What's in a Name?

Linda Chavez

10/30/2009 12:01:00 AM - Linda Chavez

It's a good thing Larry Whitten isn't in charge of the editorial page of this publication; otherwise, I might be forced to write under the name Pretty Keys -- which is how Linda Chavez roughly translates from (old) Spanish to English. Mr. Whitten is the owner of a Taos, N.M., hotel who decided one way to promote business in his new enterprise was to make hotel employees Anglicize their Spanish names. The story hit the newswires this week when angry former employees and their families set up picket lines across the street from the hotel.

Arguing with Idiots By Glenn Beck

Predictably, charges of racism ensued, followed by countercharges that Hispanics simply refuse to assimilate. In fact, Whitten may have had a right to do what he did -- so long as he'd make the same requirements of an employee named, say, Hermione or Ethelrod. But just because you have a legal right to do something doesn't mean it's the right thing to do.

My parents weren't thinking of passing on any ethnic heritage when they named me Linda. It was simply the most popular girl's name in 1947 and ranked in the top 10 from 1940-1965. But the popularity of babies' names does sometimes reflect changing demographics. In 1998, José moved to the top of the list of most common boys' names for the state of California, for example. But names also reflect a changing culture and the acceptance of what might, at one time, have seemed foreign.

In 2009, names like Aiden and Liam were among the most popular boys' names in the United States, as were Isabella, Chloe, and Sophia among girls. At an earlier point in American history, those names might have raised eyebrows, but not today. And the parents giving their babies those names may well be the descendants of Irish, Spanish, and Greek immigrants who didn't feel free to do the same for their own offspring.

A hundred years ago, it was not uncommon for immigrants to want their children to be recognizably American by giving them names more common in the U.S. than in the country of their ancestors. Antonio became Anthony and Giuseppe, Joseph. And sometimes the change took place in school, not on the birth certificate, and the choice was the child's, not the parents. Nor was it just immigrants who made the decision. My father, Rudy, whose family had lived in New Mexico for nearly 400 years, always gave his full name as Rudolph Frank Chavez. But his birth certificate clearly reads Rodolfo Enrique -- which means Henry, not Frank as he apparently preferred.

We've become a very tolerant society, in which we don't judge people by their names any more than by the color of their skin. Assimilation still requires some accommodation by the newcomers -- learning English, first and foremost -- as it should. But it doesn't mean entirely giving up some attachment and affection for one's origins, even distant ones.

It's one thing for an employer to insist his staff speak English on the job (which Whitten did as well) and quite another for him to require a Marcos to become Mark or tell a Martìn (Mahr-TEEN) to pronounce his name with the accent on the first syllable or else. The former represents an obvious business advantage; it allows customers to understand what is being said in their presence and supervisors to know that employees are not being insubordinate. But the latter just seems insulting, to both employees and customers, who are presumed be too bigoted to accept Spanish names.

And the irony couldn't be more acute, given the venue. Whitten's hotel is located on Paseo del Pueblo in Taos at the foot of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. I suppose if Whitten had his way, he'd Anglicize all those names as well -- though no doubt the separation-of-church-and-state fanatics would have a field day if New Mexico chose the Blood of Christ as the new name for its spectacular mountain range.

Whitten has a record of turning around distressed hotel properties in several states, so he must be a savvy businessman. But in the state of New Mexico - -where Chavezes outnumber Whittens or Smiths, for that matter, and have been there a lot longer -- he'd be wise to turn around his attitude if he hopes to make money.