From Yahaira to Junot: Unraveling the History Behind “Weird” Dominican Names
Jantezy. Franklyn. Yaridiys. There’s something singularly recognizable about Dominican names. Gone are the Mercedeses, Josefas, and Altagracias of yesteryear; now we’re blessed with gems like Gryseida, Yadiry, and Yunior. It’s a phenomenon that’s challenged linguists far and wide, especially because it seems to be a common practice in other Spanish-speaking Caribbean islands, like Cubafor example. In those places, however, we’re more likely to meet Usnavis and Olnavis than anything else. Ask any Dominican both on and off the island, and they’ll agree that we have an extraordinary predilection for naming our children in distinctively “Dominican-sounding” ways.
Consider the names of Dominican celebrities for proof of our love for idiosyncrasy. There’s Yordano Ventura, noted enchichador, who helped lead the Kansas City Royals to World Series victory last year, or Orange is the New Black star Dascha Polanco. In October of 2015, Vogue shouted out five Dominican models making waves in the fashion world, among them breakout stars like Lineisy Montero and Ysaunny Brito. Even Pulitzer Prize winner Junot Diaz, who arguably holds the most visibility for Dominicans in gringolandia at the moment, boasts a moniker that could only belong to a Dominican.
But the sui generis character of Dominican names is good for more than just a laugh. Like so many other immigrant kids have learned, our names are a prism for the way we experience our brownness and blackness in Anglo America. In “A Brief History of Name Fuckery,” Larissa Pham considers the legitimacy of claiming her Vietnamese names. Durga Chew-Bose confesses her personal journey to self-acceptance in “How I Learned to Stop Erasing Myself.” Dominican names are no different; they also happen to carry quite a bit of socioeconomic baggage. A remonstrative Bronx Journal piece from 2012 explains that Dominican parents “burden their children with atrocious variations” of more common names that are “not always so lyrical.”
Of course, the Internet hasn’t slept on our penchant for the unusual:
By now, this practice and its accompanying socioeconomic connotations are widely recognized by the Dominican community in the U.S. and abroad. But how exactly did this preference for eccentric names come to be? As is the case for many Western cultures, names go in and out of style from generation to generation. Today, you probably won’t meet an Agnes or a Gertrude under the age of 70, but young Emmas and Olivias abound. The same trends apply to Quisqueya – these days, a Bernardo or a Diómedes might get his ass kicked on the playground. As Orlando Alba, a linguistics scholar at Brigham Young University explains in his book Nombres propios de persona en la República Dominicana, naming practices have been largely marked by secularization and U.S. culture’s rising influence in Dominican society. That’s how you find Estefanys, Emelys, and Franklyns in Puerto Plata and Washington Heights.
For Dominican kids who grew up in the States like me, there was nothing quite like first-day-of-school name anxiety. That familiar dread showed its teeth every year, slowly gnawing at my spirit, as the power of white supremacy sank its fangs into my neck once more. Coño, how long does it take to realize you’ve been calling someone Isabaylia for four straight months? Better yet, the most delightful part of the year was tracking how many infantile gay jokes my peers could conjure from five syllables.
This feeling resonates with tons of quisqueyanos raised in the U.S. Take Jhensen Ortiz, a research librarian at the CUNY Dominican Studies Institute. The Queens native says his mother found his name in a baseball magazine and was drawn to its unorthodox spelling. Jensen is a relatively common surname of English origin, although Ortiz says his mother took the name from the magazine’s profile of a Puerto Rican pelotero. Either way, Ortiz says Dominicans (and other Latinos) actually have more trouble understanding his name than non-Latinos do. “I present myself to people [at the Dominican Studies Institute] all the time, and they’re like, ‘Jason?’” White teachers, however, never stumbled over the extra “h,” perhaps because of the name’s Anglo-Saxon roots. Ortiz is grateful for the mark of difference his name offers, despite the fact that constantly explaining himself to others remains tiresome. “Thank god I wasn’t named Jesús. There’s millions of other Jesúses around.”
