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Pepe or Joe?: The Transformation in Latino Names in the U.S.

Posted on June 13th, 2011 by Alejandra Okie 3 Comments

By: Alejandra Okie

Although the Latino population grew by 43 percent in the last decade, for the first time since the 1970’s the name “José” did not make the list of the 50 most popular baby names for 2010 compiled by the Social Security Administration. Other names losing in popularity include Guillermo, Juan, Juanita and Angelica. What’s making Latinos choose nontraditional names for our children?

Take my own story as an example. My name is María Alejandra. I am the daughter of María, granddaughter of María, great-granddaughter of María. You get the point…

Did I name my daughter “María”? Gulp… I did not.

My daughter’s name is Lexi. It is half as long as mine and it can be pronounced in almost any language. You see, I wanted my daughter to have a different relationship with her name than I have with mine. Don’t get me wrong, I like the name that my great grandfather chose for me. But I wanted her to be able to introduce herself to anyone she meets for the first time without having to go into a detailed explanation of her name. I wanted her to be able to call the phone company and not have to go through the motions of spelling and pronouncing her name only to have it butchered by the customer service representative.

I know some Latinos who would never think of choosing an English-sounding first name for their child, especially if their last name is in Spanish. But why are some Latinos abandoning traditional names in Spanish and choosing ones in English? Are we ashamed of our heritage? Is this part of how we are assimilating into U.S. culture? Is it a way of protecting our children from possible discrimination by not revealing their ethnic group with their name? Or are we just trying to make our children’s lives and social interactions easier?

Experts say there is a progression that immigrants go through in choosing a name for their child. The three stages are:
1) choosing a name in the person’s native language,
2) choosing a name that is more neutral, universal or bilingual, and finally
3) choosing a name that is common in the culture they have joined

Choosing a non-Spanish first name may be a trend, but it’s a different story for last names. The statistics confirm an undeniable fact, the growth in the Latino population is not slowing down. Four Latino last names made the latest list of 15 most common last names compiled by the U.S. Census Bureau: Garcia, Rodriguez, Martinez and Hernandez.

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Latino celebrities with English-language first names:

  • Jessica Alba
  • Willie Colon
  • Cameron Díaz
  • Daisy Fuentes
  • Andy García
  • Jerry García
  • John Leguizamo
  • George López
  • Jennifer López
  • Edward James Olmos
  • Ricky Martin
  • Frankie Muniz
  • Gregory Nava
  • Michelle Rodriguez
  • Robert Rodriguez
  • Jimmy Smits

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How popular is your first name?

How popular is your last name?

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3 Responses

  1. Lorraine Ruiz says:

    Having a Degree in Chicano Studies, I was sure that my future children would have traditional Latino first and last names. When my son was born, there was a huge controversy in selecting his name. His father’s family (from Holland) insisted on a traditional Dutch name. They wanted Wijnand/Wynand. I thought there was no way my family could pronounce the name (my mom said “we’ll call him, Why Not”) Robbie is now an adult. He has shortened his middle name to the initial “W.”

  2. marina says:

    As a third generation mexican-american I felt very strongly about giving my children “spanish names”, motivated by many things, including pride, identity, tradition, non-conformism to anglo-american practices, etc. Funny though, I noticed that friends & acquaintences w/similar backgrounds as my own, had done the same. Even funnier, i noticed/imn my experiences came across quite a numberof newly-immigrated parents that have chosen to give their kids “anglo” names. something to ponder, would make a good discussion topic i’m sure…

  3. Maria says:

    Yesss guess what, My name is MARIA too. Also like 98% of the women in my family since the beginning of time. Nauseatingly common in the latino world, easy to pronounce in the anglo word, tho very stereotyped as latino. My choice for my daughter is leaning towards keeping the “Ma” sound which I love and definitely runs in my family in different variations, but with an ending that’s memorable, beautiful and above all, pronounceable in many languages.

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