My Head-Up-My-A$$ Anecdote

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When I first moved to Latin America I had a corporate gig. During my first few months, I was surprised how many Peruvians had names like Washington, Edison and other clearly gringo first names. Like most Americans, everything I thought I knew about Latin America came from what I knew about Mexicans in the United States. And there is no such gringo-naming phenomenon in the Mexican-American community.

Also like most Americans, I did not distinguish between Spanish or Indian descent when I landed here in Peru. They were all Latinos to me … which is to say not white … which is to say they were all Indians.

I don’t see it like that now, but that’s how most naive gringos seem to arrive.

So one day the company hired a new intern named Washington. Being the office clown, I asked him out loud so everybody can hear, “That’s an Inca name, isn’t it? Washington, that’s Quechua, right?”

It’s not that funny, but it was a stupid jab at what I saw as gringo adoration from people who should be giving their kids Inca names. And it’s always fun to mess with new interns.

In time I came to see how the divide between indigenous and Spanish descent is the biggest social problem in Peru. A tiny Spanish elite controls most wealth and power while impoverished masses struggle to make ends meet. It’s the same story throughout Latin America, but in Peru it has a palpable racial overtone.

The problem with my joke is that the Indians are the ones who name their kids “Washington” or “Yennifer.” It’s like their way to defy the upper class by rejecting Hispanic culture, the oppressors, in favor of the gringo culture which is higher in the global pecking order. Later when I moved to Colombia I saw those names on people of Indian or African blood — anything but white.

Jefferson Farfan

Edison Flores

But the Spanish legacy sits at the top of Peru’s social hierarchy, including in the marketing office where I made this joke. So without realizing it, I was basically making fun of this poor kid’s Indian-ness in front of all the Peruvian elites with proper Castilian names – on his first day no less.

I’m a dumb ass.

If I could go back to 2007 and give myself one piece of advice, it would be to learn as much as possible about the country I planned to move to, and that means reading. Doing my homework ahead of time would have saved many head-up-my-ass moments like this one, of which there are many.

For those looking to be a mindful expat, I recommend reading at least two authoritative books on the history of your Latin American country. Preferably three or four. See the Expat Chronicles reading list for suggestions.

Have a recommendation? Let me know in the comments below.

“The person who does not read good books has no advantage over the man who can’t.” — Mark Twain

For more on names, see The Case for Vanilla Names.

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One comment

  1. “The problem with my joke is that the Indians are the ones who name their kids “Washington” or “Yennifer.” It’s like their way to defy the upper class by rejecting Hispanic culture, the oppressors, in favor of the gringo culture which is higher in the global pecking order. Later when I moved to Colombia I saw those names on people of Indian or African blood — anything but white.”

    That’s interesting. I never heard that explanation for why some folks have odd names.

    Another one I’ve seen — more often among poorer folks — are the “sons” in names. Some financially poor dude named “Anderson” for example I once met in a poorer area here of Mexico City months ago.

    Or, in other cases, they might change their last name. I once went on some dates with a Venezuelan gal down here who changed her last name to something British sounding. Didn’t get married. No reason to change it. She just did because “it sounds better” as she told me once.

    But I never thought of it as these folks trying to pick more non-Spanish names to “stick it” to Hispanic culture. I’m not saying that’s not the reason but that’s the first time I heard it. As I think about it, it doesn’t sound out of reality. At least here in Mexico, I’d say there is some bitterness among between some folks of different racial or ethnic backgrounds. However, as I think about it, I’d assume the indigenous man who is proud of his heritage and rejects Hispanic culture wouldn’t take on a gringo sounding name. I’d assume “rejecting Hispanic culture” would go along with being proud of your heritage and picking a name common to your people.

    But, having said that, such a name would likely increase their kid’s chances of growing up to have their employment letters thrown into the garbage (assuming his last name or physical characteristics didn’t give it away). So, in that sense, I could see why some would go for the gringo sounding name.

    Anyway, I always thought they did it because a more English sounding name just sounds fancier to their ears perhaps (and, when I say they, I mean poorer folks and not just those who are of high indigenous background). That’s how it’s always come across to me.

    But, having said that, it’s definitely a characteristic of poorer individuals and also, in my opinion, richer ones also.

    Though this might be where we differ from Mexico to Peru given that Mexico has quite a bit of Mexicans with more American influence (be it they spent time in the US, have American or other foreign parents, have family in the US, etc).

    Not saying Peru doesn’t have any of that but this greater influence also has it where you have more families of more comfortable background giving their children names that are not usually considered “very Hispanic.”

    The Bryans and the Karens (among other names given to some younger Mexicans these days by parents with greater connections to the US or other foreign countries).

    Though, at the same time, I’ve met poorer Bryans also that aren’t very white looking and come from more modest means. It goes back to what I was saying first — is this an example of a poorer family wanting to copy a trend of more financially comfortable families? Well, I’m not a fly on their wall to know why they gave their kid that name when neither parent is American so it’s only a guess of mine.

