When we were young lawyers, a Chicana friend working as a public defender shared this story with me. She needed to interview a psychiatrist -- a potential expert witness on a case. His name was Dr. Fuchs. And unsure of the name’s pronunciation she asked around and was told it was “fee-youks (pronounced as ONE syllable).” Nervous about getting it right and wanting to make a good impression she practiced, but when she introduced herself she called him Dr. F-word. He took it in good humor.
I was reminded of this story when I recently heard Allan Fuks on NPR’s Story Corps, recounting the bullying he encountered because of his last name when he growing up.
"Even the kids on the lowest social rung didn't want me sitting at their lunch table," he says. "So I would go to the library because I didn't want to sit alone and I remember I read the entire Holocaust encyclopedia. I recognize now that's kind of dark. But I was just such a lonely kid."
When he was 12 years old, Allan said he'd call the Nintendo hotline, "to have someone to talk to me. I remember trying to painfully segue from a conversation about video games into just like, 'So how's it going in your life?' And he's like, 'What?' That's basically my childhood," he says.
Fuks, the son of Russian immigrants recalls that when he was 16, his parents decided to change their last name to save their kids the endless teasing. Given their light skin color they opted for an Irish last name. They threw a bunch of Irish surnames into a hat, and drew the last name Finn. But, says Allen, it was too late for him. None of the kids would let go of the teasing and continued using his last name. His younger sister did get the benefit of the name change.
I read somewhere that the shortest distance between two people is a story: it is the door to understanding and compassion. I love listening to the recorded interviews of Story Corp and find it equally gratifying to read the collection of stories that have been put into print. Do take a listen to Allan’s painful and still wonderful story as told to a friend from his childhood.
Several generations back, the changing of last names among immigrants was much more common. “The rationale was straightforward: adopting names that sounded more American might help immigrants speed assimilation, avoid detection, deter discrimination or just be better for the businesses they hoped to start in their new homeland.” This according to a New York Times story from 2010. https://www.nytimes.com/2010/08/26/nyregion/26names.html
The NYT reviewed 500 petitions for name changes filed in New York City courts and found that only a half dozen of the applications were filed by immigrants from Asia and Latin America with the intention of Anglicizing or adopting some abbreviated version of their last name.
In fact there were more petitions to revert back to an original last name (like Allan Finn going back to Allan Fuks) than taking an Anglicized name.
Today, most experts agree, that traditional immigrant gambit has all but disappeared. “The vast majority of people with clearly ethnic surnames who applied to change them did so as a result of marriage (belatedly adopting a spouse’s surname or creating a new hyphenated one) or childbirth (because they were legally identified when they were born only as a male or female child or were adopting a parent’s name).” NYT article.
We are all familiar with famous actors who changed their “ethnic” names. Tony Curtis (Bernard Schwartz), Lauren Bacall (Betty Joan Perske), Alan Alda (Alphonso Joseph D’Abruzzo), Natalie Wood (Maria in West Side Story was born Natalia Nikolaevna Zakharenko).
In a three-minute You Tube clip, Martin Sheen (Ramon Antonio Gerard Estevez), shares his name story. His son Emilio Estevez chimes in with his experience of agents telling him he should not use his identifiable Hispanic names. Encouraged by his Dad, he kept his names. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h_oMkQY2ico).
According to the NY Times article. “Sociologists say the United States is simply a more multicultural country today (think the Kardashian sisters or Renée Zellweger, for instance, who decades ago might have been encouraged to Anglicize their names), and they add that blending in by changing a name is not as effective for Asians and Latin Americans who, arguably, may be more easily identified by physical characteristics than some Europeans were in the 19th century and early 20th century.”
I am gearing up for a seven-week run of my one-woman show (October 25-December 8), Why Would I Mispronounce My Own Name? and am starting to use social media more often. If you are on instagram please follow me: irmadherrera, and I’ll follow you back. I’ll be using instagram, twitter @irmadherrera, and of course my facebook account to keep you informed of my theatrical goings on.
As y’all know I am a storyteller and love hearing your stories about names, so please do share them.