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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.
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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