Name Change: Cultural Chameleons

In Alisse Waterston’s article World on the Move: Migration Stories, she recounts the numerous names her father took as he traveled around the world: “Across one century, my father Mendeleh from Jedwabne, Poland became Miguelito in Manguito, Cuba, Miguel in Havana, Michael in New York, and don Miguel in San Juan, Puerto Rico” (Waterston).

This statement got me thinking about name changes across cultures not only in the past, but how they affect people today.  I recently read a different article about a man in the United States of America named José Zamora, who had been looking for a job for months. On a whim, he changed the name on his resume from “José” to “Joe”, and within the week “his inbox was full” (Matthews). What I find interesting that correlates between the two men is that they both had to change their name to conform to the standards of whatever culture they lived within. Without the name change, life for both of them would have most likely been much more difficult, as José Zamora experienced firsthand.

My own last name is Parant, which I am assuming is some type of derivative of the word “parent”. If my name has been formed from another word or meaning, I’m not sure when—it could have been when my ancestors came to America, or even some time before then.

I’ve heard of many names that were changed once people entered the United States through Ellis Island, a practice I find fascinating. A friend of mine of Eastern European descent lost a number of consonants on the tail end of their last name, for example, presumably because it was too culturally distinct from the American culture. As well, another friend went to study abroad in China recently, and he had to change his so-called American name to one that fit the Chinese culture better.

In order to fully experience the benefits of living in a society, it seems it is necessary to fully conform to that culture, insomuch as changing one’s own name, a supposedly constant identifier.  Thus, these people are not only identified as themselves, but also as having a similar cultural background as the people around them.

Alisse Waterston, “World on the Move: Migration Stories”
Cate Matthews, “He Dropped One Letter in His Name While Applying for Jobs, and the Responses Rolled In”


2 thoughts on “Name Change: Cultural Chameleons

  1. I have always thought about this, my grandmother had to change her first name because she thought it was too Portuguese. I think this topic can easily be related to when we listened to people’s accents in class. Things such as an accent or a name allow the listener to relate the person to predetermined stereotypes. If a name is considered foreign they are immediately seen as not belonging in that society, and are treated as outsiders. The region that the name is from can either cause the listener to have a negative or positive reaction, depending on the society that the listener came from and their history with this region. For example if someone had the name Muhammad they may change it to Michael, because Muhammad is a Middle Eastern name which is commonly discriminated against in America since 9/11.

  2. This post made me think about how one’s name is able to become more than a title. Unfortunately, it can carry stereotypes and prejudices. For example, in your article, you describe how a man named Jose changes his name to Joe on his resume. Jose is a predominately Spanish or Portuguese version of the name Joseph. This man probably did not receive any attention from employers because of the prejudices that come along with being a Latino American in America today. It is disappointing that this kind of discrimination still exist in today’s world. I like and agree to your statement about how that In order to fully experience the benefits of a society, one must conform to its standards. One’s cultural background can afflict negative or positive emotions with different societies. It is disheartening that instead of being proud of one’s upbringing, one rather hide behind a fake alias.

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