The power of naming

by April Gutierrez

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This week, I have struggled reading the articles and watching the news coverage of Rachel Dolezal. The coverage focuses on her deception and potential advancement of her career, but I sympathize with her as a mother raising two biracial young men (her son and her brother) while caring for my own bicultural Latino children. I appreciate the harm of cultural misappropriation and white privilege and I know that our stories are not the same. I too intimately know the painful comments of those confused trying to make sense of the mother and child holding hands and not looking enough like one another. I can appreciate a desire to bridge the image gap as a dark-skinned bicultural woman who identifies as Mexican-American after keeping my father’s name and raised by a Caucasian mother.

A recent New York Times piece articulates this tension well, “In a sense, the controversy surrounding Dolezal is a product of our own contradictory moment, when Americans are at once far more open to racial boundary-crossing and as preoccupied with those same boundaries as ever.”

College was where I came to understand more fully a positive sense of self, growing in knowledge and acceptance of my cultural heritage and the rich diversity of Latino history in the United States. I studied liberation theology and read as many Latino authors that I could get my hands on. I felt empowered as a church leader knowing the Catholic church in the United States was founded by Latinos.

All of this came to a head at 22 when I was preparing for marriage and feeling strongly that I wanted to share a name with my husband while also feeling a sense of loss if I were to take on a new name just after growing into ownership of my name and culture. My husband, being the flexible and supportive man that he is, offered to take my name respecting me and honoring my experience.

Keeping my own name felt good. I walked in the world owning a part of myself that had not always been so easy, and the part of myself that no one would let me forget -- I am a brown woman. So we lived in it as a family, we embraced it. When I became pregnant with my son, we were presented with another opportunity to choose our affiliation. My husband and I both worked in largely Latino contexts. We wanted a name that was easily said by English and Spanish speakers alike. We also wanted a family name, and decided on Silvio after his grandmother Sylvia. He is a gorgeous boy with tan skin and fair hair. People in his multi-ethnic preschool quizzically asked for help with his name, his classmates were overheard saying “I have to learn Spanish so I can talk to my friend Silvio.” Silvio doesn’t speak Spanish. He was placed on a remediation track (in preschool) without our knowledge and subjected to more and harsher discipline than his peers. With time doubt grew in me as to whether I had chosen well for my boy.

His sister, who we named Miriam, arrived a year ago. While we work, Miriam is in a Spanish-language daycare, with bright murals, a brilliantly strong willed and intelligent owner and other children of low- to middle-class, educated Latino families. In the fall, our son will start kindergarten in a charter school founded to empower and enable Latino children, with sharp uniforms and impressive scores. That decision is sometimes met with confusion about us choosing a charter school, with faces that seem to say “Charters are for poor families, those hoping to send their children to college, the aspirational immigrant class, not households with two master’s degrees.”

 We like our neighborhood, its diversity socioeconomically and ethnically. Some wrinkle their nose when hearing about where we live, as it’s not considered “nice.” These are tradeoffs we are making for our children, choices we make for them that might cost them something. The zip code where you grow up matters. Because of his name, my beautiful son’s resume will be skipped over sometimes. My daughter will earn less than if we’d taken my husband’s surname and called her “Madison.”

Choosing Silvio’s name and deciding to send him to a predominantly Latino charter school are expressions of a deep desire: I want him to walk in confidence as a Latino man. I am proud, knowing that my daughter will be bilingual, an opportunity I didn’t have. As my family discerns choices about where to live and educate our children with intentionality, I hope that we offer grace and that grace will be offered by the community surrounding me.

I am confused that Rachel Dolezal has created so much attention and fascination with the commentary surrounding her story. Now that I have two children, one of which has blue eyes, that are a topic of conversation regularly, I think often on whether or not my children look like me. Not only look like me, but as if we belong together.

Growing up I have distinct memories of conversations of not looking like family members -- camping with my cousins or walking in the grocery with my mom. Life can be quite painful for people with identities and cultural affiliations that are complex. What has unfolded in my 12 years of marriage has been a surprising focus on my husband’s renaming, particularly as it relates to cultural identity. He has been accused of lying about his ethnicity or at the very least misleading.

I am fascinated and disappointed by how much moral judgment and criticism are pointed at Dolezal when thinking about the multiple layers many of us experience in raising our children -- biological or adopted. I do not want to condone or condemn anything about her actions and identity but rather invite the faithful into a deeper conversation about culture, how people self-identify and to nurture our diverse families. I hope to offer a sympathetic perspective about a woman who has a complex identity in the context of her family life.

[April Gutierrez is a graduate of Boston College's School of Theology and Ministry and is a campus minister for First-Year Experience at Loyola University Chicago.]

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