A Rose (or Gutierrez) by Any Other Name

Since returning from Hawaii three weeks ago, I've been asked one question more than any other: Are you going to change your name? Family, friends, even Adrian have been curious about whether and when I'll go from Gutierrez to Collins.

After our first wedding in Vegas last year, I told Adrian that I would wait to change it until after the next one, the church one, the "real" one, as I chided Adrian for calling it and then eventually slipped into calling it myself. I explained that saving it for then would make the second wedding feel, indeed, real, as though something had changed, rather than as if we were just reenacting something. He accepted it, but I think we both knew I was stalling.

When I started this blog (a whopping two posts ago), he asked, "Why katiegutierrez.wix? Why not Collins?"

"Well, katiegutierrezcollins.wix gets pretty long," I said with a laugh.

"Why not just katiecollins then?" His tone was playful and teasing, but his questions were serious. "Are you ever going to change your name?"

Lola pressed herself into the crook of Adrian's arm on the couch, as close as she could get to his side. I squirmed.

"Yes . . ." I said. "Eventually."

"It's okay," he told Lola, whose bulging amber eyes never left his face. "You're Lola Collins. We're a family, even though Mummy has a different last name."

I rolled my eyes. "Oh, stop it. It's just--it's my identity, you know? In more ways than one. Why don't you change your last name? Go from Collins to Gutierrez."

"That's not how it's done."

"Well, why not?" I pulled my legs beneath me, starting to get heated. "Why shouldn't it be how it's done?"

Adrian could see where this was heading and, wisely, chose not to engage.

"Look," I said, less confrontationally. "It's just hard for you to understand, as a man who is not a minority, the conflict I feel as a woman who is just expected to adopt her husband's name, and on top of that, a minority who's asked to give up her culturally referencing last name for a white one."

"A minority?" he repeated. "How are you a minority? You're an American."

I scoffed, but not as hard as I would if he were from this country. "Wouldn't that be nice if that's how it worked?"

"It's not like you've ever experienced racism," he said.

He was referring, I guessed, to the fact that I'm fair skinned. I'm educated. I speak without an accent. Most people are surprised to learn I'm Mexican-American, that I grew up on the border, that I speak Spanish. And that's part of the problem.

I faltered, the conversation faltered, and our evening continued. But I woke up at three a.m. that night and couldn't sleep for another two hours, replaying our words and our mutual hurt feelings in my mind.

Once, I flipped through the Laredo phonebook until I arrived at Gutierrez. I don't remember what inspired it. I just recall wanting to see how many of us there were. Sure enough, we took up not just one page, but several, rows upon rows of Gutierrezes preceded by rows upon rows of Gonzalezes and Guerras and Guerreros and followed by rows upon rows of Herdezes and Hernandezes and Herreras, all pressed up against one another, the sameness overwhelming. Laredo was 98 or 99 percent Mexican when I grew up there. I could count the whites, Asians, and blacks I knew on one hand--maybe two if I pushed the definition of "knew." We spoke Spanish regularly at home to communicate with my Nanny and learned it in school. Catcalls from construction sites or passing trucks were in Spanish, but so was, "Would you like a fitting room?" at the mall or "What can I bring you to drink?" at a restaurant, any restaurant. We struck piñatas at childhood birthday parties, and the truck playing "Pop Goes the Weasel" as it passed my grandfather's house was that of the raspa man, from whom we ordered Pickle on Ice (which was exactly as it sounds: a dill pickle shoved into a cone of shaved ice, with half a cup of vinegar at the bottom that we drank when the pickle itself was gone). If we stopped by the snow cone stand on the way home, we ordered Diablitos, which were shaved ice made jaw-achingly tart with a generous pouring of Lucas and tamarindo in the center. My favorite snacks were baby carrots and cucumber with lime and Season All; I didn't know spinach or asparagus originated outside a can until college. But this was all of us. My best friends were Garza and Gonzalez and another Gonzalez. So to an extent, Adrian was right: for a long time, I was not a minority. Not even close.

When I was fifteen or sixteen, I applied to a two-week summer writing workshop in Portland. I looked at the brochure--who knows how it had found me--every day, staring at the photos of impossibly tall trees and heads in shades of blond huddled over spiral notebooks. I was ecstatic when I was accepted. It would be my first time flying alone, my first extended trip without my family. I don't remember feeling nervous or scared. I was shy but friendly--I knew I'd be alright.

The program was held at a university campus. I remember stumbling with vertigo when I tried to walk and find the treetops at the same time. I'd traded mesquite for pine, 110 degrees for 75. I thought of Laredo with compassion--how homely Oregonians would think it if they visited. How homely it was, flat and ashen with heat, by comparison.

