Naming names

The emotional complexity of that cultural changeover means that parents don’t just switch from Latin names to English ones in a single go. Rather, says Jasso, they may pass through a three-stage process, “with bilingual names becoming popular for a while. Those are names like Hector and Daniel for boys and Sandra and Cecilia for girls.” [Time Magazine, Adios Juan and Juanita: Latin names trend down]

When my parents, Carlos and Luz, chose baby names, they picked names that would sound good in English and Spanish. It made sense to them. They were born in Mexico, but emigrated as school-age children. Although they are fluent in their native and adopted tongues, their parents barely spoke English. Thus, they avoided names that would be mangled by their parents and chose Daniel (well, Grandma chose that name), Cynthia, Laura and Adrian.

I like their approach. I’m not sure mom and dad saw themselves in some sort of “cultural changeover,” but their names as well as the names they chose for their children fit into the three-stage process.

As I read Jeffrey Kluger’s article on Latino names trending downward I wondered about the general premise: distinctly Latino names are dying out as the percentage of foreign born Latinos diminishes and those who are here become more assimilated. Kluger cites data from the Social Security Administration on changes in popularity for baby names.

He has a point. I know few people with old-school names like Refugio, Bartolo (my grandpa!), Antonia (that would be my Mamá Toní) and Herminia in my parents’ generation, let alone in my generation. I’m sure those names are becoming less and less popular in Mexico just as names like Edith, Gertrude and Charles become less popular in the US.

I doubt his claim that the rise in names like Sandra and Daniel (which has been popular since the 70s, the earliest I checked) comes from Latino parents seeking bilingual names for their babies. There’s no evidence that all these Sandras, Daniels and Cecilias were born to Latino parents (or parent).

Moreover, Kluger ignores the rising rates of intermarriage between Latinos and non-Latinos (another measure of assimilation). Could this make a difference in naming? Of course. In my family, cousins who married non-Mexicans chose non-Spanish names for their children. Also, we don’t know which Latinos are choosing Anglicized names. Is there a difference between native-born and foreign-born Latinos? And if so, what is it?

I don’t have the data to answer these questions. Instead, I checked the popularity of names for newborns in 2008 in states with larger numbers of Mexicans (there I go being Mexican-centric) on the Social Security Administration website.

In California, Texas, Arizona, and New Mexico bilingual boys’ names are very popular (e.g., Daniel is consistently in the top 5, as is Angel). There were several Latino names in the top 100 for boys born in 2008. In California, names like Luis, Juan, Ricardo, and Jorge were more popular than their English counterparts. Other Latino names, such as Alejandro (51) and Miguel (44), were much less popular than Alexander (6) and Michael (14), respectively. And then there is José, the top boys’ name in Texas, #8 in Arizona and #10 in Calfornia. In case you’re wondering, it’s more popular than Joseph in each of these states.

Of course, I checked out the popular girls’ names in these states. Kluger’s argument makes a lot more sense if you consider girls. In the top 100 names, it was much more difficult to find the Latino names except in obvious cases like María. Bilingual names were more popular than more traditional Latino names and fit the “three-stage” process. In California Sophia/Sofia (3/17), Olivia (11), Valeria (14), Victoria (20), Andrea (21) and Camila (22) were all more popular than María (42).

I don’t know what this means. Why do boys names like José, Jesús, Juan, and Manuel continue to be popular (all in the top 100)? Why are girls’ names less Latino, more bilingual in nature (e.g. Isabel, Natalia, and Angelina). Could it do with the common practice of naming boys after their fathers? Maybe. Or maybe not.

I can just imagine the family of kids named Jesús, Manuel, Ashley and Emily born to a José y María. I’m sure they’re out there. And they’ll come up with a whole new slew of nicknames.


17 thoughts on “Naming names

  1. I definitely fit the profile. When discussing baby names, my only rule was that the name be bilingual – no hardcore white names nor hardcore Spanish names. Actually, we originally wanted to go with Benicio, but my dad thought it sounded like a girls name and kept making fun of it. So we changed.

    I thought of naming my boy a jr…but I’m already a Jr and have a brother a Jr as well. Too many Ponchos in the family already. 🙂

  2. We are one of those mixed Latino families. (PR Dad is pretty much a gringo / new Mexican) When it came to naming the baby I just wanted something that would sound nice in English and in Spanish. I gave PR Dad my requirement and he came up with Sophia. I rallied for the spelling Sofia, but he thought the “ph” looked nicer. The name does sound nice in English and Spanish. But then she was born and like 2 days later we started calling her The Phi and that has stuck. And The Phi is strange in both English and Spanish.

    Oh and my Nana’s name is Refugio and she goes by Ruth by the very few people who do not call her Nana

  3. I’m determined to give my future spawn names that fit both Chican@ and hippy nomenclature standards. I think my parents did a pretty good job with Rio but now I’m tasked with following it up with something better. Either way, my future Central-American in-laws will be scratching their heads at names like Moonbeam or Luna-Bella. Any suggestions?

  4. Good topic. My theory about male names in Spanish being passed down like Jose, Jesus, Juan, Manuel, Miguel, etc. is that its done precisely because the child is male. Many Mexicans fathers name their first born son after themselves, and I think that tradition is hard to get rid of because of the Male Ego.

