Thursday, August 14, 2008

Where Have All the Josés Gone?

It was sobering news for some earlier this year when the Social Security Administration reported that the most frequently given name for males born in Texas in 2007 was José.

Then this week a new report from the Census Bureau must have shook them up some more, with the projection that “Minorities, now roughly one-third of the U.S. population, are expected to become the majority in 2042, with the nation projected to be 54 percent minority in 2050.”

Hispanics are the fastest growing group, the report says. The Hispanic share of the total U.S. population will double from 15 percent to 30 percent between now and 2050.

Ah, not to worry. We’re not taking over.

One study conducted this year by the Spanish-language edition of, a Web site owned by Johnson & Johnson (here is the report, in Spanish), found that Brandon, Michael and Jonathan ranked among the top 10 male names for babies of Hispanic parents born in the United States in 2007; just one of the three has a traditional Spanish translation, “Miguel.”

Other names that made the list are pretty much the same in Spanish and English: Sebastian, David, Daniel, Nicolas, Samuel. The only uniquely Spanish name that made the Top 10 was Diego.

And the same study found that among U.S.-born Hispanic girls in 2007, nine of the 10 top names were Camila, Sophia, Valerie, Isabella, Nicole, Melanie, Alexa, Samantha, Sara and Ashley.

So, no way José. Nomenclaturally speaking, at least, Hispanic Americans are becoming Anglicized.

You can see it in the roster of U.S. Olympians. A look at the names of the athletes shows about 20 individuals with unambiguously Spanish surnames and only one of them, runner Jorge Torres, has an unambiguously Spanish first name. Others like softball outfielder Jessica Mendoza, soccer’s Michael Orozco and wrestler Henry Cejudo have Anglo first names, though I won’t tell anyone how to classify taekwondo’s Diana López or runner Leonel Manzano.

Of course, on rosters for athletes from Spanish-speaking countries, traditional Hispanic names are the norm. Argentina’s soccer team is full of names like Fernando and Juan — but this being Argentina, the surnames are just about evenly split between those with origins in Spain and Italy.

Mexican Olympians, too, mostly have traditional Spanish first names. There are four Josés in the 85-member delegation, but I’m not sure whether that makes the list José-heavy, José-light or José-right.

Mexico also has remained loyal to old-fashioned names that sound hopelessly antiquated in other parts of the Spanish-speaking world: There’s marathoner Procopio Franco, swimmer Imelda Martínez. Still, you also find a sprinkling of newfangled names that seem invented by parents. There’s a runner named Zudikey Rodríguez, a diver named Yahel Castillo.

Zudikey? Yahel? These are far from the santoral, the list of Catholic saint names from which for centuries Spanish-speaking parents drew inspiration — like San José (or St. Joseph) and even a certain St. Procopius. My Cuban birth certificate states my full name as Roger Emilio Hernández Vázquez, but my baptism makes it Roger Emilio Julian Hernández Vázquez, because Jan. 9, my birthday, is the feast day for St. Julian.

Spanish names from the santoral remain overwhelmingly the norm in most Hispanic communities. But things are changing some places. One such place is here in the United States, with the growing trend of Hispanic parents giving their children Anglicized names like Michael or Ashley.

But names like that are not removed from the santoral — they are the English names of the same saints. Just about everybody has heard of St. Michael, and believe it or not, there is a St. Ashley. According to, he was an Englishman “who went to Valladolid, Spain, in 1590, became a Jesuit laybrother and returned to England in 1598” only to be tortured and executed.

Where naming customs have grown the most estranged from santoral tradition is in Cuba.

On the Olympics roster, the baseball team has one each of Eduardo, Antonio, Carlos, Norberto and Pedro. A bunch of perfectly normal, traditional Spanish saint names. But then you get Yulieski, Yoandry, Yorelvis. The women’s track team has names just as bizarre: Yenima, Yarisley, Yumisleidis, Yaniubis, Yunaika. In Miami, too, Ys abound among Cuban immigrants who arrived over the last decade or so.

Why “Y”? Nobody knows. Yoani Sánchez, the dissident Havana blogger who runs the hugely popular Generación Y says the name was “inspired by people like me, with names that begin with or contain a ‘Y’. Born in Cuba in the 1970s and 1980s, marked by schools in the countryside, Russian cartoons, illegal emigration and frustration.”

Emigration there, immigration here. A Census Bureau study last year found that two Spanish surnames, García and Rodríguez, rank among the top 10 most common in the United States.

A reminder we are here.

But a reminder, too, that there is no Hispanic monolith. Just people named José, or Ysomething, or Procopio, or Ashley.

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