    However, having said that, obviously not every Mexican who has spent time in the US was some rich dude doing business in Houston and then returned to name his kid something like Bryan (nor does every Bryan here have an American parent). After all, you have plenty of poorer Mexicans who have spent time up there and have come back.

    Either way, I’m not an expert on why “Bryan” and “Karen” and other similar names have made their way down here quite strongly (and seen in various socioeconomic classes but definitely among more comfortable ones) but it is what it is for Mexico and those have been my impressions.

    And, even outside of Mexico, I’d imagine there are other families in other Latin American countries that have the “foreign dad or mother” that wanted to give their kid a name more common name from back home (or who just have non-Hispanic names for other reasons). I’ve definitely met folks with non-hispanic names in other countries like Argentina for example. Even in Peru, I once dated a Peruvian gal named “Maryann” while in Mexico City. She wasn’t white but, if I had to guess, assumingly wasn’t poor because her family could afford to give her enough money to study abroad in Mexico.

    Outside of Mexico though, I have met some Latin Americans who have changed their names (to something non-Hispani?). Be it the Alejandro who calls himself Alex. Or an Argentine gal I remember name Tami whose actual name was Tamara. Is Alex or Tami hispanic names? That goes into another point, I suppose.

    Sometimes I have gotten confused as to how “Hispanic” someone’s name is. Being from the Midwest with limited exposure to Latinos, I could tell you “Maria” and “Jose” are Hispanic sounding. But, over the years living down here, I at first found it odd to find women named Brenda or Karla for example. Those are not unusual names in Mexico (even among women who are not upper class). Kevin? Jhony? Francis? Angy (Angie?)? Elizabeth? Fredy? Sonia?

    Most of those are names I just saw among a group of Mexicans who reacted to a picture I posted on a Facebook group of a neighborhood I live in that doesn’t really have any other foreigners except me (others are girls I’ve dated like Brendas and Karlas).

    Despite all my time here, I definitely don’t know everything about Latin America and there is always more to learn. I actually couldn’t tell you how “hispanic” names like Kevin, Francis, Angy and Elizabeth are because I never cared to look into the origin of those names. I’ve heard plenty of folks with names like those and just accepted it as part of the culture here. Though I also have family members with those names and they’re all of solid Irish heritage.

    And Elizabeth sounds too much like Elizabeth Warren. Hispanic?

    Still, I’m sure I could look up each of those names to find out where they are rooted from technically. They just don’t sound like “typical Hispanic names” that I learned to associate with Latin Americans before ever stepping my first foot in Latin America a decade ago. I get also names like Brenda can be common in various cultures.

    In the same way that “Maria” is common in Latin America (at least Mexico) but also is common in Russia from what I’ve heard. Very different cultures but sometimes share the same names! Though, in the case of Maria, I can only guess it’s due to the religious influence of both societies (even if Russia isn’t overly Catholic from what I’ve heard). Anyway, it’s not something to give too much thought towards as I’ve stopped finding it strange to find a gal here named Brenda or Karla or Angie or a dude named Kevin or Bryan. Like I said, you just roll with it. It only becomes a tiny bit stranger when you meet a “Anderson” in my case or a “Washington” in your case.

    Still, when it comes to Yennifer specifically, I remember one story when I lived in Barranquilla of Colombia. My memory is a little bit foggy but, from what I do remember, I met a white Latina gal of a solid financial background (had to be given she went to the nicest private university of the city) and she gave me her number. While putting it into the phone, I clarified her name by asking “es Yennifer?” And she corrected me nicely by clarifying that “no, es Jennifer.”

    While typing it, that was a surprise. Didn’t say anything to her about it but, for whatever reason, I was used to women going by “Yennifer” instead. In fact, she might’ve been the first Jennifer I ever met in Latin America. I don’t meet too many Jennifers though even to this day in Mexico. She might’ve been the only one actually as, in this moment, I can’t remember a single other Jennifer I’ve met down here (though I’m sure I have but my memory sucks sometimes and I guess I’ve had bad luck not meeting too many). Though one of my earliest girlfriends way back in Iowa was a Jennifer (not Hispanic though). You’d think it’d be more common among Hispanics. Jennifer Lopez? Sounds like a common name for Hispanics.

    But Yennifer? I’ve met more of those in Latin America than Jennifer without question which probably explains why I found it odd that her name was “Jennifer” instead of “Yennifer.” Though, going back to your theory about Indigenous folks rejecting Hispanic culture, I did spend months in Bolivia & Peru (3 to 4 together) before going to Colombia months later. Maybe that explains it.

    So going back to the original comment about indigenous Latin Americans going for a non-Hispanic name to reject Hispanic culture, I can definitely see it but that’s new to me. I always had my own theories about some of the “non-Hispanic” names seen down here but every country is different anyhow. The trends you see in Mexico (like with the Bryans) are what I am more familiar with than in Peru. Either way, definitely an interesting idea. Thanks for sharing that observation.


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