The other students were my age or slightly older. There was Jessica, my roommate from Alaska. She had glossy dark hair, an easy smile, and a confident, outgoing personality, but she was homesick, calling her family often from bed. She introduced me to Brummel & Brown butter spread, which is so creamy because it's made with yogurt, she explained. We bought the large version of its white and blue plastic tub, along with loaves of French bread, and we sat on our dorm room floor dipping chunks of bread into the otherwordly butter and talking about our lives. I remember feeling very French.

There was Maggie, a short girl who wore baggy jeans and her tawny hair in a messy pixie cut. She loved mayonnaise so much that she ate it like ice cream, by the spoonful, from a large jar on movie nights.

There was Gabrielle, who had a low, melodic voice I envied when she read her pieces out loud. To this day, I remember a fragment of one of her stories, talking about her parents: " . . . and I didn't even mind their snoring, because at least I knew they were at peace."

There was Paul, a fast friend in his white t-shirts and jeans. Paul was a beautiful writer and a talented illustrator, and we spent most of our free time together. I remember sitting up in a tree with him one evening when the sprinklers came on and soaked us, a movie scene of us laughing and running through the spray of water to a dry part of the lawn.

There was AJ, a petite girl with wild curls, a smattering of freckles, and a cute upturned nose she attempted to make edgy with a stud. She smoked cigarettes, had a brash laugh, and became the girlfriend of a guy who could have played the football player in any teen movie--tall, blond, classically and forgettably handsome. Of course I had a crush on him.

One day, a group of us sat eating lunch at an outdoor picnic table. AJ perched on her boyfriend's lap; they shared the cigarette she held with the arm draped around his shoulder. Without any prelude I can recall, the boyfriend looked at me and asked, "Hey. So how'd you get here, anyway? Did you have to swim across the Rio Grande?"

The whole table silenced. My first response was confusion: had I heard him correctly? AJ's reddened face assured me that I had, and heat raced through my body, making my heart pound. I could feel angry tears at the back of my throat when I shot back, "The Rio Grande divides Mexico from the United States, not Texas from Oregon. Check your map."

"Ohhhh!" came the chorus of approval from around the table, and AJ hopped off his lap, punching him in the shoulder.

"You asshole," she said, but she was laughing. "I'm sorry," she told me, and I nodded, irritated by her laughter and the fact that she was the one apologizing.

I left the table hot with anger and humiliation. Until then, I had felt pleasure that for the first time in my life, no one around me shared my last name. There were no Mexicans, no Latinos of any kind. I had thought this made me--wait for it--exotic. And if not exotic, at least unique. What it made me, finally, was a minority. It made me Other.

I can't help noticing that among all the detail I can recall about that program and that day, the boyfriend's name is not one of them. I can see his face in my mind, boyish, blue-eyed, with sunburned cheeks--but no name. It's an interesting erasure, considering.

And yet, there is this: my first experience of racism stands vividly in my mind not just for the shock of it, for its firstness, but because Adrian is right--not a lot of such overt instances have followed. Small slights, sure (like the time I opened the door to my large house in Austin and was asked by a neighbor if I was the housekeeper). Ignorant, mean-spirited comments made about Mexicans by those who aren't aware that there's a fair-skinned Mexi-spy in their midst--yeah. Enduring hate by proxy of politicians and bigots--of course. But direct, intentional racism? Rare. I'm not quite "Mexican" enough for that.

Perhaps paradoxically, that's another reason my last name carries such weight. It identifies me. It connects me with a people and a culture and a history that my appearance does not. To change it, I can't help but feel, would be to lose this connection.

Now, I recognize that this is not true, not really. I am who I am--a rose (or Gutierrez) by any other name, right? It's entirely up to me to maintain a cultural connection and to pass it on to our children--no last name alone can do that. On top of that, I also recognize that adopting Adrian's last name is, by the nature of adoption, an addition-to, rather than a loss-of. It's a symbolic joining, a way of telling him that I'm ready to make him my family (which I am, and have) and to be his, and that any children to come will be part of a cohesive unit; they will understand that their parents, while maintaining individual identities, have chosen to join themselves together. (No last name alone can do that, either.) These things matter to me. They feel important and joyful.

Adrian said once, years ago, years before we actually believed we'd end up together, "If we ever got married, my brother's wife and my wife would both be Katie Collins." At the time, I laughed, feeling a pang of absolute certainty that Adrian and I would never be married; we'd never share a home or a family, let alone a name. It was almost unbearable to even joke about an alternate future. That we are here, together, still strikes me as impossibly good fortune, one worth celebrating at every opportunity. Ultimately, I think that's what taking his name as my own would be: a celebration.

So--will I be changing it, then? Yes . . . eventually.

#family #marriage #identity