Tuesday, November 28, 2017

getting the name right

Why do northerners have so much trouble with Mexican surnames?

Last year a reporter for The New York Times, wrote a story about some small dispute between President Trump and Mexico's president -- Enrique Peña Nieto.  The story relied on anonymous sources within the Mexican administration.

But the unnamed sources wers not what caught my attention. The reporter repeatedly referred to Mexico's president as "President Nieto."

I completely discounted the article. There is no President Nieto. The head of Mexico's executive branch is President Peña. If the reporter could not get that simple fact correct, I had serious doubts about the rest of his story.

That reminded me of a similar mistake I encountered when I was practicing criminal defense law in the 1980s. The Oregon City police officers were doing a land office business in issuing misdemeanor "Giving a False Name to a Police Officer" citations. The common link in almost every case was the ethnic background of the defendants. They were Hispanic.

My first case was with a young man who was a citizen of Mexico (and a legal immigrant). For the sake of our story, we will call him Juan Antonio Martinez Sanchez.

When the police officer asked for his "last name," Juan had responded: "Martinez." The officer then looked at the driver's license, and charged him with giving a false name. As far as the officer was concerned, Juan's last name was "Sanchez."

Now, we all know why the mistake took place. Most nations with a Spanish tradition have a different naming custom than do other European countries. Spanish children get two surnames: the first from their father (the apellido paterno or paternal surname) and the second from their mother (the apellido materno or maternal surname).

For some reason, the local police thought Hispanics were trying to pull something funny on them. And it would be excusable as a bit of cultural ignorance if the police had not taken a couple of years to stop issuing the citations.

I have several theories why the police were that recalcitrant. But, whatever the motivation, it drove a wedge between the legal immigrant population and the police -- and the relations were not great, by any measure.

Both of those stories popped to mind last week when I wrote my essays about my missing front tooth. A friend left a comment on Facebook: "
I noticed that you used Dr. Pimienta, the Mexican way, rather than Woo."

It is an interesting question. My dentist comes from a medical family. There are at least three (if not more) Drs. Pimienta Woo who practice in our community.
I refer to him as Dr. Pimienta because that is the Mexican tradition. People are known by their father's name, not their mother's name.

My dentist's name is Eduardo Antonio Pimienta Woo. "Eduardo Antonio" are what we northerners would call his first and middle name. "Pimienta" is his father's surname. "Woo" is his mother's surname.

For some reason, and I have several speculative theories that I am not going to explore in print, each of the doctors is known locally amongst the expatriate and tourist community (and some of the locals) as "Dr. Woo." Maybe it has stuck because it sounds rather exotic.

And the Drs. Woo do not seem to mind. After all, if it is easier for people to say or remember, it is a good business hook.

Unlike the reporter for The New York Times and the Oregon City police officers, I will stick with the more traditional "Dr. Pimienta." Even though that name has its own embedded humor when translated to English.

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