Even though the U.S.’s profound impact on and exploitation of Latin America has trickled into something as deeply cultural as naming customs, in his book, Orlando Alba discusses the speech patterns that set the Dominican Republic apart from other islands with eccentric naming traditions. Anglo-Saxon or secular names like Stephanie and Edward have also become popular in Puerto Rico and Cuba, but we quisqueyanos have a quirk that distinguishes us: the way we change “r” and “l” sounds to “i” at the end of syllables.
In linguistics, this practice is called vocalization of liquid consonants, and it’s pretty much a part of everyday speech, particularly in the island’s northern Cibao region. “Parte” becomes “paite,” “mujer” turns into “mujei,” and exclamations like “¡El diablo!” become “¡Ei diablo!” This is clutch for understanding how Dominican names boast such distinctive spellings – a name like Griselda could easily become Gryseida, the way it would be pronounced phonetically by cibaeños. In the southern region, Dominicans are more likely to change “l” sounds to “r,” a habit known as rhotacization. Yet rhotacization has mostly affected pronunciation, whereas vocalization has had a stronger influence on names, yielding the more unconventional spellings with which you might be familiar.
What’s more, the omission or addition of the “s” sound at the end of words is another speech pattern – although not unique to the Dominican Republic – that significantly influences our names. Cue some of my favorites: Damaris becomes Damary, Mery becomes Merys, and so on. One of the women I spoke with captured this quite succinctly: “You automatically know when a girl is Dominican, because there’s a “y” in a place you wouldn’t expect it to be.”
There are other quirks, too, like fusing together two names to form a compound. Franyris Monción, a 23-year-old mental health counselor from Lawrence, Massachusetts, recalls her parents’ decision to merge their names. Step one: take Frank, her father’s first name, and Iris, her mother’s middle name, and voila, you have Franyris. With been-there-done-that aplomb, Monción remembers, “At the time, they thought they were being very unique by putting these two names together. But a lot of Dominican girls actually have names where they merge parents’ names together.” The same goes for Merelis Ortiz, a 23-year-old organizer at Sister Circle Collective. Her father blended two names (he can’t recall which two now), “because he wanted to give me a name that nobody had,” Ortiz says. Elivette Rodriguez, a 32-year-old who grew up on the Lower East Side, thanks her uncle for her namesake – the union of Elizabeth and Yvette.
Between chuckling and trading outlandish names with me, these women confess the persistent alienation and anger they’ve felt over the years. What unites their stories seems to be resentment and a constant obligation to explain themselves to an otherwise ignorant and dismissive society. Dominicans and unique names have become fast friends, but that’s not the case for other Americans, or even other Latinos. “With Latinos, when they hear Fran, they think Francisco, so they always think I’m a man…[Non-Dominican Latinos] always say, ‘Wow, that’s so cool; that’s so different.’ It’s not common here [in the United States], but if you went to a place like the Dominican Republic, you would roll your eyes and just say, ‘Another one of those names,’” says Monción. She expresses her gratitude for other Spanish speakers, who don’t stumble over their pronunciations – “In Spanish, the way the vowels are set up makes more sense” – but with anyone who’s not Dominican, a palpable Mean Girls unease accompanies these your-name-is-so-different exchanges. “It’s like when girls say to each other, ‘Nice skirt,’ but they’re only saying that because they think it’s ugly.”
Although all three women cite their frustration, they’ve never personally experienced any classist contempt towards their names, at least in the U.S. “I’ve heard conversations around me about it, but I don’t agree with that at all,” Merelis states. Rodriguez says she grew up without feeling like her name was “on a different level,” but knew that “in the DR, it’s looked down upon.” While hanging with some relatives, Elivette recalls a conversation about names and money. “I just hung out with a lot of my cousins’ friends…They were like, ‘Your name is how you know how much money you make’…I felt that more in DR than here in the U.S.”
But that doesn’t mean Anglo America is an anti-racist, prejudice-free entity and the Dominican Republic is politically backwards. Navigating a predominantly white world with an uncommon name has also been a challenge for these women, forcing them to confront their identities in trying but ultimately restorative ways. Merelis describes her journey to embrace her name. “I would use the English way of saying it rather than saying it’s Merelis…But growing up, now I’ve realized the beauty of my name…In high school, people would pronounce it incorrectly, and I would tell them to say another name instead, like Melrose. It didn’t make any sense. Why would anyone call me Melrose?!…Melrose is in the grave. Merelis is here to stay.”