    When my son was born, my Mexican-born wife wanted to name him after me in Spanish (I have a Spanish name). I refused because I wanted the child to have his own identity. The compromise was to name him with my name, but in English. This way his name is very similar to mine, but he has his own identity.

    Its now 14 months after he was born, and to be honest, sometimes I regret that I did not name him after me in Spanish. Its my Male Ego!

  5. I would also add, to support my theory, that many Mexican fathers that I meet or talk to always ask me why I did not name my first born son with the exact same name as me.

  6. Both of my parents are from Mexico and have very hispanic names: Benito Rogelio and Maria del Rosario. When they named my sisters and I they gave no thought as to which names would sound good in english. They just picked what they liked and that was that.

    My sisters names are Enedina (named after our paternal grandma) and Monica and my name is Itsa. Monica got off easy, and my sister Enedina goes by “Ennie” so hers is pretty simple too. But Itsa, wow, the amount of gringos who have a hard time with my name is almost hysterical! I really like my name, even if it is hard to figure out. 🙂

  7. Tania Ruiz says:

    I am American born and I made the choice to give my children Spanish names to ensure our heritage is not forgotten. Although they all go by american sounding nicknames outside of home, I relish the opportunity to call them by their first and middle names!

  8. TacoSam,

    I sometimes feel the same way. I could tell it hurt my dad a little also. Sometimes I think I should have named atleast the first born male my name…but alas, I chose a different direction and even if we have a second one, the opportunity has passed.

  9. -k- says:

    PRM, I’m adding you to the list.. I’ve become convinced that for parents looking for that Spanish-English compatibility, Sofia is the go-to name for girls. It was the name I carried around in my head.. and the same goes for three of my closest friends, all Spanish-English bilinguals, none of whom are friends with one another. (My best friend beat me to the punch before I met her, though, so back to the drawing board..) Daniel was on my short list for boys (it’s also my dad’s name). I’d question the article’s claim about that being attributable to people looking for bilingual names, as well, though.

  10. I was given a name that real Americans find hard to pronounce, they like to butcher or anglicize it. I hated it growing up, and even changed it for awhile, cuz we were in the new and better world now. It wasn’t long before I hated that new name as well. Plus I think having said name helped in making me aware of certain things, and I can live with it. It’s like the Johnny Cash song about a boy named Sue, those few letters end up shaping you much more than you’d imagine.
    Thus I’ve decided that if I ever have kids, they’re gonna get the most messed up Mexican names I can tolerate. Tiburcio is up there, as is Florentino. Maybe even Refugio, my grandfathers name as well. Life ain’t easy kids, get used to some pain!

  11. “no hardcore white names nor hardcore Spanish names”

    What exactly are “hardcore white names”? Can’t white Spaniards have very “white names” as well?

    I care more about cadence. Does the last name flow with the first? I don’t mind Spanish names, but I do think that Spanish first names or those that can be pronounced in Spanish flow better with Spanish last names.

    I would love to have a child with a very obvious Spanish name blow away those who stereotype by speaking perfect English, earning a degree in the hard sciences, and maybe even learning to speak Chinese or a langauge that isn’t Latin based. I would imagine that some automatically stereotype Spanish names as being those for the housekeeper or gardener.

  12. Gracias for the link to my column. My two sisters and I have purely Hispanic names (Gustavo, Elsa, Alejandrina), while the youngest brother is Gabriel–one of those bilingual names, but we named him after my oldest uncle. I do remember my dad wanted to call Gabriel Petrolino (talk about old-school!), but my mom adamantly refused on the grounds no Mexicans use such antiquated names anymore.

    And nicknames: my tios y tias call me Tavo or Guti, my cousins call me Gus. Interestingly enough, when gabachos call me Gus, I correct them and tell them to call me by my full name. Los primos are cool because we’re assimilating; gabachos aren’t, because they don’t want to make the effort to pronounce my full name. Ah, the schizophrenic Chicano mind…

  13. Alm Morales says:

    I don’t like it when I hear people calling their kids, BBBBraiaaaaaaan , JOnatan, Achle (Ashley, Jeison, Cebin Kevin) am i wrong to feel a little anger ???y estan bien morenitos….all my grand kids have hispanic” names and proud of it!!

  14. LOL @ El Chavo…I’ve heard of Florentino and especially Refugio, but Tiburcio??? You wouldn’t???

    Well…it depends on where they grow up. If you plan to continue to live in East LA or any other lower income minority neighborhood, it would have a different affect (likely positive or trivial) than if you grew up in an affluent White neighborhood.

    Since I sold out a long time ago, and decided to raise my kids in the most affluent neighborhood I could afford, I chose a bilingual name – pronounced easily by my relatives and his future friends.

  15. Very interesting stuff. The Militant would like to share the origins of his real name and the cultural naming customs of his parents (who immigrated from an unspecified 3rd world country), but that would just give away too much.

  16. ale says:


  17. Paul Ortega says:

    Chicano and very proud of being a Californian. I named my son after me & added a little Mexican love from my father to seal the deal on the right name-he is Paul Pablito Ortega. I was called Pablito by older family members and called pauly by sibiling. Now we all call my son Pablito- his abuelito is Pablo. Some my say it was overkill, I say it was ah toda madre!lol. My 2nd baby is on his way (2 weeks) and we have gone with Diego-but still looking for a middle name. Thanks for reading & continue to post. Que tengan buen dia. Paul

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