Naming Your Cuban Offspring

There are all kinds of traditions when it comes to giving your Cuban child a name. In most Latin American cultures, a child has at least one given name, then his/her last names are drawn from both the father and mother (paternal sources only on either side). And a lot of parents here like to name their children after themselves. But they don’t call them Maria, Maria I, Maria II, etc., like they do in some upper class anglophone societies. So how do they handle at least two people with the same name in the household? Easy. You just add the diminutive suffix –ito (for a boy) or –ita (for a girl) onto the end. So Dad is Juan and son is Juanito or Mom is Juana and daughter is Juanita. Sounds simple, right? Well it would be if it ended there, but many families, my husband’s included, tend to continue the tradition through multiple generations. But let me back up and start from the “beginning” so you get the full picture.

Once upon a time there was a girl called Alicia. She married a boy called Alberto. They had two children, whom they bestowed with their very own names, Alberto & Alicia. Very cute. Growing up the children were known in their home as Albertico & Alicita. When Alberto (the second one) grew up and got married, his wife just called him Alberto in their house. They had a son that was called what else….Alberto (we call my husband’s cousin Albertico), and two daughters (my husband’s cousins) whose names didn’t even start with A. My husband’s cousin Albertico bore a son whose name is of course Alberto too (we call him Albertikin). My mother in law Alicia married Ramon who was known is his hometown of Artemisa as Ramoncito since his father was also called Ramon, and they had three children. Their firstborn was also called Alicia (we distinguish her with the name Alicitica), their second child was called Ramon (a.k.a. Ramoncitico), and then along came my husband whose name is Abel. My father-in-law is a Moncadista (he was the only living survivor of the hospital attack on the Moncada Garrison in 1955) and as was the trend at that point in Cuban history, many Cuban children of the Revolution were named after some of the most prominent figures in the Revolutionary movement (ever notice how many Fidels, Rauls, Camilos, Ernestos, or Tanyas were born in the ‘60’s in Cuba?). My husband was named after his father’s fallen comrade Abel Santamaria. Since he was the youngest of his siblings, he was/is often also called Abelito.

When my husband became a man he and his first wife bore two children. My stepson is Abelito and my stepdaughter is Alina. Her cousins and aunts/uncles often call her Alinita, although as in my husband’s case, it’s only because she’s young (not because her mother was also called Alina). It sounds confusing, I know. It can be, at times. Especially since multiple generations often live in the same household in Cuba and someone calls your house and wants to speak to Abelito. Which one – the father or the son? If the caller is not already familiar with your family, then you have to go a little further and inquire as to the purpose of their call in order to try and figure out from there who it is that they really want to talk to.

My brother has three daughters with his Cuban wife. All of their names start with A. I suggested the name for his firstborn to my sister in law: Alexandra. It was a name I’d always liked, and which would work in both English & Spanish. She really liked it and it’s what she ultimately chose. When their second child came around, she was searching for names and wanted to go with another “A” name. I jokingly said she could always go with Alicia; it’s a family tradition now after all. Ha ha ha. I reminded her that there were already 3 Alicias in Abel’s family though, so it probably wasn’t a great idea. My Dad liked that name though. Apparently my sister in law did too. Abel’s grandmother Alicia passed away on Dec. 30, 2010. I can still picture her, well into her ‘90s, happy as a clam, with my niece Alicia perched on her lap playing with her blue scarf. Alicia (the original) was tickled pink that there was yet another Alicia in the family!

There are various other fads that have marked periods in Cuba’s history, such as giving your kids Russian names (Ivan, Boris, Tatiana) or, for those of you familiar with dissident Yoani Sanchez’s blog, the “Y Generation” when a lot of odd names began with the letter Y. My mother in law knows the mother of a member of the popular Cuban musical group “Las Orishas”. His name is Yotuel. You might wonder where someone would come up with such an unusual name for their child. Until you break it down into its parts, and then it makes complete sense. Yo (Me), Tu (You), and El (Him). Then there’s the wave of English names like Jennifer, Jefferson, Junior (yes, this name actually appears on many male Cuban birth certificates), or Mikel (a.k.a. Michael in “cubano”). We have motorcycle friends who called their firstborn son “Harlie” after the motorcycle brand (they just tweaked the spelling a little). Earlier this year they were tossing around the idea of calling their second child (a girl) Davidsona, but thankfully they abandoned that idea. I think that there are also a disproportionate number of Cubans who are appointed at least two given names. Ana Maria, Jorge Luis, Juan Carlos …Some of these are so common, in fact, that if you were just to write Juan C. everyone here would automatically know that the “C” stands for Carlos.

If you were to pick the extremely common name of Jose for your son, then he might also be known as “Pepe” in Cuba. I’m not clear on why they do this, but neither am I familiar with the reason behind why we Anglophones call a lot of Williams “Bill” either. Or maybe you agonize over the selection of your child’s name and in the end he or she hardly ever even uses the name you bestowed upon them but is instead known by everyone by a nickname, or an “apodo”. El Pescadito, Pelusa, La Peluda, Calvo, Pipo el Loco… Cubans love calling each other by affectionate nicknames. And very often just by their last name too.

When Abel & I first married I briefly considered taking on his last name. I’d already lived in Cuba for some time and my anglophone name Kristen had long before been transformed into Cristina or Kristy by most Cubans who knew me, so I figured taking on a Latin last name in Cuba might also be easier than MacQueen (although a surprising number of people in Cuba know who Steve McQueen was, his stardom wasn’t that recent in the grand scale of things and the movie Cars with Lightning McQueen hadn’t yet been conceived). I took the wedding pictures to the local film development place and they asked for my last name. Pez, I told them. What? I repeated it. How do you spell that? M-A-C-Q-U-E-E-N. There. That was easy. Abel’s last name is not very common in Cuba, pretty much limited to Artemisa, so that pretty much decided things for me. I was keeping my own last name. Although recently someone was looking up names in someone’s iphone Etecsa phone directory and another Abel Pez came up in Cienfuegos. Apparently he has a sister called Alina. Weird, huh?

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