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Surnames Reflect Changing Face of America

January 25, 2008 at 6:50 PM EDT
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RICHARD RODRIGUEZ, NewsHour Essayist: Many Americans are troubled regarding the Latinization of the United States, the ubiquitous brown faces in the crowd, Spanish everywhere.

On nativist talk radio, in the speeches of politicians, a legend of illegality as old as cowboy America attaches to anyone related to Latin America, whether or not one is legally here.

It made the news recently that “Garcia” and “Rodriguez” are now among the top 10 most common American surnames. We Hispanics have become a people whose presence gets told by such numbers, our ascending numbers.

Our ascending numbers frighten many Americans who see Hispanics as overwhelming this country.

But Hispanics are more than numbers. We are Catholics. We are Evangelical Protestants. We come in all colors, and races, and talents, and sensibilities.

We are judges. We are gang-bangers. We are U.S. Marines. We are retired. We are crowding desert high schools.

In the 1990 census, Garcia ranked 18th, Rodriguez 22nd. A decade later, the Garcias have ascended 10 rungs, the Rodriguezs 13. This numerical rise means simply that descendants of the Spanish empire are now living alongside descendants of the English empire in places like Kentucky and Iowa, where they have rarely lived side-by-side before.

Throughout the Spanish-speaking world, the habit is for her surname to be linked by a hyphen with his. In the next American census, the ranking of Spanish surnames is certain to be confused, as number 11 marries number 10.

America is a generous society. But with the great thrust of immigration in the 19th century, many Americans grew uneasy with eastern and southern European names.

Often the children of immigrants, a generation removed from Ellis Island, attempted discretion by shortening their name or adopting an Anglo-Saxon name. America, the great leveler.

On the playing field, last names were apt to get shorn. Carl Yastrzemski became “Yaz” in America. Nowadays, the nation’s sports writers name America’s best baseball player “A-Rod.”

“Rod” was also the name classmates gave me as early as grammar school. My “Rodriguez” got shortened the same year Elvis Presley entered the Army. Rod seemed to me as American as a crew-cut.

Because Hispanics are an ethnic category joined loosely by culture, Hispanic advertising agencies and Spanish-language television stations daily impress on us how our cultural identity is tied to the language of Spain.

Often, as Hispanics grow assimilated in the U.S., paradoxically they give their surnames baroque pronunciations. Tiffany Rodriguez goes to college and becomes “Tiffany Rodriguez.”

Permit me to indulge vanity by talking about my name, first and last. On Google, our national yellow pages, I found thousands of Rodriguez Richards.

Richard Rodriguez is a building commissioner in Chicago. Richard Rodriguez is a photographer. Richard Rodriguez is under arrest. Richard Rodriguez is a high school wrestler. Richard Rodriguez is a Protestant minister. The least-daunted among us, Richard Rodriguez holds the Guinness world’s record for time spent riding on roller coasters.

On September 11th, America suffered a trauma from which we have not recovered. We are anxious now about people we have not seen before.

In the days after, when the country was still in mourning, I found Richard Rodriguez among the lists of the dead at the World Trade Center.

It is unsettling to see one’s name attached to another life in the morning paper. It is disturbing to see one’s own name in a list of the dead.

Richard Rodriguez, from a generation younger than mine, was still early in his adult life, aged 31. Richard Rodriguez was a police officer for the New York-New Jersey Port Authority, an American killed in a dangerous time.

Rest in peace, Richard Rodriguez.

I’m Richard Rodriguez.