A few days before my wedding in 2016, one of my fiancé’s extended family members asked me why I was keeping my last name after marriage. We were in a department store, surrounded by gowns and sparkly high heels, and I was jittery in anticipation of the big day.
The question took me by surprise, but I answered that the tradition was built upon how women in the past were viewed as property. I could have gone on, but I felt like there was no need to continue justifying a personal decision.
Still, as a Latina who grew up between Ecuador and the United States, it was evident that I was going against the grain by being unwilling to accept this tradition, and those around me made sure I didn’t forget it.
My husband (let’s call him David Sánchez) and I are both immigrants to the United States. He’s from Costa Rica, and I’m from Ecuador. In both of our countries, it’s common for women to get married and replace their last names with their husband’s altogether, or they keep their paternal last names followed by “de,” or “of,” and then add their husband’s last name.
While the latter might appear like a compromise, for me, it didn’t feel like an option at all. Yes, I want to live out my days with my husband, but saying “I do” to this life didn’t change my identity. We are together, but I’m not of or from him.
He’d known from our talks over the years that I intended to keep my last name, and he never questioned my decision or insinuated I should take his instead. My parents have also been supportive, and their stance to not inquire about my decision has allowed me to never doubt myself when others question me.
On the day I arrived back to work after our wedding, I received an email from an administrative employee asking what last name I’d be using from now on. Naturally, David did not receive a notification asking whether he would continue using Sánchez or a hyphenated version of our names together. It was another reminder of what others expected from me, this time from a corporate standpoint.
I emailed back that there would be no change, then shrugged it off, thinking that everyone around me would soon forget about my choice.
“You do whatever you want, you know? Like keeping your last name,” one of my husband’s family members said to me during a family reunion about a year after our wedding.
I hadn’t thought about it in months, but that comment reminded me of how other Latinos and our extended family viewed my decision. If I did that, then to those around me, especially my husband’s family, I was capable of doing whatever.
“The name I was given from the day I was born was not up for debate, no matter what anyone thinks about it.”
This mindset comes from a mix of cultural conventions, plain machismo and the continuous hold of the patriarchy. Within the Latinx community, a lot of the relationships that I encountered growing up were built on the man in power: “el que tiene puesto los pantalones” (the one who wears the pants). Ultimately, the man comes first in everything from his last name to the choices that determine how his family goes about their daily lives.
My family is no exception. When I asked my parents why they immigrated to the United States from Ecuador, I was told it was my father’s decision. Where he decided to go, she’d follow.
Not so long ago, I received an invitation to a wedding from friends that attended our nuptials. I was surprised to see it addressed to Mr. & Mrs. Sánchez. They had witnessed us say our vows, and they knew I’d never changed my last name. It might seem like a trivial thing — but I couldn’t escape that nagging feeling that I wasn’t important enough to be addressed by my preferred name and forename. I was in the shadow of Mr. Sánchez.
A family member who was visiting from Ecuador asked me about my last name, followed by whether I’d ever get married by the “church.” It didn’t hit me until afterward how these combined microaggressions made me feel like I was constantly trying to defend myself against people who feel the need to question a woman’s personal decisions. It’s truly exhausting.
“Yes,” I said to that member of my husband’s family, “I do what I want, I guess.”
While it’s true I do what I want, it’s always with respect toward my partner. My marriage is made up of two people who make decisions together, compromise, and miscommunicate from time to time. But the name I was given from the day I was born was not up for debate, no matter what anyone thinks about it.
Although my husband and I are both Latinx, my paternal last name is a connection to my specific cultural heritage. It reminds me of my grandfather. It’s a piece of him that I always carry with me and that now also represents me.
More practically, I simply don’t want to spend money on the paperwork. A friend spent more than $300 changing her last name, and this was just in one country. I’d have to change my information in Ecuador and the U.S.
Plus, I like the sound of my name. In fact, I love it. I derive pleasure from the moments when someone asks me how to pronounce it. It makes me feel like they care about how it should sound, and while sometimes I say I don’t mind, the fact that some try harder than others to say it correctly does stay with me. It reminds me of a line from a poem by Warsan Shire: “My name doesn’t allow me to trust anyone that cannot pronounce it right.”
Now that we’ve been married six years, a last-name change has become a topic of weekly conversation between me and my husband. This time, though, the last name in question is not mine but his. My husband took a DNA test and found out that the man who everyone thought had fathered him — and who was not part of his life — is not related to him whatsoever.
All of a sudden, David learned that Sánchez neither comes from his biological father nor someone who tried to be there as a father figure. He has no real link to the last name he’s had for more than 30 years. He says that every time he hears someone say his given last name, it’s as if it belongs to a complete stranger.
Recently, we went out for ice cream, and as vanilla-chocolate swirl dripped down my wrist, I couldn’t help but say: “Can you imagine if both of us had your current last name? We’d both be walking around with a surname that means nothing to either of us.”
No matter what, the decision will be fully his.