Marco Polo all night long! I have the same mental image when I hear it. Most Spanish names are in my opinion easy to pronounce but there are a few notable exceptions–Xiochitl springs to mind as we had a resident with that name for years and I was the only one who could say it. And can I just say I love the way Zoila Rosa sounds when you say it out loud!

    • exiletomexico October 19, 2015 at 5:10 pm #

      I know! There are some cool names on the banned list, for sure! And yes on pronunciation. Funny how the X can make different sounds, too- more like a jota sound sometimes and more like a z sometimes… It was really interesting to me to read about banned names in other countries, too, for some perspective.

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