Sunday, November 7, 2010


The cultural uses of names has become a recurring (and at times quite frustrating) theme this semester.

In the US, the most common name structure is first, middle and last name (typically the father's last name). Here (and in other Spanish-speaking countries) most people have two names and two last names: father's (paternal) last name, followed by the mother's (paternal) last name. For example, the children of Jose Francisco Hernandez Diaz and Maria Rosa Lopez Martinez would have the last name Hernandez Lopez.

Since I only have 3 names, this became a slight confusion when I went to get my CURP (ID number, used liked a US Social Security number but for citizens and foreigners). The CURP is a string of letters and numbers made out of a combination of the 2 last names, the first name, date of birth and place of birth. When mine first came back, they had used my middle name as my first last name and my last name as a second last name. Luckily, I knew how the CURP was formed and spotted the error.
The complication of having one last name has also come up in some of the standardized online forms which require two last names for the entry to be considered complete-- even though I only have one last name.

In the US it is also common to only include the first name and last name on forms/
documents/ applications etc., unless the "full name," middle name or middle initial are specifically requested. Here it's important to include all names, pretty much at all times, or you could be a different person. I even see this in class, where students use all 4 names when turning in a paper to the professor. In the US not only did I not use all 3 names, but I was always "Becca" as opposed to "Rebecca."
I've run into an issue here because I originally applied to UNAM with my first and last name -- omitting my middle name-- and that's how I'm registered in the system. I was informed I might have issues when it comes to graduation because my name in the system doesn't match my official documents. I started the process to update my name and add my middle name -- but the process was stalled because UNAM currently thinks I'm here illegally. Why? Because my name in the system doesn't match my migration documents. So.... I can't fix my name because my name is wrong. Awesome. I'm still in the process on this one...

Another cultural difference is names in the context of marriage. Going back to our hypothetical Maria Rosa, when she married hypothetical Jose Francisco, she keeps her last name of Lopez Martinez or possibly adds "de Hernandez" (de/"of" husband's paternal last name). In the US it is most common (though not everyone does it) for the wife to take the husband's last name, either adding it or completely replacing her maiden name. I was explaining this to a friend and he made the observation, "Isn't that system more machista?" And really, it is. While Latin American cultures are generally thought to be more "machista" than the US culture, this is a counterexample. One can argue about adding "de" ("of") in the sense of belonging to someone, but the woman still keeps her last names, whereas in the US the last name is generally replaced by the husband's last name.

Finally, here my name is constantly misspelled, because it's "Rebeca" in Spanish, as opposed to "Rebecca" (double c). This also results in other misspellings, such as "Rebbeca" as people try to remember how exactly my name is different than the norm. Also, the more common nickname here for Rebecca is "Rebe" as opposed to "Becca."

So lessons learned:
1. When in doubt, always include all names
2. Always check for misspellings

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