Can a first name trigger prejudice?

VasquezesAs a mother, I worry that my brother-in-law was right. He told me not to name my son “Pedro,” which my husband had chosen as a tribute to their grandfather. My brother-in-law said that with a last name like “Vasquez,” our son needed an Anglo name to dodge prejudice. That’s why his girls were named “Anastasia, Kassandra and Savannah.”

I didn’t believe him. I think I even said that I was more proud of their Hispanic heritage than he was. Those were mighty big words coming from a white Protestant who lives in idyllic suburbs. It didn’t matter anyway because we were planning to nickname our son “Pete”—not because we were trying to hide his Mexican ancestry, but because everyone in my husband’s family uses an Americanized nickname: Jorge=George, Anita=Annie, Rogelio=Roger, Rosa=Rosie.

Flash forward eight years, and although we’ve called our son “Petey” or “Pete” since birth, somewhere along the way “Pedro” stuck. I vividly remember his soccer coach yelling “Petey!” and my son not listening until the coach yelled “Pedro!” We love his name. We wouldn’t have picked it if we didn’t, but I’m beginning to suspect that my brother-in-law’s prophecy was more right than I wanted to admit. I can’t quite explain it, but I hear it in the way people say my son’s name for the first time.

My husband doesn’t care. My big, bold Marine has a “to Hell with them if they don’t like it” point of view, and I love that about him. I, on the other hand, worry that our Anglo-looking Hispanic child may experience prejudice that could have been avoided because of the name we gave him. I am proud of the family history I married into, and I want to keep it alive in our blended-culture family. Giving our son a different name would have been selling out and philosophically moving to the back of the bus.

The fact remains that I will never be able to truly grasp racism because I haven’t lived it. My husband has, and so have many, many others, even in wonderful places like Plano, Texas. Sure, today’s racism is different than the horrors that led to the Civil Rights Movement, but racism still lurks and lingers silently. That’s why I worry for my son.

When we bought our house in Plano, a neighbor approached my husband while he was mowing the yard. She asked for his business card thinking he was the new landscaper. It wasn’t the only incident. I’ve seen clerks follow him around in stores at the mall but back off when they saw me. Another time, the police mysteriously pulled him over for a seat belt check right after we bought a new truck. (The dealer tags were still in the window.) None of these incidents put his life in danger. However, the police incident shattered any disbelief I had that racism didn’t exist in my bubble. My husband called me as he was fumbling for papers in the glovebox, and I could hear the cops hassling him because my name was on the title rather than his. They were convinced at a glance that a dark-skinned Hispanic man had stolen a new truck, and they were looking for evidence to arrest him.

So I wonder if I have done the right thing. As a mother I want to protect my child from the ills of the world, but I have no desire to hide his heritage. I want the best for him, but how can we protect Pedro from slights he doesn’t deserve caused by a name his father and I intentionally gave him as a badge of honor and tribute to a great man? I will fight for my son, and I have tried to lead by example. Cultural change is huge, and although I like being idealistic and hopeful, I wonder if our idealism was the best thing for our son. It’s too late now to say “coulda, woulda, shoulda.” Perhaps, the best thing to do is concentrate on building a strong sense of pride and self-esteem in my son. Maybe if we build in him pride for the legacy of his great-grandfather after whom he was named and for his Hispanic heritage—which is not outwardly identifiable in his fair skin—he can change the hearts of the people who consciously or subconsciously slight him or anyone else who is different.

I still hope my brother-in-law was wrong. I don’t think children today see “color” the way previous generations did. I hope that Pedro will be judged only by the content of his character. To anyone who would judge my son otherwise, beware. I will be watching until all people are treated equally.

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