Monción, on the other hand, has resorted to pragmatism, shortening her name to Fran. “I’ve had people ask me, ‘Why would you shorten your name because it’s easier for people?’ And I say, ‘Well right now, I’m in a career where it’s mainly white, and so it’s easier to navigate that way…’ Going into corporate America, or going into communities where people didn’t always speak Spanish, I found that just going by Fran, everybody could pronounce it; nobody would butcher my name.”
Whether we meet white supremacy with unapologetic candor, or whether we game the system to ensure future peace of mind, our reality is one that demands a whole lot of emotional labor. As Dominican culture garners more visibility in the mainstream (for better or worse), our generation faces a reality that larger Latino subgroups haven’t yet endured.
In his book, Alba culled over 5,000 names from a study of 804 undergraduate students by asking them to share both their grandparents’ and parents’ names. The survey offers insightful conclusions about why Dominican names are the way they are and analyzes the role of generation and social class in naming customs. He points out, for example, that older generations are more likely to select names from the Bible or the Christian calendar, while younger people are more likely to be bestowed with English-language names. That fact rings true across class as well: those who self-identify as upper class are more likely to be granted Anglo-Saxon names, while the lower classes continue to draw upon Catholicism for inspiration.
Alba argues that this cultural conversation has been distorted, since it has “exaggerated the presence of extravagant and strange names.” Regardless, the dialogue around the phenomenon remains intense in the public sphere. Drawing conclusions about how these names came to be so popular is a treacherous endeavor, since the singular character of Dominican names doesn’t exactly lend itself to the rigor of sociological research methods. But what remains intriguing is the fact that Dominican names continue to be associated with poverty and even illiteracy. It could be that the Dominican people want to maintain a firm grip on their culture by passing on deeply personal and unusual names, perhaps as a tactic against the cultural and political hegemony their Yankee neighbors hold. A part of me hopes that the parents of the Arismendys and Yubelkis of the world are acting out of political desperation, seeking empowerment and a sense of identity rooted in the African and indigenous heritage of the Dominican Republic. Or perhaps it’s just another scrambled attempt at securing individuality in a world that seems reluctant to open itself to new identities. Regardless of what motivates the practice, Dominicans continue to get stereotyped for naming their kids the way they do.
Although it can be suspect to analogize U.S. and Latin American social realities, the whole situation resembles the all-too-real discrimination that U.S.-based African-Americans face in the labor market. Like the Shaniquas and Devontaes of the world, Dominican names have the same power to signal all that is Other. Scholars have been studying racial bias in hiring practices for decades, and have proven time and again that job applicants with “ethnic” names are far less likely to be called back for an interview than those with “white” names. There’s a widely held assumption that if you’re brown or black, you’re far less capable of fulfilling your job function than someone with fairer skin. And unfortunately, it’s something that many people of color have internalized, like The View host Raven-Symoné, who had the Internet clap back at her last year for her mind-boggling comments about job prospects for people with “ethnic” names like Watermelondrea.
Under Raven’s watch, Dominicans wouldn’t really fare any better, as Twitter user @alexachula points out:
Having a brilliantly Dominican name means more than experiencing bias in hiring practices; it’s a reality you face every day. Years of “Zimbalias” and “Izabelliahs” and the so-trite-it’s-boring “Isabella” have compelled me to embrace my name for what it really is: offbeat and radiant and political. When my mother was pregnant with me, she and my father read La montaña es algo más que una inmensa estepa verde, Omar Cabezas’ personal account of his time living with Sandinista guerrilla revolutionaries in the Cordillera Isabelia, a mountain range in Nicaragua. Today I choose to do justice to the radical provenance of my name, after years of subjecting myself to mispronunciations, ultracorrections, and the bulldozing erasure that accompanies nicknames. No more saving people the work of swallowing those extra vowels and syllables. Now they stumble over that unfamiliar and difficult “ia” one, two, three times. Because my name should measure up to the fullness of who I am. Because I’m not Izzy or Isa, I’m Isabelia. Just Isabelia.