Robyn Mendez is Caucasian, and her husband is Hispanic. When it came time to choose a name for their unborn daughter, the decision process wasn’t as enjoyable as they expected. Both wanted a name that was a part of their personal histories, which meant compromise was hard to come by.
I’m undeniably white. My husband is Mexican-American. His skin is lighter than mine, he speaks perfect English, and he displays no outward signs of his cultural heritage. It often surprises people upon introduction that his name is Juan Mendez. The following happens frequently at restaurants: A waiter will serve us an entire meal with no particular personal connection, and upon receipt of our credit card at the conclusion of the meal, will read his name and ask (often in Spanish) if my husband is Mexican.
I don’t necessarily define my family as “multi-cultural.” My husband is simply my husband. Those experiences of growing up in a Mexican-American, Spanish-speaking home helped him develop into the man he is today. Likewise, I also do not think of myself as the “white half” of our marriage, but the reality is that when we are presented with the question of race or ethnicity, he checks the Hispanic box while I check the Caucasian box. We are, by definition, clearly a “multi-cultural” or “mixed race” home. But these cultural differences become more obvious when we’ve had to deal with major life events like marriage or having a child.
Before our daughter was born, my husband and I languished over baby names. I’m a little geeky, so instead of picking up a baby name book like most moms-to-be, we chose to use the Social Security Popular Baby Name website as the guiding beacon in our name search. (FYI: It’s actually a pretty awesome website to peruse, regardless of whether you’re actively naming a child, pet, or car.)
I loved the more traditional English names like Elizabeth and Sarah, while my husband leaned heavily toward what I perceived as “less common” names, like Ava and Liliana. At first, I thought he was just giving me a hard time (a common occurrence in our marriage) and that he would eventually drop the act and agree on Elizabeth. But the name debate continued for months, and the discussions became more and more heated as our little one’s due date approached.
I’ll acknowledge upfront that the name debate is a pretty common thing for expecting parents. However, as our dialogue continued, I realized that our inability to agree on the perfect name was, in part, a function of our different cultural backgrounds. My husband was not gravitating toward less common names, as I had originally assumed. He was actually gravitating toward Spanish names, or names that would fit into his cultural frame of reference. They were names that he’d heard growing up that felt familiar and comfortable to him.
Like him, I was also gravitating toward names that felt familiar and comfortable in my frame of reference. Elizabeth, my favorite, was a more formal version of my beloved grandmother’s name, Bettye. We were both inadvertently but persistently seeking to gift our new daughter with a piece of our own identities by selecting a name that we could relate with, based on our own personal histories. For him, that history reached beyond the confines of our relationship (which is conducted entirely in English).
When we made this revelation, the entire dialogue shifted away from the subjective—“I don’t like that name”—toward “what name we could select that reflected both of our backgrounds.” While we didn’t immediately decide on her name, that moment was a game changer. It brought us to the compromise of of selecting a name that could cross over: one that could easily be understood, recognized, and articulated in both Spanish and English, and that lent itself to both English and Spanish nickname variants.
We ended up landing on Julianna, pronounced like so:
In Spanish, it’s hoo-le-ah’-nah.
In English, it’s jew’-lee-ah-nah.
And in Texan, it’s Jew-lee-an-nah.
Now 2 1/2, Julie’s skin is fair like both of her parents, and she’s growing up immersed in both cultures and languages. My husband and I have intentionally left the decision up to our daughter, to determine for herself one day how she will define her race and ethnicity. My hope is that, like my own hesitancy to define my marriage as multi-cultural, she’ll also be hesitant to define herself by the check boxes presented to her on a form.
Robyn Mendez is a Product Marketing Manager at Convio, Inc., with a background in event-based fundraising for nonprofits. She has also worked for the Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure, and the National M.S. Society. She lives in Pearland, Texas, with her husband and two-and-a-half-year old daughter, Julianna.