Living in Honduras or Guatemala as a foreigner is sometimes hard, mostly fun and never boring. This Blog is about more than just the oddities of my years in the not-so tranquil, cobble-stoned town of Copán Ruinas and, more recently, Antigua Guatemala. Hence Serendipity, the gift of finding without seeking…
Monday, February 6, 2012
What’s in a name... Part I
I was fourteen when I read García Márquez’ One Hundred years of Solitude for the first time. I think it was my first Latin American novel ever and for some reason I felt right at home, as if that strange magic-realistic world has been mine all along, as opposed to the much more sterile and tidy world of the Netherlands I actually grew up in. So much so, that I felt a bit of a panic when I finished the very last page. What to do now? The answer was very simple. I started on page 1 again. It was the first of many re-readings.
I could go on and on about this book that has played such an important role in my life (and which seems to be a complete different novel every time I pick it up, depending on which stage of my life I’m at), but let’s stick to one of the very few things that struck me as odd. That is, odd to me then, a fourteen year old Dutch girl who’d never been any further south than the North of France, reading a book set in the bizarre inlands of Columbia. What I found odd - not the “burning” block of ice, the flying carpet of Melquíades, or the baby being devoured by an army of ants- was the fact that Aureliano’s offspring of 18 sons were all called Aureliano too. They were all born to different women, but still. You just don’t do that. Or so I thought.
After living in Honduras for almost fifteen years, I am of course well aware that naming children here is a completely different process than in Holland. Back there, parents just pick one or two names they like. Occasionally a child is named after their grandparents (like me, Catharina Elisabeth, which were the full names of both grandmothers who were actually called Trijntje and Willie. So “Carin” could have been much worse…). Catholics tend to use “Maria” as a second name (both for girls and boys), but that’s about it, as far as rules are concerned. But it is definitely a big deal and taken very seriously.
In Honduras however, a child often doesn’t have a name until it’s about a year old. I was flabbergasted when I first found out about this (after all, you have nine months to think about it?!), but one sad reason is that many children don’t reach the age of one in Honduras. Burying a child with a name somehow seems more painful than having to say farewell to a nameless baby.
So it is completely acceptable for parents to shrug apologetically when you ask the name of their newborn. You can also safely bet on what the baby’s name will be when you ask a few months later: if it’s a girl, she will more than likely have one of her mother’s names. A boy will be proudly named after his father. And I mean not just the first born, but every child! It’s completely normal to have within one family a bunch of boys called Juan Antonio, Antonio José and Pablo Antonio. I even know of a case of twin brothers called Rafael Antonio and Antonio Rafael!
The repetition of names isn’t as confusing as it sounds. Most people are called by their second Christian name, so if in one family all sons are called Antonio with something else, nobody will yell out “Antonio”. However, I also know of a family where the mother and two of the daughters were called Zoila. To me it seems complicated, but as the daughters explained to me, they somehow always know who is being addressed.
In the town where I live, Copán, names are pretty traditional, although foreign names are becoming more popular every year. They’re usually not written the way they were originally supposed to be written, but phonetically. Here are a few examples:
Wilians or Guiliam (William)
My favourite one is “Vritany” (Brittany) which I saw in big letters on the front of a moto-taxi (Tuk-Tuk), with the “N” spelled backwards. Beautiful!
Interestingly enough, at less than a two hours distance from Copán, still within the municipal limits, people are much more creative in naming their children. I applied fluoride at a school in the tiny village of Nueva Armenia a few times and hence got my hands on a list with the following beauties. And this all from a list of no more than 48 children!