Perhaps it’s just because I’m 30 weeks pregnant, but there seem to be articles about choosing the right baby name everywhere. Wait But Why’s exhaustive “How to Name a Baby” made the rounds recently, for example, inspiring anxiety in people who named their daughter Sophia and/or hitting all the wrong buttons for those whose parents had made the unknown mistep of naming them Jennifer in the 1970s. And then there was this gem, which, as the title suggests, is a personal account of “How Not to Name Your Baby.” The author, Tania Lombrozo, offers her story of using crowd-sourcing (no, really) and data to help her find a name for her daughter.
My generation has an unprecedented number of baby-naming tools at our disposal. But rather than make the whole thing easier, it would seem to indicate (or inspire) an unprecedented amount of anxiety about the practice. In addition to asking our family what they think, we can now ask everyone else too. Sites like BabyNames.com will actually allow you to see photos of people who have the baby name you are considering. And then we can ask ourselves questions like “Does that woman look like a Sarah?” The opportunities for judgment here are essentially endless. But judgement is especially encouraged on the websites we where can rate names. Such sites allow us not only to listen to a stranger tell us what they think of “Violet Petunia,” but also register all the judgment we want on their ridiculous choice of “Joaquin Blue.”
Of course, this is not a new predicament. What we name a child has always said something about us and our vision for this new baby. It is only natural for our hopes and expectations to be bound up in this first “very important decision” we make about our progeny. While my generation may have come up with some fresh complications in this arena, my own family’s journey in naming a baby has had little to do with the Internet’s opinions and more to do with a family secret.
Now I know you’ll keep reading.
Over the past year my mother and I have discovered that our family’s claim to be humble, Louisiana, white folks is simply untrue. Somewhere along my great-grandmother’s generation the decision was made to hide that fact that our family has been Spanish for generations. At this point, it is safe to say that our lineage would be considered culturally Mexican. We come from a little town in Louisiana called Zwolle, and my basic knowledge of the place is that people know it as a “Mexican” town–and have for many generations. We, somehow, convinced each other that we were the only white folks from around there. This is sad, bizarre, and hilarious. At least to my modern sensibilities.
Now, I could tell you many things about this discovery. It explains my grandmother, mother, and now my inexplicable affinity for Southwestern décor. It explains some of the food we eat. It even explains the need to have our family reunion at a place the old folks called “Sammy Gill Park.” Years later we would come to realize that the area was in fact called San Miguel Park. Seriously, we always called it Sammy Gill.
Yet, what has become pertinent to my life right now is what this hiding did to the names in my family. For generations we had women named Candelaria, Maria, and Polita. In a single generation those names became Ethel, Emma, and Betty. And not to be overlooked, there was the Ygnacia del Rio who would later be known as simply “Nancy Rivers.” Obviously, this sort of discovery leads to more questions than answers. We will never know why this major part of our family identity was swept under the turquoise colored, chili-pepper themed rug. I spent enough time as a Southern Studies major at The University of Mississippi to know that there were plenty of reasons that people in the South claimed lily whiteness, e.g. it was safer and provided more opportunities. But I cannot speak to exactly why lineage was disguised in our case; I can only tell you how it has changed me.
When it came to naming our daughter we knew we wanted to choose a name from this previously concealed line. Blessedly, a name we have always loved was staring at us right there in my Latino family tree (you’ll have to wait a couple months for the big reveal – the due date is, I kid you not, May 5th). I’m probably putting some undue weight on a baby name, but I wanted to give her something that speaks to overcoming our ancestral shame about what was deemed appropriate to name a child. I wanted us to accept ourselves again, even if it is two or three generations later, or you might say, to reclaim the acceptance we felt we needed to deny ourselves.
We talk a great deal at Mbird about the freedom to be honest about ourselves: our history, our secrets, our sins and our redemption. Which means this family history is a gift. To me at least, her name is not just something we’ll call her; it’s a prayer that her life might be marked by the grace we are finally and proudly able to claim.