Wednesday, March 25, 2015

A Telling Name

I am almost embarrassed to admit this, but there have been times when I have denied my birth name. As recently as this afternoon I referred to myself as Christina Morrow, deliberately leaving off my hyphenated maiden name because I wanted to get a call back from someone. It makes me angry to think that I live in a world where I get a feeling down my spine that tells me that I won't get the response I am looking for if the person I am communicating with knows I am Latina. This has been happening to me for years and up until I got married, I had no buffer from my very Latin surname. Yet, when I got married and had the chance to drop it for an Anglo last name, I could not imagine not having it.

Obviously, the only time I can get away with using my married name and not having the person guess my ethnicity is over the phone or email, because upon looking at me, I definitely don't look Anglo. Some people have told me that I am ambiguously brown, meaning I can pass for many ethnicities and combos thereof. Growing up, my skin color and heritage wasn't an issue until I got to high school. I attended an all-white school where my color, my neighborhood and my roots stuck out like a fly in milk. I was often asked to explain my background and some even argued with me that I was "mixed" rather than Latina. It made me very aware of skin shades and also very attuned to when it could potentially be an issue.

I live in the middle of Iowa. While it is a blue state, it has a lot of conservative values, many attached to negative stereotypes about people of color. The anti-immigrant sentiment has at times made me feel unsafe in certain situations, despite being a citizen. Those times have definitely made me wary of using my full last name. There was even a time when I visited a small town for work and someone flat out asked me, "You aren't one of those illegals are you? They seem to be everywhere these days." I informed that person that my ancestors became part of the U.S. in 1917 and that I was born in the United States. He gave a look that gave me the creeps and I quickly did what I needed to do and got the hell out of there. 

When looking for service providers, specifically in male dominated industries, I have found that when I use my hyphenated name I don't get calls back. When I use my married name I do. It has almost become a habit that if I am calling a stranger to conduct personal business, like a new doctor, contractors and mechanics I use Morrow, most times without considering otherwise. I caught myself doing it this afternoon and it stopped me in my tracks. It made me feel like a hypocrite because I love my Latina roots. I celebrate them as often as I can and I am trying to do the same for my daughter. I have committed countless hours to working in the Latino community and educate anyone who will listen on the positive contributions we have made locally and nationally. Yet, in the privacy of meeting my own needs, I hide it. It feels shameful and I don't like it.

I have white friends who have married Latinos and gladly taken on their surnames, proud to go from Smith to Lopez, like a badge of how open-minded and liberal they are. They practice rolling their R's when they go from Jones to Rodriguez and don't think twice about using their new name to let the world know they are a part of a multicultural union. They don't understand why I do the opposite. They don't know how it feels to wonder if your name could mean the difference between respect and human dignity, and painful discrimination. They have no idea what it feels like to have people look at you as though you don't belong, are not as valuable, can't possibly be as smart, and therefore easily dismissed. For all my education, awards and recognition, there are still times when a look from a stranger makes me doubt my own abilities, if only for a second, before it pisses me off and makes me work twice as hard to prove that I am more than their misguided perception of a brown woman. 

Don't take this the wrong way. This post is not an anti-white rant. It is a small part of my life that I happened to examine. The sad thing is, I doubt that I'm alone in exercising this life skill. I know there are others out there with ethnic names who change it up to get the response they know they deserve. Just ask Jose who became Joe to get a job. Studies have found that names elicit certain reactions in others. Most often, they are negative and trigger judgment calls about the person with the ethnic name. 

When thinking about using a pen name, this reality definitely rears its ugly head. I truly LOVE being Latina. But I can't help but wonder if writing under Fernández will mean that my books will only get displayed during Hispanic Heritage Month, or that I'll only be considered to speak at events that highlights my culture instead of my talent. Will my book(s) only make it to multicultural lists, or will they be seen as universal based on content? Will kids from all backgrounds have the opportunity to read about my characters or will they relegated to libraries that have significant Latino populations? The fact that I even have to wonder about this saddens and angers me. I have heard the stories from Latina authors about constantly being referred to as a Latina writer, rather than just a writer, as though being a Latina who is able to write makes them an anomaly. I wish that in 2015 this could be a topic of the past, but the truth is that it's just as pervasive today as ever before. And of course, it is not an issue limited to Latino surnames. When was the last time a white writer's ethnicity was stated in their bio or introduction? Why can't writers of color just be called writers?

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